Lawrence Joseph has written of his "fascination with place" and of the "limitless-and extraordinary" material he finds for his poetry in Detroit, a place, he says, that insists that he examine his own life in the context of larger historical, cultural, and economic forces ("Our Lives" 297). In his poetry, the family grocery store, run first by his grandfather and then by his father and uncle, often functions as a focal point for this examination. Standing in the shadow of the abandoned Packard Plant at 5770 John R on the corner of Hendrie, this store exerted an important formative influence on the young poet forced to deal with the conflict caused by his concern for his father's safety and his understanding of the sources of violence that threatened him and the family business. He had, he says, a "baptism by fire / in the ancient manner, / by my father's side in a burning city" (Before 33).
The poet frequently looks back on his years next to his father and uncle in the store. "There I Am Again" (Curriculum 56-57) begins with this recollection:
I see it again, at dusk, half darkness in its brown light,
large tenements with pillars on Hendrie beside it,
the gas station and garage on John R beside it,
sounds of acappella from a window, somewhere, pure, nearby it
pouring from the smell of fried pork to welcome
whoever enters it to do business.
He recalls a grocer's son's tasks: hoisting "crates of okra and cabbages, / . . . buttermilk and beer;" bearing "live carp to the scale;" learning "to respect, at last, the intelligence of roaches in barrels of bottles;" selling "salt pork and mustard greens and Silver Satin wine;" and selling, too, "the blood on the wooden floor after the robbery." He hears the "sirens" and "broken glass" on "the Sunday night the city burns."
Joseph frequently refers to that Sunday night, to the "insurrection" of late July 1967. In an early poem, "Then," Joseph asserts that "the voice howling" within him emerged at this time. He thinks of his father leaving the market to be looted and, in tears, recalling his own father in that same store, hunched "over the cutting board / alone in light particled / with sawdust." The poem's speaker, addressing himself, considers that, had he been present in the store at that time, he would have anticipated "the old Market's wooden walls / turned to ash" and would have reacted with fear as he watched his father's arm "shaking as he stooped / to pick up an onion" (Shouting 3). A later poem includes a memory of the "Monday morning of the insurrection" when a body was discovered amid "the ruins of Stanley's / Patent Medicine Store on John R / a block away from Joseph's Market" (Before 18).
Even though Joseph is aware that there is "much more violence" in this "great society" than he knows (Curriculum 46), what he does know is sufficient. Recalling the words of Faulkner and Camus, Joseph has written, "To confront fear-to confront personal and collective fears-is integral to any aesthetic" ("Our Lives" 298). Although his uncle and father advise him to "forget," the poet cannot. In "Even the Idiot Makes Deals," Joseph reflects upon the stabbing of his uncle by a boy who demanded money from the store's safe:
Sixteen years later
your uncle tells how he wakens, sweating, shaking
"don't kill me," as the knife cuts his throat again.
He shows you the scar; it's healed.
"You learn how to forget," he reminds you. (Shouting 54)
In "There Is a God Who Hates Us So Much," Joseph says that he "learned blood" from his father, who, in February 1970, suffers a gunshot wound in the store. He, too, tells the poet to "forget" (Shouting 42). A later poem, "By the Way," recalls the shooting. Only a miracle, the doctor says, keeps the bullet from the spinal cord, and Joseph's father recovers from his wounds. The poet remarks that "the event went uncelebrated among hundreds / of felonies in that city that day" (Curriculum 18). As the business, surrounded by the devastation of the deindustrialized lower east side, fails, the young poet is admonished "never to dirty . . . [his] hands / with sawdust and meat" (Curriculum 28).
Not all of Lawrence Joseph's grocery store references involve recollection of violence and confrontation of fear. In "Sentimental Education," he imagines that as an "excessive sky / hot and indigo, poured out / onto Hendrie," his grandfather, in the store, lifted him to "his arms / small as a single summer Sunday." This, Joseph says, is
a kind of memory trance truly
dark, deep and dark, steel dark,
not as pure, but almost as pure,
as pure unattainable light. (Before 35)
In another poem, he compares the store's present freedom (from ownership?) with that of "the boy with one arm / kissing the tangerine my father gives him" (Before 61). "There I Am Again" concludes with a vision of himself:
today in a place the length of a pig's snout
in a time the depth of a cow's brain
in Joseph's Market on the corner of John R and Hendrie
there I am again: always, everywhere,
apron on, alone behind the cash register, the grocer's son
angry, ashamed, and proud as the poor with whom he deals.
At one time, the small, family-owned grocery store was a fixture in Detroit's neighborhoods. Such stores have almost vanished as these neighborhoods have lost population and housing. As Thomas J. Sugrue points out, the West Grand Boulevard-John R neighborhood, which had "seemed the heartbeat of the industrial metropolis in the 1940s" was especially devastated in the next two decades by the closing of auto plants and the small businesses dependent upon them (125-126). Lawrence Joseph's poems about his father's market reveal some of the tensions of attempting to stay in business in this troubled time and place.
Frank D. Rashid is Professor of English at Marygrove College. He grew up working beside his father and uncle in his family's inner-city Detroit grocery store.
Photos by Anna Fedor.
Joseph, Lawrence. Before Our Eyes. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993. Print.
---. Curriculum Vitae. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1988. Print.
---. “’Our Lives Are Here’: Notes from a Journal, Detroit, 1975.” Michigan Quarterly
Review 25 (1986): 296-302. Print.
---. Shouting at No One. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1983. Print.
Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar
Detroit. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996. Print.