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About this poet

Poet, critic, essayist, and professor of law Lawrence Joseph was born on March 10, 1948 in Detroit, Michigan.

He received his BA and JD from the University of Michigan. He also earned a BA and MA in English from Cambridge University.

He is the author of a number of poetry collections including: Into It (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), Before Our Eyes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), Curriculum Vitae (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988), and in Shouting at No One (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983), which received the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. He is also the author of Lawyerland (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), a book of prose.

Among his awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowships. Married to the painter Nancy Van Goethem, Joseph lives in New York City and teaches law at St. John's University School of Law.

Sand Nigger

Lawrence Joseph, 1948
In the house in Detroit
in a room of shadows
when grandma reads her Arabic newspaper
it is difficult for me to follow her
word by word from right to left
and I do not understand
why she smiles about the Jews
who won't do business in Beirut
"because the Lebanese
are more Jew than Jew,"
or whether to believe her
that if I pray
to the holy card of Our Lady of Lebanon
I will share the miracle.
Lebanon is everywhere
in the house: in the kitchen
of steaming pots, leg of lamb
in the oven, plates of kousa,
hushwee rolled in cabbage,
dishes of olives, tomatoes, onions,
roasted chicken, and sweets;
at the card table in the sunroom
where grandpa teaches me
to wish the dice across the backgammon board
to the number I want;
Lebanon of mountains and sea,
of pine and almond trees,
of cedars in the service
of Solomon, Lebanon
of Babylonians, Phoenicians, Arabs, Turks
and Byzantines, of the one-eyed
monk, saint Maron,
in whose rite I am baptized;
Lebanon of my mother
warning my father not to let
the children hear,
of my brother who hears
and from whose silence
I know there is something
I will never know; Lebanon
of grandpa giving me my first coin
secretly, secretly
holding my face in his hands,
kissing me and promising me 
the whole world.
My father's vocal chords bleed;
he shouts too much
at his brother, his partner,
in the grocery store that fails.
I hide money in my drawer, I have
the talent to make myself heard.
I am admonished to learn,
never to dirty my hands
with sawdust and meat.
At dinner, a cousin
describes his niece's head
severed with bullets, in Beirut,
in civil war. "More than
an eye for an eye," he demands,
breaks down, and cries.
My uncle tells me to recognize
my duty, to use my mind,
to bargain, to succeed.
He turns the diamond ring
on his finger, asks if
I know what asbestosis is,
"the lungs become like this,"
he says, holding up a fist;
he is proud to practice
law which "distributes
money to compensate flesh."
outside the house my practice
is not to respond to remarks
about my nose or the color of my skin.
"Sand nigger," I'm called,
and the name fits: I am
the light-skinned nigger
with black eyes and the look
difficult to figure--a look
of indifference, a look to kill--
a Levantine nigger
in the city on the strait
between the great lakes Erie and St. Clair
which has a reputation 
for violence, an enthusiastically
bad-tempered sand nigger
who waves his hands, nice enough
to pass, Lebanese enough
to be against his brother,
with his brother against his cousin,
with cousin and brother
against the stranger.

From Curriculum Vitae by Lawrence Joseph, published by University of Pittsburgh Press. Copyright © 1988 by Lawrence Joseph. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15261. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.

From Curriculum Vitae by Lawrence Joseph, published by University of Pittsburgh Press. Copyright © 1988 by Lawrence Joseph. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15261. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.

Lawrence Joseph

Lawrence Joseph

Poet, critic, essayist, and professor of law Lawrence Joseph was born in 1948 in Detroit, Michigan