To Keep Time
To Keep Time
reviewed by Tom Andes
I fell in love with Joseph Massey’s work because of a single untitled poem in a long sequence called “Property Line” in his first full-length collection, Areas of Fog (Shearsman, 2009):
Flies, sun- dried, line the windowsill. Measure what was summer.
Beyond the odd locution (who ever thought to describe dead flies as “sun-dried”?), beyond the rich personal associations this conjures of the foreboding I felt at the beginning of autumn during my New England childhood, this brief lyric illustrates Massey’s gift for describing what he observes with startling exactitude, and for bridging the gap between these observations and the eternal. From that single image, Massey evokes death, the changing of the seasons, the cycle of life and rebirth, associations at once particular (for me, of childhood) and universal (the windowsill as threshold, the line of flies as border, the liminal space). He writes in a subgenre of American poetry that seems—in his generation, at least—largely his own. Descended not from the High Modernism of Pound and Eliot, but rather from the less arch, less allusive modernism of William Carlos Williams, it draws heavily on the Objectivists, in particular those misfit semi-Objectivists Lorine Niedecker, and William Bronk. The best of Massey’s finely distilled visions illuminate moments of epiphany through close observation of the world he inhabits, in particular, the area of Northern California Massey once called home, and the small town in Massachusetts where he lives now.
To Keep Time (Omnidawn, 2014) demonstrates both a deepening and a development of Massey’s art. Those familiar with his work will recognize the formal approach, including the opening gesture, “Another Rehearsal for Morning,” which, like “The Process” in 2011’s At the Point (Shearsman), serves as an overture, guiding the reader into the book. “Beyond a hand / held beyond itself / the mist is too thick to see,” Massey writes—remarkably precise lines, considering they describe a physical impossibility. How does one hold a hand beyond itself? They nevertheless seem a suitable opening for a collection characterized by the speaker’s fixation on precisely rendered minute details. “Call it / consciousness. What / we lose to recover.” If we lose consciousness in order to recover it—by implication, throwing ourselves into an altered state, which seems a romantic conceit—that close observation might yield another kind of vision, precisely the “flowering” Massey’s speaker describes as “A clarity I can’t carry.” Often as not, Massey’s speaker seems to fear slipping off the edge of the world.
A characteristic early sequence, “An Undisclosed Location in Northern California,” consists of seven short untitled lyric poems, each occupying its own page. Composed to direct the eye to linger on the images Massey has selected, they reveal a landscape poet interested in observing more than the natural world, as the speaker turns his attention to ravens, a wire fence, the sound of his own pulse, a used condom, an information plaque, and the ever-present fog. “Here you’re either lost / or lost,” he tells us, recalling our feeling of not being able to see more than two arms-lengths ahead of us, yet out of that feeling of being unmoored—a feeling many of the poems in the collection evoke—comes that grander gesture, toward which many of them also aim:
A wordless- ness written into the dirt writes itself around you.
Achieving flashes of metaphysical illumination, Massey’s poems attempt to distill his observations into sharply rendered glimpses—a kind of written wordlessness—without the poet mediating between the audience and experience the poem conveys.
As with many of my favorite poems from Massey’s previous collections, several sections from the first long sequence in To Keep Time consist of single images. Here’s one:
Wire-mesh fence—from this angle— quarters the day-lit quarter moon.
The poem produces the same subtle shift as lying on the floor and considering the room from a new angle, as if looking at the world differently might offer a spark of insight, a perceptual leap. By implication, Massey’s art tells us, looking closely is enough—is, in fact, crucial—to open that window between ourselves and eternity that poetry has always promised to open. Yet notice the importance of the angle the poem is told from. After all, Massey recognizes his speaker’s subjectivity. Note, also, the mathematical precision of the image, even as the language seems playful: the fence “quarters” the “quarter moon.” Likewise, a subsequent section compels us to look at what’s right in front of us, in this case, something we might dismiss as unworthy of a nature poem:
Parenthetical pampas grass shrouds a used condom in useless shadow.
As much as I like Massey’s epiphanies, I find these short lyrics with their active verbs especially arresting. Here, the modifier useless echoes the meaning of “parenthetical,” and also reinforces the used condom’s implication of male post-coital sexual anxiety. In this inaugural sequence, these short sections lead to a gesture that recalls Hamlet’s “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”: “World no more a world / than thinking / allows.” Just as many of Massey’s brief lyrics follow a similar pattern—precisely rendered observation, followed by a pop of insight—so too do his sequences replicate that pattern—“flowering / of form flowering // out of form”—reinforcing one of the themes of the book, namely, that perception means everything. In thinking—in the way we see things—we make (and remake) the world. Thus does the content of Massey’s poetry echo its form, unifying this book, and his body of work.
While Massey’s formal strategies might seem familiar to readers of his previous collections, he hits the mark more often in To Keep Time than in either of his other full-length books. His observations seem sharper, his lines more finely turned, and the small pops of revelation the poems produce—when they produce them—are consequently that much more satisfying.
The invisible world is the visible world.
So Massey writes in the first section of “Vault,” echoing his opening assertion that one might regain consciousness by losing it, and making explicit his chief formal strategy: to render that visible world so precisely as to enable us to glimpse the invisible. If we consider the verb is an equals sign, we might turn the formulation around—the visible world is the invisible world—a slightly less satisfying conceit, yet the poem (and the metaphysics it describes) seems no less true. The poem concludes:
Eucalyptus leaves’ limbs fill and empty wind.
The wind doesn’t fill the leaves; rather, the leaves fill the wind, a usage that baffles our expectations (what happened to that preposition?), offering that slight shift that turns so many of these lyrics, and that mirrors the physical turning of the body to view the moon Massey describes in that earlier poem. Throughout, the enjambments and the brief stanzas evoke Massey’s speaker’s tremulous sense of being alive. They slow us down, forcing us to read carefully, sometimes resolving to literal moments of illumination, and concomitant loss of vision. “Metal shed / roof reflects treetop / geometry—blinds me,” reads another section of “Vault,” in its entirety, reinforcing the idea that figurative vision involves a kind of literal blindness, which is to say, that loss of consciousness produces consciousness, vision, second sight.
If I have one complaint, it’s that Massey’s register doesn’t change. If anything, his formal approach seems too consistent, each finely turned sequence of poems opening up onto the next, without peak or lull. Yet that consistency also seems a statement. In poetry—and elsewhere—epiphanies have gone out of style. Make no mistake, though, we read looking for the same catharsis, the same edifying sense of being connected to something beyond ourselves we’ve always wanted—and literature still offers that experience, however carefully disguised. Thus do I read Massey’s finely wrought miniatures and fragmented lyrics as spiritual poems, for they are concerned with our place in the universe, with the ways we map that “invisible world” by charting the visible one, attempting to reproduce the shifts in perception through which we glimpse the eternal. By avoiding the grandiloquence we associate with the sudden revelation, Massey earns our trust, attempting to convey that experience of illumination without an assertive mediating consciousness, and especially without the author-as-god of the Modernists. After three books, his commitment to that project seems a statement in itself.
After all, formal commitment has fallen out of fashion, too. If there’s one thing Massey’s work displays in spades, it’s formal commitment: commitment to his project, and to his vision of poetry, which is to say, of the world. In the end, that commitment distinguishes artists, and it’s what makes Massey such a worthwhile poet to read (and to reread). Not that the collection is static, either. In fact, there’s a great deal of motion, from beginning to end. And while I might sometimes wish Massey’s work engaged more with the clamor of voices, with politics, with human relationships—Massey belongs to the great tradition of poets who have forsaken public life. If anything, he recalls Li Po, the archetype of the hermit-poet, himself an influence on Pound and the modernists. Yet I find less of Massey in Massey’s poems than I find of Li Po in Li Po’s poems—less of Massey in these poems than I find in the poems in his previous collections, too—and Massey’s poems are the better for it. We enter into the blank spaces he leaves us, and we can make of that what we will.