Joseph Massey’s To Keep Time

Stephanie Burt
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Joseph Massey’s taut, careful, and only apparently impersonal poems wring out, brush off, and give new shine to a claim that has become a dull cliché: that poetry can help you see beauty in any place or thing, because it can help you learn to look more closely at what’s in front of you, wherever you are, as William Carlos Williams looked at his red wheelbarrow ninety-one years ago. The claim isn’t wrong—it’s one of the reasons that poetry exists—but it lets poets get lazy: just find a gritty site, record it tersely, and let habit do the rest.

That’s not a way to encourage attention to anything, and it’s a problem for poets who care about place. Massey puts into practice a great solution: his poems about cloud and seacoast, storefront and windowsill, ask you to look for ironies, overtones, and phenomenological claims in their own sounds, and to do so with the same care that the poems afford in their aggressively minimal scenes. Each word rewards sustained, minute attention. Take the two-line poem entitled “The Seams”:

Sun gluts a gull’s

syllable lodged in fog.

Massey has folded his g’s intricately amid the sibilance, slipped in and then removed l’s. The elegance of his method stands out even before much meaning can emerge. But meaning does emerge: the couplet’s sliding, synesthetic “syllable” imitates how a gull looks when it appears—“seems”—half-in, half-out of the Pacific fog (Massey lived until recently in Humboldt, California). Bits of sun, bird cries, individual birds emerge from a duller surrounding, just as analogies, the ways things seem, pop up in or fade out of our consciousness: tidal zones and horizon lines make seams between land and water, water and air.

Not all the poems here are that short, or that serious. Some of them make fun of their own genre: in “The Bend,” “Mosquitoes / entwine, // synchronized, // above a sidewalk / blistered // with bird shit.” You could try to see their flight, or the line of b’s, d’s, and short i’s, as beautiful, too—but you probably won’t. More often the poems turn inward. Massey manages, as deftly and compactly as any American poet ever has, to cast light not just on what we see but on how tiny changes in perception affect our mood.

That goal makes the poet sound almost too subtle, his practice akin to silent meditation, and sometimes it is. Yet it can also do justice to something loud. Here’s the start of a thunderstorm: “Bewilder- / ment persists / in this persistent / pressure gradient. / What I want to say / I can’t see to say // I can’t see to say it.” The rapidly falling barometer works like a headache, insisting and repeating that something will happen but hasn’t happened yet. Then it happens: “Hills twine power lines / now that the sky cracks / to let some- / thing other than // its own / involution / through.” Massey sticks on that one-syllable prepositional ending like a gymnast completing a vault.

Massey isn’t for everyone: he lives in his head, even more than most writers, and in his poems very little happens (except dramatic weather). The poems’ absences, their beaches and empty rooms, are sigils of disconcerting loneliness, as well as experiments in perception: Edward Hopper comes to mind in addition to Williams. The loneliness and sadness, on the other hand, keep the sites and scenes from feeling unemotional: in “Wrack Zone” Massey, by himself at the beach, hears “the ocean / sounding out // a panic / I otherwise // couldn’t pronounce,” while “Mind / mirrors” a “surface” of “tamped sand.” “Sounding” and “sounding out” mean at once making a noise, learning by ear (as if the ocean were imitating the poet’s words), and measuring depth. And it is depth—of focus—that Massey’s poems possess: their sentences are simultaneously like mirrors, in which a percipient psyche reflects on itself, and like microscopes, revealing weird shapes and new meaning in details otherwise too small to see.

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