by Thomas Erickson. Kelsay Books, 2020.
Review by Mary Riley
A criminal defense attorney’s livelihood is not an enviable one. Criminal defense attorneys are charged with the duty of doggedly and zealously representing those accused of crimes and providing them with the best legal defense possible. This is because so much hangs in the balance for the accused – their own life and freedom as a human being. The court has the power to curtail, encumber (and in 27 states, extinguish) that life and that freedom. The Blackstone doctrine states that it is better for ten guilty individuals to go free than for one innocent person to be wrongfully convicted.
Still, the work of a criminal defense attorney is not easy, and living with the emergent truths from that work even less so.
Erickson’s titular lawyer of The Lawyer Chronicles appears to be the same speaker (for brevity, “our lawyer”) that appeared in his earlier collection, The Lawyer Who Died in the Courthouse Bathroom. What is different about the Chronicles collection is their near-exclusive focus on the lives and circumstances of clients our lawyer has represented over the course of his career.
In the Chronicles poems, our lawyer reflects on his work through the prism of his clients, employing stark, gritty and unvarnished detail to describe the ground-down court rooms, jail cells, apartments, and neighborhoods where he meets his predominantly poor and black clients (“Home Visit”, “The Good Laugh”, “The Breathing Lesson”). As someone who grew up in Milwaukee, I recognize some of the locations that appear in Erickson’s poems.
Our lawyer is not sentimental about the realities of his work or his clients’ lives, especially the permeation of structural racism throughout. In “Zoom Court” our lawyer observes:
My client is on video from the jail. A young
black guy wearing a white mask that gleans
out of the grain. The symbolism is so heavy
it makes me want to reach for my pen.
Our lawyer speaks of the ambivalence he feels inside when representing clients who, more likely than not, are guilty of committing terrible acts. In the poem “Burden of Proof” our lawyer reflects on two addictions – his client’s addiction to drugs and his own addiction to the profession of law:
I don’t know what really happened
and I don’t care.
Well, it’s not like I don’t care,
it’s that I can’t care. It shouldn’t make
a difference to me if he did it or not …
But what if my doubts are reasonable
and my client did do it?
Then I can tell you I represent evil.
And then I can tell you that addiction makes
experience matter. And on we go.
In several places throughout the Chronicles, our lawyer finds ways to escape to the margins of his workday and carve out time for poetry. In the poem “The Sentence” our lawyer relates his unsuccessful attempts to convince the judge to show mercy toward his client, and he concludes by saying:
Our lives are an accumulation of duties.
It’s in the gaps in between, the intervals,
where the poems begin.
In “The Empty Courtroom”, his thoughts take a poignant turn as he thinks about the future:
Someday, surely, this courtroom will shutter,
this place of deliberation and whim,
of bondage or freedom. A shell
and a citadel. And now, a place, for me,
of a sudden discordant contentment.
Who will be the very last
to be judged here?
What did he do?
What did they say he did?
Who will be me?
The Lawyer Chronicles is a fascinating read for anyone who has reflected on how their work (chosen profession or not) has shaped them and contributed to who they are today. The compromises and tensions in work and life highlighted in these poems are found in just about every person’s work and life, and it’s those universal themes that make Erickson’s poetry collections so compelling.
Mary Riley is a graduate of Beloit College and lives in Richmond, Virginia. Her poems have appeared in the anthology Amethyst and Agate: Poems of Lake Superior (eds. Jim Perlman et al., Holy Cow! Press, 2015), Blueline, From The Depths (Haunted Waters Press), Stoneboat Literary Journal, and Lingering in the Margins: A River City Poets Anthology (eds. Joanna S. Lee et al., Chop Suey Books Press, 2019).