In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote “don’t be confused by surfaces; in the depths everything becomes law.”
Few poets understand this sentiment as poet and longtime lawyer Lawrence Joseph does. Joseph, who teaches at St. John's School of Law, has published five books of poems, and the Rilke quote serves as an epigraph for his book of prose, Lawyerland, which humanizes lawyers – for better or worse – by recreating their intimate conversations.
Joseph spoke at a New School forum last week about his decision to follow the path of poets who earned their living outside the literary world. And he read several poems from his books Into It and Codes, Precepts, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993.
Imagine Perry Mason reciting verse in lieu of a closing argument and you have an idea of what it’s like to hear Joseph read. He offered an intense and authoritative reading of Some Sort of Chronicler I Am, which describes a panhandler on the 3 train with scant sympathy for the man’s spiel about contracting AIDS.
“Specified ‘underclass’ by the Department of Labor/ —he’s underclass, all right: no class/ if you’re perpetually diseased and poor. … —blessed , indeed; he’s definitely blessed. His wounds open here, on the surface:/ you might say he’s shrieking his stigmata.”
Tidy couplets counterbalance the tough tone of this poem. As in so much of his work, Joseph captures the beauty and brutality of life through an unflinching lens and applies order to it. Everything becomes law.
Chronicler also alludes to famous writers who witnessed life through other professions, including Wallace Stevens, a lawyer, and William Carlos Williams, a physician.