Sunday, June 27, 2010

Exit North

Exit North, Joseph Massey’s new chapbook from Book Thug in Toronto, is his third little publication – following The Lack Of and Mock Orange – since Areas of Fog, his early 2009 (and first) full-length collection (which itself followed seven chaps).

Go Joe Go! With his love of the little book, and the rate he shares his work with the world, Massey might just reach – if he keeps on keeping on – the publication numbers of a, say, Cid Corman (more than 100 books and pamphlets) or Ted Enslin (approximately 70 so far). I say, bip, bop, bam alakazam may it come to pass if that’s what he wants!

I read an earlier version of Exit North about a year ago, via a pdf direct from Massey, and really liked it. The final published version, compared to that which I previously saw, adds two poems, slightly re-arranges the poems’ order, and changes – all to the end of a tighter focus – a few words in a few poems. The chap has 31 pages, 22 poems, and is smartly designed. It costs ten bucks (plus mailing), and is published in a first edition of one hundred copies.

Exit North is yet another Massey gem. It has the great little poems you’d expect from him, plus – and this here is some news – several (I count seven) poems which while still small and short relative to most poets’ work, are quite extended for Massey.

In last year’s Areas of Fog, which collected work from the previous five or six years, there were but two poems among its several dozen poems with more than 50 words (the longest had about 80), and those were extreme outliers. Most Massey poems are 20 or 30 words long, or thereabouts, and many have far fewer (for example, the poems in Brambles, a chap entirely included in Areas of Fog, are almost all 12 words or less).

Given that history of extreme concision, it’s quite notable that several poems in Exit North have around 50 or more words, and it’s huge that one of them – “A Line Made by Walking” – has 120 words and is thus I believe the longest poem Massey’s ever published. No, Joe hasn’t gone epic with his verse, not yet at least, but in this chap he does significantly lengthen some of it.

The other part of the story regarding the longer poems in Exit North is that they are just as gem-like as the shorter ones. I discuss a couple of the longer poems below so maybe you’ll see a bit more then but in the meantime I hereby conclude that the shorter and longer poems differ only in that the latter – as a logical consequence of the added words – have more facets, or a deeper vividness, to fascinate the reader.


If you’ve read Massey, you know he writes from where he’s at, and that a part of where he’s “at” is the North Coast of California, up around Humboldt Bay, where he’s lived for several years. I’m a sucker for that area, having traveled through there a lot – more than 50 times – between 1993 and 2007 and on several occasions since then. I can’t prove anything, but my mechano-receptors and synapses seem to ignite when I’m up there. Maybe it’s the salted air, the rush and recede of the sea, the fog and sun locked in the redwoods beneath a sky that moves, the bark of the sea lions and blasts of wind, or some other who-knows-what geodetic phenomenon, but when there that place kick-starts in me a mania of huge awareness, and vision gets mighty keen.

Exit North, reading it, gives me much the same gift of renewed (in)sight. It’s the place in the poems that does it, sure – the North Coast comes through, strong, via details regarding the qualities of its light, climate, flora, and geography details, but mostly it’s the Massey in the lines: his concision, precision, sound-sense, and the way the self, his mind-self, comes in. I’ve written about all that, or most of it, before, click here, here (scroll down a bit), and here if you please. For this post I’ll just say that Massey has an awesome thoughtful poetic awareness of what’s in his mind and of his emotions, as well as of the world around him, and it all comes through, beautifully and memorably in his words.

Sometimes, as in “After Last Night’s Drinking,” with its “patternless patterns,” “a child’s chalked hieroglyphics,” and “the noon siren” – plus other vivid details – Massey’s sober clarity is almost jaw-dropping. That there is a one hell of a hang-over poem: just about the whole goddamn bleezy perceptual-visual struggle – thoughts that “refuse,” “misremembrance,” things that “dissociate” or “blend” or “blur” – throbs through its 17 lines.

Also wondrous is “The Process,” which at just under 50 words is one of the longer poems in the book. Yes, it’s about poetry, the writing of it, and the waves in the mind, the crests and troughs of the world and one’s perceptions that come through in doing it, and which sometimes swamp the verse-work. Like just about every poem in Exit North, I’ve read this one over and over about fifty times and still find it something. Here it is, with its title and six tercets:

The Process

outside sounds
double the day’s

indoor confusion.
How to untwine
noise, to see.

There’s the bay,
highway slashed
beneath; water

a weaker shade
of gray than this
momentary sky’s

widening bruise.
The page turns
on the table, bare

despite all
I thought was
written there.

This poem is tight, and there are many points of accomplished genius. Start with the first sentence, which runs through the opening tercet and the first line of the second, and which in its few words contains multitudes of stuff. True, complications come about from the multiplication in the action-verb “double” in the third line, but that’s also there at the top, in the first line’s compound “cross-stitch,” an adjective that substantively highly suggests complication, and with its rich sounds (the “s’s,” “c’s” and “t’s”) make audible and thus pair perfectly with the “outside sounds” which it modifies. Then there is the quickness – an effect that results from Massey’s compression and concision – with which those “outside sounds” double up the “inside confusion.” My goodness, how much comes through in all that?

The language energy surge strong through the lines that follow that opening. The two lines that follow set out the central challenge: how to achieve clarity, to focus, amid all that’s about. The verb “untwine” seems particularly apt; it picks up on the “cross-stitched” and I think on “double” too, via the “untwin” embedded in it.

Massey then lays out a complex sentence that begins at the first line of the third tercet and runs to the first line of the fifth, and it kills. You can read it just as well as anyone; I love how he brings in the bay, highway, water, and the transitory (via “momentary”) sky with its “widening bruise” with nary a wasted word, and the way a kind of connected implicit violence comes through via “slashed” and “bruise.”

And then ladies and gentleman there is the parallel construction of the stanza-jumping, sentence-ending, two-word combinations that comprise the first lines of the second and fifth tercets. These enjambments create a kind of non-rhyming rhyme that brings together the “indoor confusion” and “widening bruise” in the lines.

The final sentence, comprising the poem’s last five lines, is a relatively simple statement about what’s not on the page, and the poet’s misapprehension about what isn’t there. I like the kind of tromp l’oeil effect, or is it the reverse of that? It’s not three dimensions depicted by two, but nothing (the “bare” page) shown by something (the final lines of “The Process”). Massey the Magnificent does it again.


A Line Made by Walking (1967)
Richard Long

The centerpiece poem of Exit North – it begins on the right side of the book’s middle – is “A Line Made by Walking.” Massey in an endnote states that his title is taken from Richard Long’s work.

Long’s work is a conceptual and process piece (documented by the photograph above) which he made by repeatedly walking a straight line in a grass field. He made his own path, going nowhere in particular but exploring relationships between time, distance, geography and measurement. The final product, the worn path and its documentation, is a sculpture of place, a distillation of experience.

Massey’s poem visually echoes Long’s work. It has 21 couplets, plus a concluding single line, and all lines are very short, with the longest having four with most having just two or three words. The thing, as it proceeds with its little steps, looks like a path made with words down its three pages. Here are the first half-dozen couplets:

Humid June
air that barely

moves, and yet
the water in the

creek wrinkles,
pushed around

fronds and
broken bottle,

or is it
chipped quartz

trapping the
glare. Rusted

[. . . ]
Notice that the sentence and line ends here are not congruent, keeping the poem moving. Note too how the two adjectives in the first line (“Humid June”) work both as a stand-alone concept and (due to the absence of a line ending comma) as a double modifier for “air” in the next line. But see most of all how the excerpt here looks on the screen, and imagine that relatively narrow column of words continuing for a couple more pages: a path made by lines stepped (walked) out by the poet, one after another.

I mentioned above that “A Line Made by Walking” is the longest poem Massey has published. And now that you are curious, I will not share any more of it here. You are going to have to buy the book, and you will do that, yes?

Interestingly, the 120 words of “A Line Made by Walking” do not read “long,” even for a Massey poem. The couplets move along smartly, and the mind never gets stopped by a word that’s not right, or out of place, because Massey’s concision, sound-sense, and poetic way with words never flag. There is plenty at which to marvel. And while the lines are essentially uniform in length, the six sentences embedded in them are not. The sentence-length pattern (long-medium-short-long-short-long) varies the poem’s pace, and that keeps attention taut.

It all raises the question of how long through the pages Massey might want to go. “A Line Made by Walking,” and the other more extended than usual poems in Exit North suggest he could write longer poems, without losing the gem-brilliance that marks his work. Well, to repeat what I wrote above, bip, bop, bam alakazam may it come to pass if that’s what he wants!





Conrad DiDiodato said...


sometimes best to slow down, learning one's craft before rushing off one more chapbook (even as far as Toronto). Quantity is....well, you know how it goes.

Comparisons to Cordman!Genius! Well, best to slow down and learn the ropes first.

But you are a fabulous promoter of your country's literary output, especially among the young. Kudos to you, Mr Fama!

Curtis Faville said...


Here are some recommendations for you.

James Koller
John Thorpe

Also Hamish Fulton, a "walking artist" with allied interests in semi-quasi-concrete poetry, landscape, sculpture, and just-being-in-the-world.

Koller lived in Northern California during the 1960's, and his work is very reminiscent of that time--those days. Thorpe's book The Cargo Cult is great work.

Steven Fama said...

Hi Conrad,

Massey, at just past age 30, knows his craft, I'm certain as certain can be. He's been writing since he was a kid (and yes I count that, cf. Rimbaud, Lamantia, Helen Adam, Chatterton, etc.). He first published about a decade ago, and basically has given the world a handful or three of short little poems each year: it doesn't seem like a lot.

To use your "learn the ropes" metaphor, my view is that Massey could easily teach many things about how to tie poetry-knots to poet-Eagle Scouts, and could easily hang with the best of the Yosemite El Capitan rock climbers as they coil and anchor and belay their ropes.

Okay, that's maybe a too extended metaphor but the underlying truth in it is correct, I insist. I saw earlier versions of some of Exit North poems, and the final versions, and there's no question given the changes Massey made to them -- the cutting and changing of a few words, to tighten up the poems -- show that not only does he know what he's doing, but that he brings a particular genius to that which he know.

And regardless of all that, I say to poets, bring it on! If you think it's right, publish!

(P.S. You wrote "Cordman" in your note; I know you meant "Corman").

And thanks for stopping in.

Steven Fama said...

Hi Curtis,

Thanks for the suggestions. Koller fits with the little books, and Thorpe -- not sure where he is currently -- but I know he was in Bolinas for quite some time. I'm not sure if his poetry is "of" the place particularly, but I'm going to check it out.

To go a bit sideways here, the population of Northern California is such that it could be its own 20th centruy France, in terms of the number of poets writing great poetry.

Know what I mean? An anthology of 20th Century French Poetry (for example, the Random House one of about 20 years ago, edited by Auster)is a huge academically respected thing, and yet here in the United States, currently, we could have two dozen similar sized books, each based on a particular region.

And probably the number of such kick-ass anthologies that could be done is greater than two dozen. Just an example -- if I could be allowed to lump San Diego in with Los Angeles, I could do up an "El Lay Women" poetry anthology -- just based on current writers -- that would kill!

The richness of current and recent past poetry is incredible. Others in Northern California, somewhat similar in approach to Massey -- though not as complex, at least to my eyes -- include Norman Schaefer and Steve Sanfield (I'm looking forward to reading the latter's new one from Tangram).

Anonymous said...


Steve Sanfield and John Brandi did a neat thing
recently (1999):
No Other Business Here

you include 'stuff' outa that one and some things via, say outa
Bill Michaelian's The Painting of You

and LOTS OF GEORGE EVANS (The New World, Sudden Dreams)

and sprinkill around a lot of
Steve Richmond (see for a "giggle" Moke Daily's
(just another high-ku moment)

I once was in the heat of a chess game in the back room like a closet of this "Head Shop" in I think that it was North Beach it must have been 1974 acause I gave him a copy of The City...

we never finished the game... a cute girl came in stripped tried on an itsy-bitsy teeney-weenie bikini and he and she left me to contimplate my next (chess) move.

where can we pre-order a copy? a series of regional anthologies could have far reaching

and if everyone in it and their mother buys a copy well POETRY will solve the current economic slump...

as for Jim Koller try through Gary Lawless' Gulf of Mane book store


John Olson said...

"The Process" is brilliant. The skill of Massey's writing is evident in the way he has matched the surface of the page on which he thought something had been written, and the surface of the bay, with its water a weaker shade of gray than that of the sky, which he has compared, quite unusually, and poignantly, to a "widening bruise." As the first line suggests, the world outside his door is a text steeped in nuance. The quality of this poem is pretty amazing. I know the word 'genius' gets abused and slung around a lot, especially in Woody Allen movies, but there is a genius in the language that poets can tap into, and this is what I see here. A consummate fusion of sound and sense.