Friday, March 16, 2012

The Li Po Of Humboldt County

At The Point, poetry by Joseph Massey
Shearsman Books, 2011

According to Euclid, a point is that which has no part. It is isolate. Pure. Disconnected. It is the most pointless thing that exists. Yet there is something infernally stubborn about it. It energizes the space around it. It focuses the attention. It is entire.

In geological terms, a point is a tapering extension of land projecting into water, and it is this sense that is intended in the title of Joseph Massey’s collection of poetry from 2011. Massey lives in Arcata, California, a small community on the northern California coast, and it is this area that is so embedded in his work. He has dedicated his book to Humboldt County.

Massey’s writing is deeply focused. His attention to everyday detail is acute. It reminds me a great deal of that scene in American Beauty in which Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) shows Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) a white plastic bag he has filmed as it is caught by the wind and tumbled and bobbled about. The bag appears to have a life, with the wind as its animating spirit. It is a beautiful, strangely moving scene. An object of extreme banality, a piece of derelict plastic, is so sublimated by this moment of caring attention as to be elevated into something sacred.
Another more pertinent example of this ability to exalt the banal into art is William Carlos Williams's famous short poem about the wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens. Massey presents a very similar poem rendered with equal grace and artistry:

Paint can
in dried mud

                  full of yesterday’s

I find not only great beauty in these lines but an image that feels so familiar as to produce a feeling of nostalgia. We are gently nudged into metaphor: rain instead of paint. A day is painted by rain. A moment becomes framed in it. In sweet, Pacific rain. That wonderful Humboldt County rain with its bracken reality and pleasing murmur.

Massey, like Andrew Joron, enjoys a muted lyricism. He delights in assonance and alliteration and rhyme, likes pleasing the ears and eyes with sonant effects that do not become precious or showy but exist plainly and honestly for the sake of semantic interplay and intellectual enjoyment, the collision of dissimilar meanings in similarities of sound, homonyms and synonyms and half-rhymes in a bowl of semantic bouillon. Lines like “Moon’s lucid murmur,” “Dizzied by the weather’s syntax,” “the constellated / sounds / nouns / call out,” “this stroboscopic / throb of things / as they ravel / and unravel / a bus window,” and “Late winter waste / clumped shallow over grates, “ quiver with renewed life in the convergences of Massey’s syllables. It is a world of debris, of the discarded and lost, resurrected in art.

Massey writes like a Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty. He is Humboldt County’s Li Po. There is repose and rumination throughout his work, restraint and calm seasoned by moments of quiet jubilation and drunkenness. The kind of drunkenness that certain introspective people are given to enjoy in solitude. Not the rowdy or Rabelaisian drunkenness everyone enjoys at one time or another, but detached, abstracted, aloof and euphoric among shadows and autumn winds, teetering between sorrow and joy, jubilation and despair. It is a strange mood to communicate as it does not conform to any worldly humor or disposition. It is sad and happy simultaneously. It is the calm resignation toward ineluctable loss. Eternal change. Because underlying all the world’s gardens and barbecues and bicycles and washing machines is the void. That great abyss from which all things emerge. For every fulfillmnet there is an equivalent privation. For every benevolent moment there is an equivalent terror. For every drunken epiphany there is a sobering recognition.

Massey quietly proffers some philosophy. There is the acute sense that the world’s cohesion is itself a form of language, that there is an interphase between consciousness, language, and external reality that charm and shuttle in a continuous weaving and unweaving. He speaks throughout of “Shadows / that quaver // and carve / the room,” “October’s ready-made / metaphors, / almost hidden / behind billboards / and vacant warehouses,” “winter’s rough / translation / of itself,” and “line by line // the landscape’s / defined / and revised / at every / turn.”

Language is implicit in everything. Hills, fog, traffic, mud, hydrangeas, blackberries, billboards, gnats and gulls. Sound and image are woven in the mind before they’re they’re fleshed out in vowels and consonants and pattern. Before they become actual words, framed with care, or sometimes abandon, on a computer screen or sheet of paper. Perception is a creative act. Everyone has a choice as to how much of the world they perceive or how much of the world they choose to ignore, or filter, or view with a selective vision that becomes so second nature they’re no longer aware of the extent to which the world is slowly percolated into their awareness. Some choose a life of zombie-like somnolence. There are resources to support that choice called alcohol and television. They work beautifully. Poets are annoying because they do the opposite of television. They awaken. They do what they can to dilate the mind. To charm others into awareness. This is what Artaud meant by theatre of cruelty. It is cruel to awaken people. Even to something as banal as a wheelbarrow, or plastic bag tossed in the wind, or a paint can in the mud half-filled with rain. “You awake / within the poem,” Massey observes. You bet you do. And it feels like a blade of light stabbing your heart into life.


Anthony Robinson said...

Nice review. I'm claiming firsties on the Li Po designation though! (Ask Joe...)

Steven Fama said...

I love Joseph Massey's poetry, love At the Point, and love this response to that book. Thanks, John!

I'm especially moved by the ideas, and the momentum of thought,in the final paragraph. To end as you do with the lines taken from Massey's work ("You awake / within the poem")and then your beautifully concise and emphatic endorsement of that notion, followed by your amplification of what that's like -- is tremendous!

I do get from Massey's poems, as I do when reading (in translation) Li Po, a sense of the writer as solitaire, acutely perceived details, and seemingly effortless virtuosity. But I don't think drunkenness is celebrated in "At the Point (or Massey's first collection Areas of Fog) the way it is in Po's work. And Po for much of his life was a wanderer, while Massey is, has been so far, rooted in Humboldt County. Still, I agree there's a deep similaritiy between the work of Massey and Po: a timeless quality that follows from attunement to the moment.

This is nutty, but when it comes to Massey’s lineage or heritage, I think some beautiful fantastic unconstricted-by-time-and-place wild romp of lexical love-making somehow miraculously took place – come together, right now – involving Emily D. and WCW, plus Niedecker, Corman, Samperi and Armantrout, along with Reznikoff who noticed, really saw, while riding the subway or walking, Lew Welch in a Siskiyous’ backwoods shack, Hilda Morley (her first book), Ceravolo, and Bronk. The artists Agnes Martin and Andrew Wyeth were also there, I do believe, along with Walker Evans of American Photographs, and few Wiyot storytellers.

John Olson said...

Thank you, Steve. It is true about Li Po and his drunkenness, which is celebrated with greater frequency. The poem in Massey's collection which put Li Po in my mind most strongly was the one on page 48, "Two Pages From A Small Winter Notebook," "Drunk, I lean on the cold / walls of my cottage // behind the hydrangeas // and piss into the rain."

Steven Fama said...

Hi John,

Yes I agree those lines in Massey's "Two Pages From A Small Winter Notebook" do bring Li Po to mind. There are others that do that too, such as the sixth section of "From a Window" (also in At the Point in which Massey walks home drunk in the dark, the short poem from "Property Line" (in Massey's first book Areas of Fog) that mentions a twelve-pack holding the door, and another poem in that book which has a title -- "Drunken Spring" -- suggesting inebriated profusion (although tellingly the poem itself is, to me at least, melancholic).

Just to amplify a bit what I was thinking, I had in mind Massey's poems that allude to or in at least one instance center on ethanol's after-effects -- "After Last Night's Drinking" (in At the Point) being the prime example. In that poem, the hard realities of the next morning are tied to the broader challenge, that comes in often in Massey's poems, of getting the world, or part of it, into focus. That's different than the celebratory tone that's more consistently sounded in Li Po's drinking verse.

Thanks again for your review/response!