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Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993
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Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993

by Lawrence Joseph

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The first three books by the author of Into It

Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos brings together the poems from Lawrence Joseph's first three books of poetry: Shouting at No One, Curriculum Vitae, and Before Our Eyes. Now in one volume, the poems from these three books can be seen as the work of one of American poetry's


The first three books by the author of Into It

Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos brings together the poems from Lawrence Joseph's first three books of poetry: Shouting at No One, Curriculum Vitae, and Before Our Eyes. Now in one volume, the poems from these three books can be seen as the work of one of American poetry's most original and challenging poets.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“His poetry works along the front lines, reconnoitering and marking down the slightest moves. If poets can, when confronting the endless shocks and snarls of urban and international life, resist flinching or turning away, they deserve our attention. If what they say about that world comes from a place of vigilance and concern . . . they have earned our admiration.” —David Yezzi, Parnassus

“A poet of fierce . . . intensity . . . Joseph writes with an authenticity that is earned, not just acquired.” —David Lehman, The Washington Post Book World

“Joseph's poems cut to the quick . . . They gleam with the sharp edge of their truth; they are hard to forget.” —James Finn Cotter, The Hudson Review

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.44(d)

Read an Excerpt

Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos

Poems 1973-1993

By Lawrence Joseph

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2005 Lawrence Joseph
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-12517-2



    Joseph Joseph breathed slower
    as if that would stop
    the pain splitting his heart.
    He turned the ignition key
    to start the motor and leave
    Joseph's Food Market to those
    who wanted what was left.
    Take the canned peaches,
    take the greens, the turnips,
    drink the damn whiskey
    spilled on the floor,
    he might have said.
    Though fire was eating half
    Detroit, Joseph could only think
    of how his father,
    with his bad legs, used to hunch
    over the cutting board
    alone in light particled
    with sawdust behind
    the meat counter, and he began
    to cry. Had you been there
    you would have been thinking
    of the old Market's wooden walls
    turned to ash or how Joseph's whole arm
    had been shaking as he stooped
    to pick up an onion,
    and you would have been afraid.
    You wouldn't have known
    that soon Joseph Joseph would stumble,
    his body paralyzed an instant
    from neck to groin.
    You would simply have shaken your head
    at the tenement named "Barbara" in flames
    or the Guardsman with an M-16
    looking in the window of Dave's Playboy Barbershop,
    then closed your eyes
    and murmured, This can't be.
    You wouldn't have known
    it would take nine years
    before you'd realize the voice howling in you
    was born then.


    Driving again,
    this time Van Dyke Avenue.
    Just beyond my window
    October wind raises
    a leaf from a sewer,
    a gray-haired man standing in a crowd
    before the Mount Zion Temple
    tips his hat, "Not bad, and you?"
    When I was a child
    I saw this church through the window
    of a '51 Chevrolet
    huddled beside my grandmother
    in the backseat, her small
    soft hands holding mine,
    her perfume and the smell from squirrel
    fur around her neck
    spinning me to sleep.
    Now I pass a woman,
    her brown-blond face spotted purple,
    who lowers her head
    to spit, I see
    a boy's words, "Dirty Killer Hood,"
    in spray paint
    on the wall of UAW Local 89.
    Where was it? I stumbled
    through the darkness to the door
    before I realized
    I was waking from a dream
    of this street, this smoke
    from Eldon Axle foundry, these
    motor blocks stacked against
    this dull sky. Too many times
    I stood on a loading dock
    and watched morning air change
    from red to iron.
    "Gimme coffee, gimme a cigarette,"
    a face asked me, "ain't no life,"
    another warned.
    Here is the cemetery.
    Beneath stones engraved in Arabic
    my grandfather, my grandmother.
    Beneath this earth
    Grandpa whose sad eyes
    could not endure
    the pain of legs numbed
    forever, Grandma
    who smiled although cells
    crushed her brain.
    Years ago, on a day like this,
    I fell to my knees
    with my father to pull grass
    from their stones.
    I did not cry.
    When I closed my eyes I did not pray.
    Now, in a car, on Van Dyke,
    I cry for them and for me.


    The last time I saw her
    this flat
    above the 7-Up Cadillac Bar —
    empty now, windows closed
    and covered with dust —
    was a coffeehouse
    to which I came
    because I knew she'd
    be there.
    At the window, away
    from the others,
    she told me about
    her mother, always
    alone, her father
    somewhere else,
    in a hotel, in a bar,
    her sister who hated
    I told her about
    Dodge Truck.
    How I swung differentials,
    greased bearings,
    lifted hubs to axle casings
    in 110° heat.
    How the repairman said nothing
    as he watched me
    almost lose two fingers.
    Although she did
    not answer, her face
    tensed and her eyes
    told me, Don't
    be afraid, it
    won't last forever.
    I had no more to say.
    I took her hand,
    walked to the center
    of the room. As voices
    on the phonograph sang
    we turned, descended
    in one beat, rose,
    shifted and shifted again.
    I sang to her
    like the song.
    I forgot
    what the morning
    would bring: the early
    bus ride, nervousness,
    the factory.


    Pockets puffed with bottles,
    hair stiff, rising
    in gray wind.
    He comes to a dog without hair
    sleeping in the weeds
    near the old Packard plant,
    reads "can't see"
    in the dust of a window.
    One April morning as
    spiders walk on soft, black stones
    and the colors of motor oil
    spread in rainwater pools
    I am where he is,
    but I don't look him in the eyes,
    I don't want to hold him and tell him yes
    if he asks something.
    Above us white smoke
    drifts with large dark clouds
    toward old Poletown,
    where the houses are gone.
    Now it is September
    and I am there, between
    the silhouette of broken fences
    and weeds with yellow hair
    seizing their own piece of buried sun.
    Rain streams down my face,
    a poplar breathes
    over the only house I can see,
    burned and gutted.
    The only sign of human life
    is the crashing sound
    of a bottle thrown hard on cement,
    east of this wasteland,
    where the towers smoke.


    What was his name?
    Drank gin from
    a used paper cup, wasn't
    even break time yet.
    Sitting on a Hi-Lo, his
    muscled arms hung
    over the wheel.

      Between us
    white dust covered
    with sulfur, the dream
    of a farm.
    "In a few years ought to have
    five head of cattle
    and a tractor."

    Nine years and 283 miles
    to the south side, the voices
    in the Whole Truth Mission
    singing gospel. "But I
    came right here to
    Mt. Elliott Street.
    Wasn't no future
    praisin' Jesus."


    I think about Thigpen again.
    On the floor in an apartment
    on Boston Boulevard, he knows
    he's going to die.
    I see the record of the criminal court.
    Thigpen opens the door,
    sees a gun in his face,
    pleads, "I don't have
    nothing to do with this!"
    According to the pathologist
    death was caused
    by massive tissue destruction,
    contusion and swelling of the brain.
    In the county morgue
    Thigpen's father whispered,
    "That's my baby son."
    And what must have been said after was,
    "You the wrongest person
    in the wrongest place,
    the wrongest time, Thig."
    That was eleven years ago.
    Sixteen years ago he stuffed
    a basketball into the face
    of the Brother Rice forward
    who called him a name, and we
    went wild. I saw him
    in Louis the Hatter's, downtown.
    He pointed at my Stetson,
    laughed, "You ain't ever
    gonna look like a nigger."
    Later, he wrote poems of babies
    in frozen tenements,
    garbage alive with maggots,
    the love a woman makes,
    the greasy riders with Detroit skin,
    the toughest in the world.

    He would be the poet of this hell.

    That bullet slicing your brain
    isn't poetry, Thigpen.


    Breakfast at Buck's Eat Place;
    a portrait of Henry Ford,
    two eggs, hash browns,
    sour coffee. Afterwards
    I walk out on Vernor Avenue,
    "looks like a river in the rain,"
    the signs from small stores hanging
    over the wet sidewalks like trees.
    But rivers are not passed over
    by a woman wearing a windbreaker
    with flags sewn on both shoulders,
    muttering to herself, head down,
    or an unshaven man older
    than he is, his body slanting
    as if he's about to fall
    headlong into a dream.
    Neither looks at me waiting
    at the light, in my car,
    as windshield wipers eliminate
    the stars of water.
    Along the cemetery, poplars
    look upward with thousands
    of eyes into the rain
    that comes down on hills of lime
    and coal, reminding me of Metz,
    but the wind
    that lifted rhododendrons that April
    isn't here with me. What
    do I want, driving through streets
    past bars where fifty-year-old
    truck drivers sip whiskey
    and don't feel like talking,
    past houses where chimney smoke
    reveals fires and rooms I will
    never know? On Fort Street
    I pass the bar with "Fight Poverty —
    Drink & Dance" scrawled in white paint
    across its windowless front,
    and then a block-long building,
    windows knocked in, wires ripped
    from the walls, toilet bowls
    covered with dirt and spiderwebs.
    It will rain all day.
    I see a large crane lifting
    a railroad car, piles of bald tires,
    the two towers of Saint Anne's
    where, in a corner, there are crutches,
    body braces, and letters written
    to acknowledge miracles. I want
    all this to come to an end
    or a beginning, I want to look
    into the black eyes of the lone woman
    waiting for a bus and say
    something, I want my memory
    to hold this air, so I can make
    the hills with white hair
    and the clouds breaking into blackness
    my own, carry them with me
    like the letters and icons
    immigrants take in suitcases
    to strange countries.


    Shot five times in the chest
    with a .38, only a boy,
    member, the Black Killers gang,
    on the table in the Emergency Room,
    drugged, gasping, tube rammed
    through his windpipe for ventilation.
    Tube through which you breathed
    for him after you cracked
    and spread his chest with a knife
    and bone cutters, cross-clamped
    the descending aorta, held
    and massaged his heart,
    oversewed holes in the right ventricle
    and holes at the hilum
    of the lung and tied his chest
    with yards of silk, blood
    on your face and hands
    and hair, blood soaked
    through socks and shoes before
    it rushed down the drain.
    Now you pace the Receiving Dock,
    breathe the hot July air,
    its trace of sulfur, hear its sirens
    coming toward you.
    You shake your head to shake
    away your headache. You don't
    ask why you remember the man
    your father said was "down
    on his luck," his face fallen,
    two overcoats opened
    to frozen wind, his arm lifted
    to announce words only he hears,
    or why you remember the night
    you got out of your car,
    walked through the small crowd
    outside the liquor store
    just because, you thought later,
    you needed to walk by them all
    without looking any of them
    in the eye or speaking,
    you don't think "must
    be past midnight," because
    it doesn't matter what
    is remembered, it doesn't matter
    what time it is. What matters
    is the boy will live.
    He'll waken, his voice
    hushed. You'll be the first one
    to tell him he'll never talk again,
    that he'll have to walk
    with a cane. He'll cry. He'll
    never know how you paced
    this Dock before going back
    to wipe sweat from his forehead
    and whisper words he didn't hear.


    When my father breathed
    unevenly I breathed
    unevenly, I prayed
    in Saint Maron's Cathedral
    for the strength
    of a cedar tree
    and for the world to change.
    When I saw my father's tears
    I did not pray;
    I hated our grocery store
    where the bullet
    barely missed his heart,
    I hoped the mists exhaled
    by the Vale of Esk
    in a country of lakes
    four thousand miles away
    would be mine.
    That was before
    Lopez whispered through his rotten teeth
    behind a maze of welding guns,
    "You're colored, like me,"
    before I knew
    there is so much
    anger in my heart,
    so much need
    to avenge the holy cross
    and the holy card
    with its prayers for the dead,
    so many words
    I have no choice to say.
    Years without enough to make me
    stop talking!
    I want it all.
    I don't want
    the angel inside me, sword in hand,
    to be silent.
    Not yet.




    I was a child when the wolves came
    from the north and ate our donkey.
    My father shouted so much
    I was afraid. I hid
    in the heavy mountain grass
    where he could not see me.
    When it was dark I went back to the house.
    He was not there.
    My mother was on her knees
    praying before the bag of silkworm eggs
    that hung from the ceiling.


    I was the kind of boy who prayed
    before a statue's face,
    sorry for all the tears
    that were for me
    because I was "always
    inside out."

    Again and again
    I climbed above the village
    to think about
    what obsessed me:
    the tax collectors who melted
    the iron points of our plows
    into guns, the shrapnel
    I saw in my cousin's stomach;
    to repeat to myself
    what my brother's letter said —
    "it is better here,
    there is work, there is money
    in these factories."


    I stand over a dead body
    and feel nothing
    for the bones I've crushed:
    my bones have been
    crushed for centuries.
    I fire my rifle into the sun,
    shout God's name,
    return to ruins to roast a lamb.
    I will eat the head
    first and then the bowels.
    I will drink wine
    until I cannot
    see the dream of my own land.


    The Phoenix has come
    to a mountain
    in Lebanon, its red flesh
    breathing the sun,
    breathing myrtle and poppies,
    the prayers and wailing,
    breathing the singing
    Dog River and the Bridge
    of Stone.
    The Phoenix
    is dying
    and has come to be
    what the land is,
    wanting the eyes that no longer
    listen, the widow's hair
    on fire, wanting the stars
    that do not touch
    the stones.
    The winds are dry
    and do not
    cool its burning;
    the rains will not be
    its new blood now.
    Filled with the final words
    of those left in a ditch
    to die, with the black skin
    of the bald woman
    who's cried almost every day
    for eighty years,
    filled with the river at whose mouth
    a thousand wars began,
    river gone now into rock
    and crystal after giving
    the world its wheat,
    the Phoenix
    goes down the mountain
    to the burning cities,
    to the sea
    where a long boat waits to sail
    to another world.


    Where Dix Highway ends
    long boats tug ore
    across a green canal.
    In a café, Yemenites
    cheat at dice
    and talk about whores.
    You drink coffee,
    smoke, remember
    a room, a table
    that held the weight
    of your elbows,
    the small notebook
    in which you wrote
    "our labor put the world on wheels";
    one day someone
    will find it and think
    of thick-lipped buckets,
    iron pigs growing
    into billets.
    Alone, I walk this street
    of ice, making this up:
    you only exist inside me.
    A siren blows.
    It is 3:30.
    I remember how
    I punched the clock.
    My legs jerked into full stride
    toward a room.
    I sat at a table
    rubbing my eyes.

    I did not feel.
    I did not think.


    Catches the bus
    at the corner
    of Seminole and Charlevoix,
    takes it past
    the smell of bread, grinding
    dynamos, yellow
    Our Lady of Redemption
    Melchite Catholic Church,
    north at McDougall,
    transfer downtown at
    Gratiot, get off
    at Russell, not yet
    six o'clock,

    son of Hanna Francis,
    descendant of Sem,
    of the land Aram Naharaim
    where, between two rivers,
    soil is soft and black, good
    for tomatoes, eggplant, corn,

    says to himself, Buy
    sausage from Hammond-Standish,
    buy produce, but
    no cauliflower, from
    Caramagno, as he
    walks in dark
    drops of water dissolving
    on his sun-colored face.


    Face lowered in his collar,
    he leans back
    against the darkness
    of a boarded doorway.
    A flame larger
    than the sun
    pours from a thin pipe.
    Miles of factory
    heaped to the half red
    and half black sky
    glow in his thin eyes.

      He steps out
    into the frozen wind,
    the only strip of light
    breaks, scatters
    behind him down the alley.
    Says he knows
    everything: the mysteries
    of motors, how to get
    easy jobs in the shop,
    numbers, the streets,
    where you can go
    under a bridge at night
    in a small boat, unnoticed.


    All day the air was fog;
    couldn't see
    the barbed wire, rusting
    scraps, stacks
    and stacks of pallets,
    the tar paper roof
    of Dreamer's shack,
    the underground
    caverns of salt hardening
    around bones.

      The fog says,
    Who will save
    Detroit now?
    A toothless face
    in a window shakes No,
    sore fingers
    that want to be still
    say, Not me.
    Not far away from where
    Youmna lies
    freezing in bed,
    rolling her eyes, declaring,
    This is a place!
    the remains of mountains
    wait to be moved
    through smokestacks
    into air.


    At four in the morning
    already walking
    up Orleans
    to Eastern Market, two,
    three miles away,
    a burlap bag
    over his shoulder,
    the rows of wooden houses
    asleep. Behind
    him, low horns
    on the river, a full moon
    casting moist
    blue light; ahead, the sounds
    of cars and trucks
    on Vernor Highway;
    above, oak branches
    turning in the high winds.

    All day he drops the silver
    into a cigar box;
    the pennies he puts
    in a jar. He gives
    too much credit
    and the markings on
    small, torn pieces
    of paper bag will be
    forgotten. At dusk
    he fills the bag again —
    with eggplant, squash,
    the last pieces of shank —
    and goes
    to the houses he knows
    don't have enough,
    saying nothing
    as he gives, shaking his head
    if someone starts to speak.

    When the bag is empty
    he walks
    through the black streets
    past faces rocking
    on the porches. The shouts
    of the children in the alley
    and he's home, to Mary,
    Katherine, Anne, Matry,
    Isabelle, Sabe, Josephine,
    Helen, Genevieve, Basily,
    and Barbara. The screen door
    slams behind him.
    Unnoticed, he sits down
    to unlace his shoes,
    to rub his sore feet.
    He leans back, his eyes
    close, his head
    begins to nod at the voices
    in the kitchen; he sees,
    a world away,
    the salamander sliding
    down a rock, stars
    dropping behind mountains
    into the sea.



    He hears screams in the alley:
    a cousin cuts a cousin's throat.
    "We are all cousins," they say,
    but they are not his cousins,
    these black men from Yemen,
    curved daggers cinched to their waists,
    who kill for women.

    He coughs, wakens suddenly.
    Is this a dream? What time is it?
    Noon? He lifts the shade:
    it is past noon; the smoke
    from the plant is heavy, red,
    the day is gray again.
    He walks across his room,
    lights a cigarette, sits down on the bed,
    gets up, walks, sits down again.
    His legs hurt; doctor says
    his blood is bad. What time is it?
    He's hungry. He scratches his ribs.
    He must not forget to take his pills.


    Before he is born
    because there is no work in Sivas
    his father crosses the border
    into Bulgaria forever.
    War brings soldiers with long rifles
    who take his mother, brothers,
    and sister away forever.
    In Arabkir he is an orphan among orphans,
    in Detroit an uncle sends him money
    to come tap the cupola, pour
    liquid metal into the ladle.

    When I heard about their bodies
    floating in a river of blood
    you might say my heart was broke.
    I was lost, there was no one
    to tell me I was lost.
    I used to pray beneath the cross
    before I thought of all this,
    before I thought.


    He doesn't know how old he is,
    he doesn't know his real name.

    He knows pain crosses his shoulders.
    His lungs cough blood.
    He is dying.

    He can't eat because he doesn't have
    teeth and his gums bleed.
    His room in the Hotel Salina doesn't have
    heat and the pipes freeze
    like the water in the toilet down the hall.

    He complains to whomever listens
    or doesn't listen
    or to himself
    if there is no one to complain to.

    He is a well-known
    loser at barbouda, a socialist
    who speaks with arms and elbows.
    He's ashamed to say he's sacrificed
    women and family


Excerpted from Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos by Lawrence Joseph. Copyright © 2005 Lawrence Joseph. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Lawrence Joseph's fourth book of poems, Into It, was published by FSG in hardcover in September 2005. He lives in downtown Manhattan and is a professor of law at St. John's University School of Law.

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