rev. of What Keeps Us Here by Allison Joseph

Issue #59
Winter 1992-93

Here's a bright new voice in American poetry, woven out of the rich stories and intangible photos of a past lost in other countries Jamaica, Canada, England but still alive in the body of a young girl growing up in the Bronx. These flawless poems evoke a world where a mother can simultaneously exist as a shy Jamaican nursing student at a London dance, and as a woman dying of cancer, her arms scarred by chemo.
What Keeps Us Here is an extraordinary first book that shows us how nothing and nobody we feel deeply about can vanish.

When I finished reading Joseph's book, I had a vivid picture of America in the 1990s as a place where the unreal images from movies and television, seemingly innocuous and two-dimensional, can suddenly fuse with reality to change the way we think about our lives. In the opening poem, a group of young nursing students in London are gathered around a movie star who's about to be released from the hospital. They want his autograph even "Though his films were grade B horror flicks." One of the students, "the only dark one," is Joseph's mother, and like the other nursing students, she does not see any connection between the "movies full of ghosts, mad scientists / filling test tubes, their blanched faces amazed / at alchemy, covert potions changing man to beast" and the radium she's being taught to use, unaware that "its brilliance could kill." Joseph is able to make us experience her mother's early death from cancer not only as a searing, personal
moment in a daughter's history, but as a metaphorical event that asks us to question and revise any simple approach to history.

In a poem called "The Idiot Box," the late-night reruns reflect the real world like funhouse mirrors as they flicker across the screen in a Bronx house "where four broken sets haven't been thrown away." The characters on
The Honeymooners are trying to get rich quick, just like Joseph's salesman father, and "peddle knifes / on TV, as if they could ever sell enough / to get Norton out of the sewer, Ralph / off his bus route." On
Lawrence Welk, old couples dance "wanly in crepe and polyester / the chipper cast singing show tunes. / The only black man on it / dances a happy soft shoe, lithe." Joseph directly confronts the meaning of these distorted images in "Falling Out of History" when she sees her four-year-old cousin calmly watching a cartoon where a "friendly pickaninny / wags his head, dances a buck and wing" and wonders what Phyllis Wheatley "knew beyond pious couplets," because her own poetic language does not fall "easily into couplets / breaking down when I examine it / the concept of race as actual and arbitrary as anger."

Joseph's family emerges as the archetypal American family in this book, and her brilliance lies in the fact that she is able to individualize her parents and her Bronx neighborhood at the same time that she transforms them into universal symbols. Her salesman father, once a teenage policeman in Grenada, trying to "buy himself out of the noisy, thumping Bronx," full of get-rich schemes that come to nothing, can't keep the house in good repair, but "between sales calls and bills, income and orders," hangs prints of Van Gogh and Monet and Degas over the peeling wallpaper because he longs "for some beauty."

Joseph's mother, once "newly arrived / from Canada, walking the wards, / long dim corridors of Bellevue, / stethoscope curled" around her neck, now lies in a hospital room herself, "thinned from chemo, x-ray," while she listens to a voice on the radio reciting Scripture:
"You will not fear the terror of the night / . . . / nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness." Her mother's faith and endurance is the mystery Joseph tries to penetrate in poem after powerful poem, finally exclaiming "I am tired of metaphor/the lure of the tragic / making me turn the shadows/beneath my mother's eyes / into words like
sullen / gradations of light. I should say this plainly: / a woman, dying, seeks God."

What Keeps Us Here poses just this question what keeps us here? How can we live an ordinary life when the world around us is full of suffering and tragic illusion? Allison Joseph's poems are a brave attempt at an answer.