Dream as Canvas

July 28, 2014

Contributor’s Marginalia: Jordan Windholz on “Ledger of Joseph” by Kevin Thomason

I love a poem that has me sliding along language’s surfaces of sound, and so I love Kevin Thomason’s “Ledger of Joseph.” I can read this poem again and again just to feel its syllables in my mouth, to hear them knock around in my ear.

The poem’s sensual pleasures would be enough for me; I can linger in the enveloping consonance and recursive logic of how Joseph’s dreams “foretold how lack blooms the yields / abundance blinds us to.” But I also love the storytelling of this poem, the way Thomason stages a kind of selective memory to reimagine biblical myth. The tension between remembering, forgetting, and the political purposes of selective memory animate the poem from the outset. Just after invoking the textual source of the poem’s topic—Genesis 41:49—via epigraph, Thomason asks the reader to “forget” the familiar story: “how ears and kine were counted / to seven plenties and seven famines.” But not everything must be forgotten, for near the poem’s end, we are told to “remember” the great violence and betrayal that catalyzes Joseph’s rise as exile in Egypt, how “his brothers bound the boy away.”

In the biblical account, Joseph’s dreams are more or less easily interpreted, clearly allegorical. But Thomason subverts the logic of the biblical dream, that which prophesies and thus weds to the present the guarantee of a god’s providential hand. His Joseph does not extract meaning from his dreams, for “He couldn’t conjure from slain sheep, / augured no clutters of blackbirds.” Such visions are cold comfort. Instead, Thomason’s Joseph uses the providential dreams as a kind of canvas for his own self-making. Messages from a creator god, they serve as models for the creation of self.

Yet there is a dark undertone to this poem. Beneath its pleasurable sonorousness, or perhaps more rightly, within it, the rhetorical pyrotechnics of the consummate politician are sounded. Joseph arises at the end “certain now of the art / of being right.” The boy sold into slavery arises “From the pit that gaped his family’s lie” near Machiavellian. The real hole his brother’s threw him becomes a blank out of which a suitable origin story can be fabricated.

At the end of the poem, Thomason returns to Joseph the accountant, but he is no longer one who “tallied pharaoh, god, and myth.” Rather than merely taking account for the Egyptian polis, Joseph determines whom shall be held to account, and how. Turning to the heavens, he “summed the stars / until a figure took its shape,” auguring out of the random array of celestial light, it seems, a fiction useful for his purposes.

Thomason stops short of recounting the biblical story of Joseph’s decision final decision—forgiving his family, and providing for them refuge in Egypt—and so lends the story a productive qualification. He mines from a myth about providence—and even the horrors of fate—a figure who determines and is self-determining, a man more human and less heroic.

Jordan Windholz

Jordan Windholz lives in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with his partner Erin and their daughter Hazel. His manuscript, Other Psalms, was selected by Averill Curdy for the 2014 Vassar Miller Prize in poetry and is forthcoming in the spring of 2015.

Previous post:

Next post: