Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hey Joe, What you doin' . . .

. . . with those Particulars in your tiny, little Poems?

Well, first thing I’m going to do here is apologize for the post title. It’s a pretty cheap trick, even for me. Sure, Massey’s first name, in its familiar form, fits with the opening words of the rock song popularized by Jimi Hendrix. But properly speaking, the poet here is Joseph, not Joe. And in any event, the rest of my borrowing is lame: there’s no clever pun, there’s no matching of syllables or even echoing of the rhythmic beauty of the song lyric.

But still, I used it. It seems catchy, and, more than that, the answer to the question it poses – which, put more directly, is what makes Joseph Massey’s poems work so well? – will explain much about why I – and why I think many others – really like his work, and why Areas of Fog is a sensational book o' poems.

Areas of Fog, with just over 100 pages and at least that many poems, is Massey’s first full-length collection. It follows a half-dozen or so chapbooks in the last four or so years that had print runs of at most a few hundred copies each, almost all of which are now out-of-print. These books received positive to glowing reviews on the web, including by CA Conrad (November 2005), Matthew Henriksen (December 2005), Ron Silliman (December 2, 2005 and October 26, 2006), Sandra Simonds (March 2007), Joseph Bradshaw (2007), and Andy Grace (February 2008), and in print, perhaps most notably from Rae Armantrout (American Poet Magazine, Fall 2006).

Joseph Massey makes short, small, even tiny poems, most of which consist of particulars concisely put. The longest poem in Areas of Fog has but 80 words, the second-longest about 50, and those two are extreme outliers. The vast majority of the book’s poems are made of around twenty – sometimes around a dozen – words, and some have but eight or nine or even fewer. To put that in perspective, there were twenty-six words in the sentence you just read. This sentence right here, count ‘em, has nine words. Here are nine from Massey, a “lune” (a haiku variant form, apparently invented by Robert Kelly):
        rain gutter running
over with
                 sun-stiffened weeds, leaves

Short, concise poems of particulars are of course central to certain long-established poetic forms, practices, or traditions. Haiku, concise and much concerned with details, has been written for hundreds of years (the renderings here are by Robert Hass):
        The hollyhocks
lean toward the sun
        in the May rain
        – Bashō (17th century)
        A heavy cart rumbles by
and the peonies
        – Buson (18th century)
Of course, particulars and concision, almost one hundred years ago now, were also core principles for the imagists and certain modernists. Think here, for example, of Ezra Pound’s metro station (1913), William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow (1923), and Charles Reznikoff’s poem, published in 1920:

Moonlit Night

The trees’ shadows lie in black pools on the lawns.

Massey in his poems renews these forms and practices, making powerful poems unique to him and very much of the here and now, not old-fashioned or retro-conservative. The main reasons for his accomplishment, aside from the inherent potency of the super-short poem of particulars as a poetic approach, seem obvious after reading Areas of Fog clean through three times and many of its parts six or eight times more. First, Massey brings to the poems a marvelous mind (including attention to details and the ability and confidence to edit and isolate to essentials), a marvelous eye (detail again), and a marvelous way with and ideas about words (more about this below).

Along with all that marvelousness – and this is important – is plenty of what the Scots might (and what Hugh MacDiarmid did) call “amplefeysts and toves” plus self-awareness and transparent honesty. This all, as I’ll also discuss a bit more below, root or anchor the poems, which might sometimes – given their almost airy brevity and reliance on finely observed detail – almost want to float away. It’s a complicated mix, but the result is a collection of pitch-perfect, nuanced poems that reward close study and repeated readings.

Massey’s poems arise from the Humboldt County area of Northern California, renowned for redwoods, high grade weed, and seascapes. His lines are rich with localized details. A co-worker who grew up on the Lost Coast (a magnificent rugged and remote stretch about 50 miles south of Eureka, the county seat), and with whom I shared Massey’s poem “Lost Coast” from Areas of Fog, almost instantly said that she knew the poem’s precise geographic setting, given its description of a sea-stack crowded with seabirds, a road, cattle corralled behind barbed wire, and, at the poem’s end, these further details:
. . . . We know
it will soon be
too dim
to navigate
the switchbacks
without guardrails
we descended
to arrive.
(Anyone who has hiked a trail that repeatedly traverses a steep hill or incline can testify as to how effectively the line-breaks and word-rhythms here mimic the actuality of that experience.)

Yet while there are plenty of “location shots” throughout the book (by which I mean precise, finely put particulars, as well as a few poem titles that use recognizable place names) that will strongly resonate with anyone familiar with the area, Massey’s poems aren’t simple picture postcards, at least not the kind visitors typically like to send home. The first poem set out in this post, the three line lune describing a gutter choked with old weeds and leaves, is more typical of the details Massey observes and puts into poems. There are other poems centered on abandoned lots, burned out houses, bird shit, the stain of a crushed ant, a wad of gum, old rain-soaked newspapers, etc. etc.

Let me put it like this: writing from a place that’s world- renowned for its resplendent transcendent redwoods, such trees show up exactly once in Massey’s book, and here it is (from “Boardwalk, Humboldt Bay”):
Water brown
as the red-
wood trunks

stacked on
flatbed trucks
trudging down 101.
Not exactly the kind of image the tourist board is going to use in a brochure touting the region’s scenic wonders. But of course Massey’s image is precisely correct. As anyone who’s driven through the area must admit, those trucks piled with those logged trees are very, very common.

The verbs in the excerpt quoted above – particularly the “trudging” in the last line, are examples of what I consider Massey’s remarkable way with verbs and words in general. Because the poems are so small, any vocabularian or other missteps would leap off the page, and I must say I spotted not a single “clam” (to use a musical term), even with my often regrettable if sometimes useful tendency to look hard for mistakes.

The verbs are key for another reason. They can instantly give a poem what William Carlos Williams (in his preface to his collection The Wedge) termed an “intrinsic movement of its own. . . .” If Williams’ construct is accepted, then Massey’s poems really go. The action verbs stand out in Massey’s poems, they’re always well chosen and often quite surprising, by which I mean fresh. Splayed, dangled, threshed, submerges, snag: these examples, lifted from just the first several poems in the book, indicate the sharpness of what occurs in many of Massey’s poems.

My favorite verb in the book appears near the end of the poem titled “2:08 AM” (how about that title for precision!), and concerns what tree frogs did to, or for, the dark. The word used is striking, seems not quite right but then exactly apt and thus becomes quite memorable by which I mean unforgettable. But I ain’t giving it up here, though: buy the god damn book already (it’ll only cost you about $18.50, including mailing, at places such as Amazon that discount ten percent and don’t charge tax, or about $22 total with tax and mailing via Small Press Distribution).

My second favorite verb in Areas of Fog describes what a particular neon sign does. I won’t ever look at one of those the same way again. And speaking of again, I’m again not giving it away here. Just remember, one of the greatest achievements in writing, or really of any art, is making you see the world, or a part of it, in a new, fresh, and/or unforgettable way.

I’m right with Ezra Pound when he describes little poems similar to those in Areas of Fog, or more accurately the details or images that make up such poems, as “radiant node[s].” And I’m right with critic Hugh Kenner too, when he explains that the “‘plot’” of such poems might be described as the “mind’s activity, fetching some new thing into the field of consciousness.” I think the “mind” here is both the poet’s, making the poem, and the reader’s, making it new each time the poem’s read.

I mentioned above Massey’s “amplefeysts and toves” (the term can be roughly translated as varying moods tending towards the out-of-sorts), and let me say a bit more about that. Since reading (and re-reading) much writing by Clayton Eshleman a few months ago, and briefly corresponding with him, I’ve been thinking about the value of (to use Eshleman’s terms) “self-confrontation” in poetry, including the exploring or presentation in poems of the “jagged chasms and cold furnaces” that may be a part of one’s personality.

Massey’s poems, perhaps surprisingly given their brevity and reliance on sharp observed particulars drawn from the world around us, are not safe-haven retreats from life’s challenges. It’s always subtle, but those challenges, the actualities of a lived life, are there, and they are strong: sometimes almost explicit or more-or-less directly inferable, as in a word or three in certain poems suggesting habitual drinking, interpersonal arguments, isolation, frustration, too-quick anger or irritability, and depression. Sometimes it’s more or entirely implicit, as in references in a number of poems to the sun blotting, clotting, and thudding through the poet’s world, or to such things as a (to quote an entire poem):
        dry-rotted, knotted
garden hose
                 hidden within weeds

which suggests to me a severely compromised situation, to say the least.

Another theme woven in the poems, often very directly, concerns words: lots about their limits and the difficulties they present, but stuff too about what can be done with them, how they can gather (as Massey puts it in a poem titled “After Bronk” (italics and spacing as printed)):
a world—

not the


Some of the poems express (though again subtly or even elliptically) or can be read as, a sharp critique or questioning of certain facts of our culture. As with most poetry, vivid explication is neither possible nor appropriate, but I read the lines of Massey’s “June”:
Dangled above
the traffic’s rasp:

a contrail

a crow

a nail gun’s echo.
and in addition to marveling at the alliterative evocation of “traffic’s rasp” and the simple but perfectly balanced rivet-your-attention 3-2-5 syllabic rhythm of the final three lines (plus the alliterative hard c’s in those lines too), I can’t help but feel that something is not only not right, but very wrong indeed. I see “contrail” as the vapor plume of a military jet, “crow” as an invasive ugly bird, and the “nail gun’s echo,” well that speaks for itself. These conglomerated details suggest mechanized violence, ugliness, intrusion, unwelcome degradation and destruction. Yes, I am perhaps reading too much into it here, and maybe I’ve done the same with other Massey poems, but it’s just that sort of half-wild thinking that comes when reading the best, the well-written and/or finely juxtaposed details or images: “a VORTEX,” Pound wrote, “from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing.”

But also, my heavy reading into the particulars of Massey’s poems – as in the social critique I see in the poem just above, or the suggestions of personal limitations in the poem that simply describes a rotted knotted garden hose hidden in weeds – may be entirely consistent with what the poet has written. Along with seeing the particulars and details, Massey sees or senses lots of correspondences arising from, or, to use his term, “behind” them, or so it seems to me from these two lunes (asterisk inserted to indicate the separation between the works):
        there’s a metaphor
behind each
                 breath your life lets go
        there’s a metaphor
here: the page
                 behind the poem

Switching gears here – this now has to do with Massey’s skill with words – please let me tell you about my favorite bit among all the poems. It may be entirely idiosyncratic to me. Among my fascinations is the idea of speaking in tongues, and other quasi-language utterances (insert here your own joke about how this news comes as no surprise given the gibberish I regularly dish out on this here blog). So you can well imagine my joy-yelp when I first read the final lines of following untitled poem, which I can’t stop myself from sharing in full (with spacing more or less reflecting the presentation in the book):
scent like
an open vowel

wrung out
in the rain’s


The concluding “lines” – a single word bifurcated and separated by empty space – are genius, I hereby declare. The hyphen stretches the alliterative sibilants towards something close to forever, the blank space of course let’s the rain fall, and the four syllable poem-ender is just a gorgeous thing. First, literally as a thing, an aggregation of letters, and also in its sounds (rich with vowels, some of which are indeed “open”), and varied but symmetrical rhythm (a one-vowel syllable, followed by two with double letters, and then the final single vowel syllable).

There’s also in those concluding lines a deft sleight-of-hand with the final word’s hyphenation point: Massey breaks glossolalia in a way that best serves the poem, and seems utterly natural, but not at the double consonant as the rules of punctuation and formal syllabification would require. Right before our eyes, he violates the rule and for a moment or three don’t see what he’s done (the hand is quicker than the eye). A prestidigitator lives in every great poet, I believe. If Areas of Fog were on Broadway – if poetry somehow had its rightful place in our cultural life – the marquee would read “Massey the Magnificent” and the show would run for years, with the public clamoring to experience the spellbinding work of the great magician and his words.

I’d like to end with a few comments on the book itself. Areas of Fog is extremely well designed. Both the cover, featuring an image by Wendy Heldmann, and the presentation of the poems themselves, are beautiful. There’s generally a single poem to a page, a lay-out principle that I adore for the way it exalts each work. Where multiple poems are on a page, there’s a nice amount of space between them. The two longest one-section poems (the ones of approximately 80 and 50 words each), start on the verso (left-hand side) and end on the recto (right-side), meaning that the entirety of the poems is right there before your eyes when they are read.

In short, the elegance of all the poems as printed and presented on the page works perfectly with the poetry itself. The book’s design and composition is credited to Yuki Kites, whose work here deserves big thanks from all us readers. Thanks Yuki Kites, thanks Shearsman (the publisher), and in particular, thanks Joseph Massey, for this sensational book of poems.

Endnote/Sources: The versions of Bashō and Buson are from Robert Hass, Editor, The Essential Haiku (The Ecco Press 1994). The Reznikoff poem is from Seamus Cooney, editor, The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff (Black Sparrow Press 1989). The Ezra Pound “radiant node” and “VORTEX” quotations are from his Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (New Directions 1970). The Hugh Kenner quotation is from his The Pound Era (University of California Press 1973). The Clayton Eshleman quotations are from an e-mail, January 2009.

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