G. E. Schwartz
On Joseph Massey, A New Silence (Shearsman Books, 2019)
All strong, lasting poets ground their work in their own “significant tradition”: an idiosyncratic, even, if need be, contrarian view of what really matters in the history of their making. We know, for example, that Andre Breton counted among the ancestors of his poetry such diverse figures as Hericlitus, Abelard, Paracelus, Giordano Bruno, Meister Eckhart, Rousseau, Swift, Sade, Poe, and Lautremont. This isn’t exactly the Western Canon, but it is a canon with authentic reach.
Of course, most poets do not issue manifestos or found movements, the significant tradition remains largely implicit in their work. Nevertheless, its presence always serves to critique the poetry of their movement, because strong, lasting poets always swim against the current. In so doing, they inspire reevaluations of accepted traditions that often change the direction, or speed, or depth of the current for subsequent generations.
It’s so hard to imagine the variety and breadth of today’s poetry, for example, without the generation of strong american poets who were born in the first half of the 20th Century--William Bronk, Cid Corman, Ronald Johnson, Kay Ryan, and Allen Ginsberg. These are highly regarded writers, though not all are within the mainstream (whatever that is!). But every period includes strong poets who are not all that highly visible, for one reason or another, poets with vexed personal relationships, or, given the times they live through, become estranged (for one reason or another) from the power centers of New York or Iowa City, or one of the many University of California campuses, yet still manage to produce powerful work. Sometimes their influence extends to poets and audiences who don’t know their names and have never read their poems.
Joseph Massey is such a poet. And he is a full-time poet without means. No income, living, as he does, in poverty. But he’s one of our most productive poets. Now there’s an opportunity for readers new to Massey to get a taste of his accomplishments: his new book, A New Silence, containing over 40 poems, ranging over 146 pages. Massey’s greatest strengths can be summed up in a single sentence: It is accepting and unpretentious, adding to these qualities a hard-won, gentle, if, at times deadpan sense of humor brings us to the heart of his achievement. Here’s an example from “Reaches”:
The draft that
lifts the page
solid wayy, evades
A casual reader might greet this poem with a shrug. Too simple! Too direct! But notice the lines, the very brevity of this poem itself, and the suggestiveness of that title operate the openness that is the hallmark of Massey’s poetics. “The draft that lifts the pages….” the initial statement of concern, tells us volumes about the poet, the page, and the possibility of a poem, as well as the unseen and compelling agents at play throughout.
And what does Massey want? A symbiosis with the forces in and out of our control, a symbiosis as co-creator. That relationship. Unlike so many contemporary poets, Massey aims to share rather than abruptly impose his perceptions and insights--and that aim leads him to make poems too transparent to become fodder for theorists and trendy explication. This one, for example, “Forced Perspective” (in its entirety):
Again we are brought into the poem by its open syntax, which in turn leads the reader to pay attention. When we do, we find that the apparently simple experience of the unforeseen is not so simple: “Bewilderment-,” after all, implies a borderland state, thirsting for a resolution that may not be possible, a borderland state that, nonetheless, must somehow be accepted. While the poem promotes a possibility, it must leave that imagining tantalizingly ope, and unresolved. And this is acknowledged even in the title, warning of the fragility of our attempts to define the landscapes we pass through.
William Blake is supposed to have said that “color is wounded light.” Massey’s color here is the fragmentation of light, the differentiation of pure light: a tint. And what he experiences in this transfigured moment is nothing less than the undifferentiated light of the human soul, a moment of real presence: a light that is not wounded and fragmented but saved and whole.
In a longer sequence, “A Window on New England,” Massey leads us further through a world of broken lights, reminding us that the challenge is to stay in touch with the deepest truths that allow the unbroken light to transmit through us and to experience that transmission of daily life, no matter how ordinary it might be.
All through this poem, with its five-line units, I hear Emerson saying: “It is easy to live in the world according to the opinions and ways of the world. And it is easy to live in solitude according to the deepest truths that reside in us. But the truly alive person is the one who lives in the world and among the crowds keeping with perfect sweetness the beauty and independence of solitude.” Instead of trying to simply adapt to the flashing colors and broken lights all around him (truly a challenge of living a life of inner integrity, Massey is clearly meeting the challenge of living a poetry of clear light and in a wounded world of alluring colors and fantasies.
Massey’s consistent exploitation of the hidden potentials of language itself might become tedious, if it weren’t for his essential compassion and illuminating questioning. Here’s another example from “Brookside”:
Pollen-skinned pond’s edge by the dock where we stood and
tried to describe it--as yellow as the memory of yellow, a mem-
ory of light without context. We gave up and just looked. And