Looking for a holiday gift for a lawyer? Check out “Lawyer Poets And That World We Call Law: An Anthology Of Poems About The Law,” edited by James R. Elkins. The poems are written by our fellow attorneys.
Here’s a theme in the book: The law shapes us, we do not shape it. Read “Found Objects.” Lawrence Russ muses on a young lawyer visiting an older and famous one (albeit a bullying and blustery one). The young lawyer spies a stuffed rattlesnake and scorpion on his desk and reflects “But how had his regular features grown/so misshapen, so lumpish,/his cheeks and brows/unevenly swollen; his skin/… as though someone had beaten him/daily, for weeks.” What’s inside, sooner or later, seeps out.
What a person does merges into the person he becomes. Bruce Laxalt astutely captures this insight in “The Establishment Man.”A 25-year defense lawyer fastidiously cleans up after dinner, trying to impose order on domestic disorder, just as he does for corporate clients in the courtroom. He is still “stolidly keeping the barbarian trumpets at bay/from the fragile walls of Jericho” while eyeing, and perhaps envying, “My plaintiff friends across the courtroom aisle/(who) Make joyful chaos with their craft,/Throw the world with glee against the jury-box wall/And wait with sheepish grins to see the morning’s designs.”
Speaking of being shaped, there are those who give their life to the law, obliterating themselves in the process, as sadly recounted by Michael Blumenthal in “The Metamorphosis”: “It is just as you feared/it would be: Your life has gone on without you in it/…Loneliness, which knows no season, hovers/over everything like a detective.” Laura Chalar reduces the theme to its chilly essence in “Midnight at the Law Firm”: “guarded by the silent bivouac/of a hundred phones; sleeping/on the other side of air/is the place where your dinner/year after year gets colder.”
The anthology taps into the collision between a lawyer’s idealism and the reality of practice, condensed perfectly by David Leightty with his two-liner “In The Office Of An Attorney Specializing In Accident Cases”: “Ranked on his shelf are lawbooks—poised, replete,/Below, there blares the racket of the street.”
Kristen Roedell describes this collision in “Family Law,” a poem that relates the initial adoration of a divorce client, dwindling as the case drags on, when the homemade gifts of fudge stop coming and the invoices are paid late. With the last late payment, comes the client’s cutting remark, “This is how you lawyers all get rich,” as the lawyer wearily describes how she then “Take(s) out the office garbage,/tie my Volvo door shut with twine,/and peel out towards the/daycare parking lot.”
In “Settling On the Eve of Trial” Joyce Meyers explores the litigator’s dichotomy of idealism and realism. The litigator, a warrior for justice, laments a last-minute settlement: “After two years of full speed/ahead, a wild roller coaster ride/someone pulls the switch/just before the final plunge/and leaves me stranded, Somewhere in the far/distance a fog descends/on truth, and justice sways/in the breeze; I await/the slow uncoiling.”
But lawyers muddle on because we have no choice, as argued by former Judge Warren Wolfson in “Eleventh Floor Lies”:”The lies are lost, replaced by other lies./We pretend and we proceed. People leave/with more or less of something./Decisions require words. At times/I look up from papers, to the wall/On the wall I see: ‘In God We Trust.’ “
But, still, there is magic in the law, if lawyers only watch for it, embrace it and let it in. This is Leightty’s message in “Off the Record.” A new attorney sits through a multiparty deposition in a high-rise conference room. He’s astonished to see a sparrow hawk “[p]erched an arms length outside the glaze” and asks himself, “Call it out? Not in that sober forum/Good judgment swayed by sheer decorum.”
The lawyer’s art of reframing is explored to good effect by Richard Krech’s “Life On Appeal,” with “Live yr. life the best you can/There is little likelihood/of success on appeal.” And rejoice along with the protagonist in Michael Sowder’s “Former Attorney Offers Prayer Of Thanksgiving For His New Job”, “For this is a beginning, and it’s good to be beginning/. . . for we’ll always be beginners any day we’re alive.” That’s true whether a lawyer enters, stays in or leaves the profession.
A poetry book’s last poem is its signature poem. In “Going Home” James Clarke tells readers that, despite a lawyer’s frustrations and pains and stresses, all will be well. “Be patient./We are going home./It is not far. We are rocking/in the great belly of the ship./No light cracks the dark sea, but/the ship is strong, the voyage/will not be long./… We will untangle our bones & play/in the lemon groves, dwell/in a white house near blue water./…There will be time. Be patient./We are going home.”
And finally, from the above signed, parts of my poem, “A Lawyer In Love:” “ I move that you take judicial notice/of my smitten looks/consider granting summary judgment/on behalf of my inchoate but real feelings/Hand to my heart/I swear and affirm/That I offer my tender expressions/Not under some sneaky hearsay exception /But, I assure you/for the truth of the matter asserted.”
Stay literate, enjoy the holidays, and we’ll see you in 2014.