Hard Looking: Joseph Massey’s To Keep Time
by Andrew Field
Joseph Massey’s To Keep Time is an enigmatic, boiled down, stripped back book, awash in fog and shadow, dust and dusk. It begins with two epigraphs – one from John Taggart, the other from James Schuyler – but for the purposes of this review, I want to focus on the Taggart epigraph, which reads, “The names get us through / the days // which is not enough and too much.” “Which is not enough and too much” – there is the sense here of both unfulfilling insufficiency, a kind of qualitative and quantitative disappointment, and over-sufficiency, as though the sky was too blue – (and yet, of course, not blue enough). I call attention to this quote, because it seems to capture an important aspect, not only of the poems in To Keep Time, but also of the poetics of the book. These are poems wrenched with the desire to represent the strange commingling of voice and silence, sight and texture, meaning and meaninglessness. They are poems poised excruciatingly between “not enough” and “too much” – poems that proceed, therefore, with an artful fear or distrust of the lyric impulse, as if in singing too much they would misrepresent the shadowy brooding mood out of which the poems take flight. For this very reason, many of the poems’ tonal registers are near-submerged, grey, seeking, sometimes desperate, sometimes hopeful, but always compelled by the understandable anxiety of either saying too much or too little. This makes for a rigorous reading experience, in which the pleasures of perception are balanced, or augmented, or made complicated, by an equal awareness of the failures of perception to lend our lives the meaning we constantly, maybe futilely hope for.
A good example of this dialectic between the pleasures and failures of perception is the first section of “An Undisclosed Location in Northern California,” the second poem in the book. Notice the strange anonymity of the title, the way it gestures simultaneously towards mystery and menace. The poem reads,
Over a gorge flanked
by black oak
ravens relay calls
that double back in
morning thinned to a
pitch of sun and no
Here you’re either lost
or lost. A wordless-
into the dirt writes
itself around you.
It’s a compelling poem, one that both gives and does not give the consolations we often seek in poetry – although withholding consolation can itself be a strange kind of pleasure. It gives consolation, in the sense that we are presented with an extremely condensed experience, perception, or apprehension – a landscape followed by a statement about that landscape, or about a feeling that that landscape engenders. It is not only the morning that is “thinned,” but the poem itself is of course carved out, hollowed out, by its own aesthetic commitments. There is a certain pleasure we take in the asceticism here, in the relentlessness with which a kind of mode of perception is rendered. Yet it does not give consolation – although again, this can be pleasurable itself, maybe because sobering – not in the sense of being lost (because who can’t relate to this), but in the “wordlessness” that “writes // itself around you.” For there is mystery in this line, but there is also a vague sense of menace, as the world itself is imbued with a kind of always-surprising though discomfiting voicelessness.
And yet the world does speak in Massey’s poems (if not conventionally). And failures versus pleasures of perceptions becomes a twisted category in the light of Massey’s poems, many of which seem to take pleasure in the unnoticed – a piece of a page before “dusk // pools over” (“The Seams”), the “soot of // moths crushed” (“Receipt”), a bright metal shed (“Vault”), “a sidewalk / blistered // with bird shit” (“The Bend”), that old “used condom // in useless shadow” (“An Undisclosed Location in Northern California”). In other words, if we commonly associate the pleasures of perception with big, sublime things, then we are forced to humble ourselves, shed that Romantic skin; and if we usually link the failures of perception with a hubristic shrug, as if to say the things we don’t notice are not worth noticing, then we are forced to re-see this view, and therefore the world, anew. Take for example Massey’s poem “Surround”:
Three weeks of rain.
The wreckage glitters.
A cold front culls other colors: look
long enough and the brush becomes
another hill or mountain, cloud
brought past its racket
swallows each gradation.
A private speech, a season.
Massey’s poems are spoken by a survivor, who likes or loves the world enough to be wary of misrepresenting it somehow. Notice the muted exhaustion in “Three weeks of rain,” and the kind of begrudging acceptance, even dark submerged wonder, evoked by “The wreckage glitters.” This is a poem, like many of Massey’s poems in To Keep Time, that is about a kind of hard looking. “Look long enough,” he writes, or warns, or advises, and our landscape changes, shifts, into “hill or mountain, cloud / crowding skyline.” And the mind “swallows each gradation.” Massey’s poems are about these gradations, and the very different and unique ways we “swallow them.” They are their own private seasons, miniature worlds, that teach us new ways to appreciate our “surround.”