Joseph Massey. At the Point. (Shearsman Books 2011).
There are just too many books of poetry for anyone to keep up with, which means even the most dedicated reader misses some very good work. I’m grateful, then, that a friend (friends whose taste we trust are one way of finding out about writers we might otherwise never know) sent me a copy of Joseph Massey’s wonderfully maximal minimalist At the Point, a collection not to be missed.
One aspect of contemporary poetry has to do with the difficulty of approaching the lyric now while evading an almost built-in redundancy. Refuse it is one solution. Or find some way to stringently utilize it without falling into its various worn-out conventions. Joseph Massey has found a way to do this in his tight taut little poems.
For one thing, he has a great ear, a mastery of concise repetition, of line breaks as both rhythmic intensifiers & torques of meaning. Take this lovely tiny move, for example: ‘measure the afternoon’s / accumulations – // the overcast / undertones – // this slow vacillation.’ Or there are the sound patterns & rhythmic jumps of ‘Gnats / knot sun’s / white flush’ or ‘—crow sounds assemble / a sustained syllable / open as the light opening / slit by slit / around it.’ Formally decisive in all senses.
He also has a very precise eye, & the understated language to express perception of the material world in a manner both fresh & unpretentious. He makes us see anew too. And when he uses the ‘I,’ he carefully places it in the context of presence the poems seek continually to engage (no egotistical sublime; in fact little sense of ego at all).
Finally, Massey has constructed an almost camouflaged meta-textuality in At the Point. Throughout the book, the field of nature, perceived, is also the field of the poem on the page, as the first poem, ‘The Process,’ announces: ‘There’s the bay, / highway slashed / beneath; water // a weaker shade / of grey than this / momentary sky’s // widening bruise. / The page / turns on the table, bare // despite all / I thought was / written there.’ Yes, these poems do invite quotation.
There’s an interesting conundrum around the concept of ‘influence.’ When readers speak of seeing it in a particular writer’s work, are they his or hers or are they what any one of us, with his or her history or reading in mind, perceives there. I, for example, hear/see such writers as William Carlos Williams (whose life & work inspired the sequence, ‘From a Window’), Robert Creeley, possibly Lorine Neidecker, her small sharp observations of the natural world, in Joseph Massey’s minimalist verses. And behind them all, those ancient Chinese poets who saw nature as clearly as they saw the worldly world. He ties them together, now, as in ‘No Vehicles Beyond this Point’: Tape unspools from a cassette, / collects – a nest – between two / pieces of driftwood, measures / the wind’s direction. Wind pinched / with skunk, sea salt, gasoline.’ This beautifully demonstrates Massey’s quiet strengths. At the Point is full of such moments.