Atoms of language : reading Joseph Massey

Pam Brown

Sometimes when I start to read a new book of poems that immediately strike me as poems I’m going to love and most probably be influenced by, I can hardly continue reading the book. I have to close it straightaway and put it aside. I feel a mixture of ardour and mildly disconcerting anticipation where I’ve recognised an aesthetic disposition that seems uncannily aligned with my own. Then later, once I’ve recovered from this short shock, I return and read it like an addict absorbing an anodyne. It happened today when I opened Joseph Massey’s At the Point.

After reading the first poem I quickly closed the book and turned to the back cover where the US professor and innovative poet, Craig Dworkin praises the poems and calls them, alongside general encomium, ‘detailed, luminous, radiant, subtle’ and ‘microtonal’.

The first poem explicates the writing and sets up a framework  :

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.

Joseph Massey’s poems are so lucid that I find their effect pensive. Discerning focus and intent is applied without sign of strain. This is masterful minimalism. The poems are atoms of language used in an utterly stringent way and the ample page space these thin, considered poems sit within lends them a seriousness that’s almost grave. The brevity of the lines gives the reader plenty of time to digest their variety of images and sounds – ‘How to untwine/noise, to see’ – and to take in a simple, yet definite, graphic, nearly topographical landscape of weather, colours, fields and a kind of fragile human presence. It’s as if landscape/nature happens to us the way winds arrive as bluster or breeze. Here, nature ‘revises’ itself . In ‘101’ –

This revision
of the hills

– sun sieved through low clouds
and rain, the weight

given to green
and clear-cut patches

– engulfs what I’m

or what you were

You either write, or you don’t write. There are several moments that record not writing. But there’s no anxious analysis of the context the poet works within. Not that he is fearless or always doubt-free; in ‘From a Window’ Massey evinces his tentative movement into a poem –

Day ascends into day,
and last night’s
is lost.

Through the bone
of a stutter

lodged in my throat,
to somehow say
what wants to be said.

Say it.

In the entire set of poems there is only one suggestion of troubled emotion where, on sand dunes littered with driftwood and tidal stuff, some ontological sense of alarm is calmed by an indistinct ‘something’ moving in shadowy traces of jetsam –

The panic
that would

pull me

recedes as


from a tire-

tuft of

bush lupine.

There are reminiscences of  William Carlos Williams and, occasionally, of Laurie Duggan’s poetry. For instance, in ‘No Name Pond’:

Attached to blackberry thorns
a plastic bag balloons

beside a faded sign:

Insects click
in brick and wood –

a kind of metronome
my mind stumbles to.

However, Laurie’s poetry is more notational and impressionistic because it’s often directly ‘located’ in places he’s visiting or walking past. Joseph Massey’s poems are all set in the place the collection is dedicated to, Humboldt County in California where he has lived for just over a decade. Yet they could be almost anywhere in coastal countryside that’s not overwhelmingly dramatic or beauteous. The location doesn’t impinge and overtake. In spite of Wendy Hellman’s cover painting of a house collapsing into the sea, as I’ve already mentioned, there is no particular agenda in these poems about human beings in relation to nature even though there is asphalt, highways, parking lots, scrap metal, foreclosed houses, discarded packets and plastic bags and the general detritus we carry around and live in.

Sometimes, there’s an echo of the eighth century Chinese poet Li Po – or is just that they are both so exacting when they write about drinking under the moon? Here’s the last part of Joseph Massey’s ‘Two Pages From a Small Winter Notebook’ –

Moon’s lucid murmur.

Skunk-laced night.

Drunk, I lean on the cold
walls of my cottage

behind hydrangeas

and piss into the rain

and in ‘After Last Night’s Drinking’ a morning-after follows just as accurately and just as tonally restrained –

After last night’s drinking,
thoughts refuse to puncture
layers of misremembrance.

There are other poets who write as clearly and as sparsely as Joseph Massey. To name a mere handful there’s the zennish minimalism of Gary Snyder and Cid Corman; Rae Armantrout, whose short sharp poems are (often grimly funny) critiques of capitalism’s systems; Eileen Myles, whose long thin minimal poems are acerbic anecdotal narratives;  Tom Raworth whose thrifty, speedy poems are like montages of freely associated imagery and idiom; and Aram Saroyan whose early books often had pages of poems that were almost entirely empty.

Joseph Massey has had work published in an anthology dedicated to William Carlos Williams, one of his definite influences, and perhaps he has taken some direction from Lorine Niedecker, but overall he is a distinctive contemporary exponent of minimal poetry whose intrinsic precision is sparing yet never austere, as he asks, against the lyrical first person –

Is there a voice today
to write in,

what I alone

At the Point is remarkable in its concision and elegance. Its thoughtfulness is unobtrusive and the effect of reading these accomplished poems is lasting. Now I want to seek out Joseph’s Massey’s earlier, first collection, Areas of Fog.

(At the Point and Areas of Fog are both published by Shearsman Books)

1 thought on “Atoms of language : reading Joseph Massey

  1. There is a quality that recalls your work. I think it’s the precision. The language is economical, but there’s a sensuality to the poems. It’s as you say “sparing yet never autere”.

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