Joe Massey's Areas of Fog
Areas of Fog.|
107 pages, $16 (paperback).
I reviewed an earlier Massey chapbook, Minima Street, in Oyster Boy Review,  back when this remarkable poet was just beginning to make obvious his skill with minimalist poems. Those poems reappear in Areas of Fog in the section called "Out of Light." In Areas of Fog, as a whole, Massey's music has strengthened considerably. These poems, read aloud, sound with a surety and deftness that prove Massey has learned well from previous masters such as Zukfosky, Niedecker, Oppen, and Eigner. The poems, presented as quietly "concentrated revelations," as I called them in the earlier review, register layers of the mind's response to seemingly simple observations of the tangible world. Massey's trick is to convey through a surface muteness associations that are actually quite dynamic:
there's a metaphor
here: the page
behind the poem
("Bramble: a gathering of lunes")
The observations, the commentaries, as meditative as they are, convey themselves through a dynamic language in which sound and metaphor collide at their loudest, or at least echo off each other like the tides of the coast in Humboldt County, California, in which the poems locate.
Massey's vocabulary actively engages the landscape as the poems move back and forth from the natural to the urban scene. He knows words and uses their qualities to create the crisp recognitions of the poems. It's in those recognitions that we hear the voices of other poets—Bronk, Corman, and Samperi—who have taught Massey how to make singular observations of things into philosophical insights of being, revealing moments, fractures, of awareness that sharpen Massey's sense of self. Massey's work, certainly owing to these previous masters, equals theirs and even sometimes surpasses them. He has taken the similar but differently focused masters and on one hand honed the softer metaphysical edges of, say, Corman (whose words have a knife-edge but with a soft color) and Samperi, with the more arduous music of Zukofsky. Here's another lune "in Cid's voice":
you think there should be
more, but this
this is all there is
A quintessential Cormanesque poem. And a poem from the sequence "Property Line" in which nature, the man-made, all collide into a ringing vision with the complex music of Oppen:
the black en-
A risky marriage but one which Massey has accomplished for the most part with ease. There are only a couple of verbs which seem a bit stretched. Being a botanist and horticulturalist I have a hard time imagining a mock orange flexing with the weather as in the otherwise lovely poem "August." I know what Massey is getting at, and so I'll admit to a completely personal response to the term—it brought to mind images of Narcissism in the gym—that perhaps is in itself overblown. I'd just be happier with the violent meeting of wind and limb described some other way. Twice he uses "clot," an unpleasant word, which perhaps works for some in this dark vision:
And from a poem "Visible," dedicated to Rae Armantrout:
to the edge
I get the melancholy threat meant in these images, but they seem a bit overwrought.
But these are minor complaints among major, even majestic, successes. Here's a poem in which the risk is well worth it, and proves that the poet can merge the "scientific" and poetic into a thing of great beauty:
through a vortex of gnats
over a gravel path.
The whole vibrating world of nature interacts here, the vortex of hummingbird energy and gnat swarm into the beautiful tendrils—a vortex of its own—of the nasturtiums. That's a remarkable poem—not only for its restraint but for the power of image, and the propelling sounds of vowels and consonants flying into each other, trailing like vines.
Or in this second section to the two section poems "2:08 AM":
That's just the best use of "alliterate" ever.
A melancholic distress tears at many of the poems. There are poems of relationship conflicts and poems in which alcohol appears as in "Autumnal Equinox," "Sober for once, for what— / for the words to budge. // We spent summer propped up / by each other's stuttering." Massey has suffered, is suffering, and his poems aim to translate a growing understanding into poetic knowledge. Part of the beauty of Massey's poems is their heroic nerve to entrance pain into a mercurial and delicate gorgeousness. The poem "Switch," dedicated to Agnes Martin, is one of my favorites:
Let the room
night, no light
to fracture its
a slow dissolve
In a poem near the end of the book, entitled "Near", Massey closes the poem with "the unseen / seeing us / through." It's one of the accomplishments of the minimal poem that it can do that by brokering emptiness and fullness through condensed sound and expanded silence. There are so many other fine minimalist, small poem, poets writing these days—many totally unknown or under-acknowledged by the larger poetry world—confined to their own world—a quite large and varied community as a matter of fact. I hope that the attention paid to Massey's work will assure that poets such as Thomas A. Clark, Grant Hackett, Cralan Kelder, Bob Arnold, Aaron Tieger, and John Martone, just to name a few, will gain more attention, not only in the alternative mainstream but in the general mainstream, too.