Joseph Massey’s second book is At the Point: the point of a pencil scratching experience into scrawl; the point of a finger directing attention to the objects toward which it gestures; a point on a map, or a point of land jutting out into the water; stroboscopic points in time; and a tipping point, an accrual on the verge. Massey’s music, his lean line, his care for each word, his crystalline images, and his poems’ especial weathers (wet, windblown, chiaroscuro, wakeful, drunk, cawing, and chiming) are breath-giving. Taking a page from Thoreau, these poems teach us to go out.
The book begins with an impulse to restore sight by honoring the particularity of things—to “untwine” and empty toward clarity. An indoor or interiorized confusion stands against an exteriorizing lucidity. In the first poem, we begin the process of untangling to see by looking outward:
There’s the bay,
a weaker shade
of gray than this
At the bottom of the poem, as if by the incantation of what is, and, also, by the wind:
The page turns
on the table, bare
I thought was
The voice, activated by sight, cedes agency; the unwritten crosscurrent in the room clears the page of prescriptive language. The last two stanzas, with Dickinsonian grace, give us a start. Then, the physical book gifts us a blank page.
“The Lack Of” continues stretching attention in the direction of disentanglement, “formlessness,” and “wordlessness”—as if the worded mind were a room being gutted for remodeling. As in “The Process,” a previous manuscript—now erased or scrapped—is implied: “Pages / and pages / mistaken for months.” We start again.
Section iv. of this poem poses the central question:
Is there a voice today
to write in,
what I alone
Is there a way to write that responds to each embodied instance, is a conduit like the optic nerve and the throat, yields to the constant re-vision that must accompany perception? That walks beyond the ego’s interference between the individual and nature? That is thus “as clean as wood is as it issues from the hand of nature” (Olson)?
Massey’s question and the direction and prosody of his gait follow the thread of that lineage of writers who gave us Imagism, the Objectivist “Movement,” and Projective Verse: Williams, Pound, Zukofsky, Olson. He explores the possibility of a voice today beyond “I” by taking into his hands these writers’ thought-works, snapping them into their smallest pieces, tossing them into the wind, and seeing how they land in the field (both of flora and composition).
In the form this essaying content takes, the lyrical “I” is, for the most part, away; the origin of the voice exists as a sensing object among objects, at times noticing its thinking mind as yet another thing (“To think thinking’s / like the landscape”). Language in the field arises from an interplay of light, weather, noise, and thought: sunlight “blots // the day’s / gathering // names” and “[glazes] the nouns,” hail hitting the roof is a “translation,” a siren “sounds its vowel,” the weather has a “syntax,” the white of sun and haze might have “a word there,” the haze “[italicizes] hills,” the night “seeps / into its name,” the sky makes an “articulation,” the landscape is composed of lines always revising, et cetera. And even though Massey gives an impression of the landscape using textual and lingual terms, he steers clear of anthropomorphism.
If Massey is to maintain a projective practice—if his poetry is to be yoked to instantaneous, continuous perception (collapsed with sight by way of Zukofsky) and breath—this language must continuously destabilize. Refraction (fragmentation) is a condition of sight and breath (a wordless wind in the body) is a condition of speech. Just so, the moment the speaker’s place-based language might circumscribe, it disperses, splinters, falls into pieces, rushes to the periphery, returns “noise” and “patternless patterns,” or is erased altogether (“yesterday’s / errors // lose voice, / as a word // is erased / into the blank // space / that bore it” and “last night’s / vocabulary / is lost”). See “Forming”:
of the room
we find ourselves
how they leave us
in pieces—a part
of the pattern
Massey’s dedication to Humboldt County encourages a reading attuned to the making and sensing of place. Venturing outdoors with the book’s eye, one is even tempted to understand the poems as belonging to an ecopoetic. The romanticism of the Pacific Northwest landscape (as conveyed by Massey’s imagistic line) is punctuated by postindustrial facts: highways, traffic, strip-malls, littered trash, staple-pocked telephone poles, chain-link fences, scrap metal yards, clear-cut forests, billboards, and the smell of gasoline. Also, evidence of economic recession: foreclosed houses, vacant warehouses, empty parking lots. These presences might imply a topographical poetry mapping the environmental and cultural degradation caused by consumer culture. But staying near to the text from its glossarial introductory poem “The Process” to its provisional finale “For a Last Page,” a different, more miniature machinery can be heard clicking, revolving. This machinery, if political, is radical, approaching politics from its most basic fundaments and resisting arrest.
Massey yearns toward a language amongst nature, of “essential use” in his place. He doesn’t moralize or wax nostalgic about the postindustrial environment; he treats a littered condiment packet or unspooling tape cassette the same as rhododendrons or driftwood. Images of nature overtaking man-made things recur (vines overwhelming fences, grass growing through asphalt, rusting metals, a newspaper torn by a storm), again, tempting one to force these poems into the girdle of fable. But, in fact, these things are facts also. Massey might arrive at an ecopoetics because, if he carries through with projective verse, he travels toward humilitas and away from Adam in Eden. His journey causes us to wonder: What if politics could extend from phenomenological examination?
Even if we don’t go this far, there’s still so much in At the Point that is inspiring. The way in which his lines atomize syntax lends each word a weight and causes them to levitate. His breaks make a kind of sentence diagram with all the words labeled “part.” One-, two-, three-word lines and stanzas have the electricity of a minimal poem by Aram Saroyan and the density of Creeley’s short lines in Pieces.To read At the Point is to experience an activated pause. His book is an equilibrium chamber for thinking—a place where wordlessness flowers (mums) and words sculpt objects like light and shadow.