Book Review

Thomas J. Erickson, The Lawyer Who Died in the Courthouse Bathroom,
Parallel Press, 2013

by Mary Riley

Thomas Erickson explores the world through the eyes of the chapbook’s titular lawyer, a character who appears to be based on many of Erickson’s own professional and personal experiences as a criminal defense attorney.  In so doing, Erickson belongs to a greater tradition of poet-lawyers who, through poetry, address the riddles of the human condition encountered in their law practice, the courtroom, and in their personal lives.  For brevity, I will refer to the lawyer speaking throughout Erickson’s chapbook as “our lawyer.” 

Our lawyer is not the lawyer-pundit typically seen on CNN or Fox News, providing an opinion on an unfolding (or recently concluded) sensational legal case in the news.  Nor is our lawyer like one of the flashy characters in TV programs such as Boston Legal, LA Law, The Practice, Law and Order, or any of the several lawyer shows that have captivated America over the decades. 

Erickson employs low-key, accessible language that paints an intense picture of a man working in gritty circumstances while dedicating his life to the law. Only occasionally does Erickson deliberately select words that betray our lawyer’s advanced education and diction.  As one example, our lawyer refers to classical mythology (Antipodes, Lethean, Sisyphus) in places to illustrate his points: language that we may well expect a highly educated attorney to use. These terms in particular illustrate the divide between our lawyer’s background and the backgrounds of his clients, generally young, indigent (and possibly recidivist) men and women.

Erickson uses a deceptively simple rhythm and meter. On one hand, Erickson’s narrative style sounds very conversational and ordinary. Our lawyer tells a series of stories and vignettes of his life, what he witnessed as well as for whom he advocated.  On the other hand, our lawyer simultaneously presents and argues his points, as he advocates for his minor child ward in the poem Home Visit: If not this family for her, who? Somebody / has to hang the pictures, somebody has to / pay the cable bill, somebody has to hear / the bird sing. 

In "Court Appearances," Erickson humorously shows our lawyer arguing his defenses to the court:

Where is the poetry in this
boxy room with sallow walls and
carpeting the color of sludge?

Have any of you – judge, DA, baliff –
ever read the darkly lyrical Larkin while
a client was being deposed, or tried
to write a villanelle between appearances?

What if I told you to go
easy on the burglar because even
a flat screen HDTV doesn’t have
the brilliant color of Sonnet #18
or the resolution of any poem
by Frederic Seidel?

Or that the only difference between
the serial arsonist and us is that
he cannot control the terrible freedom
of his thoughts.  Isn’t there beauty in fire?                 

The identity thief simply committed
the conceit of the probing author –
to be someone else in secret,
to create a doppelganger.  The secret
sharer of Highsmith or Conrad or Twain.

If a line is a point set in motion
then how could the forger stop
once he entered the decimal point?
It is an unbroken line to obfuscation
and abnegation, larceny and lucre.

Maybe the murderer should be set
free because we are all possibly dead
already.  I will recite, Judge, to
the hereafter, and if no one comes,
let him go.

Similarly, the poem "Speaking In Tongues" shows how several realities may all flow forth from the same set of facts, with our lawyer explaining his role: “I explicate, obfuscate, mitigate, equivocate - / the translator of a story of death.”  Despite the rules of the game of law, Erickson recounts injustices as they are, in their unvarnished reality, without explaining them away or denying their existence.  The facts are plainly presented to us in order to reveal not only how our lawyer feels about them, but about how we ourselves feel about injustices in life, things that don’t add up to a desired symmetry.  Erickson deftly communicates through his poetry that, while lawyers make a living arguing their clients’ positions in black-and-white, lawyers tend to deal in gray realities more than anything else.

Our lawyer also struggles with the more difficult aspects of his work: representing clients who are not only guilty, but who have committed truly horrific crimes.  In "Sweating the Bottle," our lawyer relates: “I’m thinking about my gnome / of a client with his beady-black eyes / and salt-and-pepper beard – the kind / of beard that comes right up to the eyes / like a mask … / … While we waited for the verdict, my client told / me he had molested the boys for years. / He told me this because he knew / he was going to walk and it was time / to let me in on the joke.”  In the poem The Killers, our lawyer tells us of his own imprisonment-by-memory, long after the clients he once represented are gone: “The killers come and go. / So do the rapists, / the armed robbers, and the burglars. / But the child molesters. / I remember them all … // … How the steel doors, the electric / locks, the barbed wire / hold us, / bind us.”  One can hear and feel the clank and lock of the jail cell gate as our lawyer is held captive by memories of clients he must zealously defend because that is the nature of his job.

It has been said that the law is a jealous mistress. Likewise, our lawyer provides fewer details of his private life in his poems, with more communicated through what is omitted than through the use of poetic phrasing. Equally interesting is how the natural world does—or does not—appear in the chapbook’s poems. When our lawyer recounts details from nature at all, snow and winter trees dominate Erickson’s poetic landscape.

In light of these contradictions, it is little wonder that our lawyer seems to possess a certain restlessness that appears across several of the poems: a desire to leave, float, or fly away from the present, alone, never to return. In the chapbook’s first poem, bearing the title from which the chapbook takes its name, our lawyer as a young man “went to Spain and almost didn’t come back.”  In "Berlin Sky," our lawyer is overseas, half-drunk and happy in a way that only overseas travel can accomplish, before experiencing either marriage or divorce and “before passing into our Lethean sleep.”  The poem "I Had a Dream" floats like a dream in its execution, carrying through to its lingering last line: “You will never know.”  In the poems The Floating Man and Two Crows, The Hawk, and a Snow Shovel, our lawyer tells of his going up, up, and up into the air, at some level wanting to never come down.  

Through his observations and tales, Erickson’s poems gently inspire us to examine the fault lines in our own lives and to seek beauty where it exists because those episodes can be so fleeting. The Lawyer Who Died in the Courthouse Bathroom is a stimulating read and, given America’s ongoing obsession with all things law-related, Erickson’s poems should find an enthusiastic and receptive audience. 

A final note on the cover art. At first glance I simply noted the familiar image of a chalk outline, and thought about our lawyer as the victim, perhaps of life’s circumstances in the way that we all are. Only later, upon further reflection after reading through the entire chapbook, did I realize that the view of the chalk outline is from overhead.  As though, perhaps, our lawyer is looking down at himself as he floats away one last time.

Mary Riley grew up in Wisconsin and attended school there, but now lives in Illinois.