To Keep Time | Joseph Massey
The poems in Joseph Massey's third collection, To Keep Time, limn the unique landscape and microclimate of coastal Humboldt County, California. These poems live where the fill of modern life – radio static, a space heater, traffic – collides with the so-called natural world. With the spare, vivid imagery that is Massey’s celebrated signature, To Keep Time builds brilliantly on the concerns and topography familiar to readers of the poet’s earlier works. Here “The near-silence / rattles me // to attention;” here the vagaries of language itself – what has been left out as much as what has been written in – penetrate the heart of these stealthy, aching poems. With unmatched control and vision, and astonishing beauty, Massey highlights both our contemporary and our eternal human condition. To read To Keep Time is to stop the world’s chatter for a moment and finally listen to its loneliness and longing, and to hopefully hear the grace in the relentlessness of days.
Joseph Massey’s poetry has an eccentric perfection in which listening renders its way into language. The poems of To Keep Time retain only what is genuinely necessary, sweeping away the “aural underbrush” so that the mind “brought past its racket / swallows each gradation.” Distilled, essential, yet never static. How is it that Massey can make this sturdy, humble ecstasy so resonant?
Elizabeth Robinson, author of On Ghosts and Blue Heron
“Call it / consciousness,” Joseph Massey writes in his extraordinary third collection, To Keep Time, “What / we lose to recover.” Through the brilliant sluice gates of his pages we slip and shift, sometimes breathless and sometimes shocked with pleasure. Massey’s musical and visionary gifts are such that we crave this carriage to “the mind // brought past its racket.” What passes for the new, in our shopworn world, is everywhere. How rare and lucky, then, to tumble to a poet of Massey’s caliber, and “stop looking / as if looking / were a way out.”
Rachel Loden, author of Dick of the Dead
Massey’s images are so clear, so lucid, so adamantly, palpably there, that you begin to wonder if this young man isn’t, in fact, a walking 3D camera. But the wonder of it is, it isn’t merely the images that so astonish: he’s got what I call the “Niedecker knack,” the capacity to bring sharp linguistic play to an éclat of exquisite clarity, precision to a blossoming of speech, transcendence to a piece of string. His lines evince such vivacity of wit and subtlety in response to the everyday, empirical world beneath our feet that “the dirt writes / itself around you,” and “the real flares / in and out of focus.” The world becomes what Massey terms an “unremittent / elsewhere, at once too // bright, too faint to read.” The world may ultimately be unreadable. That I won’t deny. But in Massey’s new volume, its textures are clad in a dazzling perspicacity.
John Olson, author of LARYNX GALAXY: PROSE POEMS
- Joseph Massey lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts and is the author of Areas of Fog (Shearsman Books, 2009) and At the Point (Shearsman Books, 2011), as well as a dozen chapbooks. His work has also appeared in various journals and magazines, including The Nation, American Poet: The Journal of the Academy of American Poets, Verse, Western Humanities Review, Quarterly West; and in the anthologies Visiting Dr. Williams: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of William Carlos Williams (University of Iowa Press, 2011), Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013) and Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation (Viking Penguin, 2015)
A brief interview with Joseph Massey
(conducted by Rusty Morrison)
Can you speak to the title and how it resonates through the poems in this collection?
To Keep Time, to seize a moment or a series of moments in motion before they degrade into memory, is an impossible task for the poem — for any work of art. There is no such thing as time, anyway, in the linear sense of the word. Phenomenal experience has no margins; but the poem defies that condition by attempting to say anything at all. I like that tension, that reach — I think, I hope, it's what holds the book together.
As an avid reader of your previous books, I was delighted that you chose to publish this new work with Omnidawn. I see your deft control of language and the line, which has become a signature of your work. So much has been said in recent criticism about the ways that many poets are inviting readers to a heightened awareness of silence and how it surrounds the language on the page. Yet no poet makes me listen harder to the echo that each word creates. You create sonic pairings that echo, too, of course, but there is a quiet that is called forth in this work that is like no one else’s. Can you speak to this? Of course, it’s probably a paradox to ask you to speak to silence…
As John Cage put it: "There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time.... In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot." I regard the space around the poem as a kind of acoustics, a means to hear and receive the words. Even a blank page has a sound, a perpetual hum, a pulse.
So, I don't try to achieve silence but an absence of unnecessary noise, each word given equal weight and volume. I crave the inertia of such economy.
You are a poet who is most limber and alert to the power of sequence. Can you speak to some of the advantages of this practice? and can you speak to how this book’s sequences might be a further development in your craft?
I'm interested in the charge created — if I'm lucky — when several otherwise short, stand-alone poems are paired together. The friction between sections causes an ignition that binds them, simulating a passage through a period of time, of varying duration, and the natural parataxis of consciousness itself.
The sequence "Microclimate(s)," included in To Keep Time, is different from my other sequences in that some of the sections are longer than usual and contain their own sequential movements, and so there are more layers, more things actively at work. It's a larger scale for me.
Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything about you that is not in the bio printed in the book, and that might give insight into your more personal relationship to this text?
To Keep Time is my third and final book grounded in the landscape and weather of coastal Humboldt County, California, and contains the last poems I wrote there before moving to the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts in the winter of 2013. Most of the poems were written with the knowledge that I would be leaving the place that was the backdrop and impetus for just about all of the poetry I wrote since the summer of 2001. I think the gravity of that long goodbye permeates the collection, and the question of place — "the geography of our being," Charles Olson — became more frantic and fraught than usual.
Who are the authors or artists or musicians with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you currently reading, watching, hearing?
The list of poets I return to when I need to recharge my faculties is long, always morphing, but the perennial poets on my radar are Lorine Niedecker, Cid Corman, Frank Samperi, Ronald Johnson, Pam Rehm, Clark Coolidge, Larry Eigner, Emily Wilson, Peter Gizzi, Lily Brown, Jess Mynes, Gustaf Sobin, Rae Armantrout, Emily Dickinson, William Bronk, Karin Lessing, many others.
I love William Basinski's music, all ambient. There isn't one album I love more than the others. While working on To Keep Time his music was playing, almost exclusively, in my shack.
You chose the artist who created the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Can you talk about your reasons for your choice?
Wendy Heldmann also provided the artwork for my first two books, Areas of Fog (Shearsman Books, 2009) and At the Point (Shearsman Books, 2011). I consider those books, along with To Keep Time, a trilogy. I wanted to maintain a consistency in the cover art.
Wendy's work is also grounded in California, mostly the Los Angeles area, but she spent time in Humboldt County as well. I love the unsentimental approach to the world around her, whether it's the so-called natural world or the detritus of the man-made, and not at the expense of — for lack of a better phrase — an understated lyricism. Her paintings don't tell me anything, they simply reveal.
And the title of the painting used on the cover of To Keep Time, "Final Lovesong," echoes my personal relationship with the work within.
In distilled, acutely observed poems, Massey builds the world out of light and shadow; he helps us see pattern and grid, the thinning sunlight, “slow/ flowering/ of form flowering/ out of form.” Remarkably, and important to his poetry, he also helps us hear sound and even its absence: “As long as blood runs/ the body,/ there is no silence.// Silence hums.” Here, exterior and interior are continuous; the physical world touches us as “Inward/ a world// accumulates.” You can’t call this nature poetry, but it’s a beautiful rendition of what’s breathable.
Massey sketches the visible (clouds in the sky, power lines that “suspend a crow—/ sliver of cellophane/ cinched in its beak”) and obsessively documents sound in a manner only the most acutely perceptive listeners could match. “As long as blood runs/ the body,/ there is no silence,” he observes with a hint of foreboding. At certain points, he departs from his observations of the aural and the visible, struggling to reach for some insight into the stillness before it “re-/ coils into noise” and is drowned out in the loud racket of the mind. These moments of vulnerability blur the lines between Massey’s inner anxiety and the calm of the immediate environment, providing an element of fragility and sophistication to his small, glinting pieces.
Massey puts into practice a great solution: his poems about cloud and seacoast, storefront and windowsill, ask you to look for ironies, overtones, and phenomenological claims in their own sounds, and to do so with the same care that the poems afford in their aggressively minimal scenes. Each word rewards sustained, minute attention.
Joseph Massey's collection of fierce minimalistic observations contain a cascading effect, where the velocity of the word-sounds build anticipation yet stall with a density of ideas.
Massey’s work is often characterized by its stillness, its steady placidity. But these are not poems of quietism. The pieces in To Keep Time are full of organic density, vibrating with some unknowable animation. As muffled and muted as they sometimes seem in all their meditative glory, these poems still speak affirmatively of the tactile pleasure of the world in nature, in the senses, and in language—and then there’s more.
To Keep Time appears to revel in non-specificity, with Massey going so far as to gloss a particular bit of flora as only “some sprawling pastel plant / I still don’t know the name of.” Even those animals and plants that are specifically identified aren’t peculiar to place. Hummingbirds can be found throughout North America; oaks and ravens would be as much at home in a Japanese or an Irish poem as an American one. But these obliquely fitful poems are, as the book’s title implies, not about place, but time—waiting through it, weighting it, as the speaker keeps watch over his internal seasons. Detailed geographies would be beside the point.
Each poem in To Keep Time enacts a tension between idea and action, thought and thing — “Call it / consciousness.” This all-alone business it turns out, is busy, ample work. Silence itself is revealed to be a highly charged and active field, “Silence hums.” So does this book.
Massey is a latter-day Anchorite, abstracted salutarily from our distractions. He mocks himself for this – it’s not enough to live in a world like the one his book describes – but a soujourn there healthily alerts us to the other world we live in, one we mostly overlook but will always be there waiting for us.
I once lived with a painting by Randy Dudley—a painting of polluted terrain in the foreground and fog in the background. I mostly remember and cannot forget the fog. How, on a flat surface, the artist painted the fog by also painting depth. The fog, therefore, seemed to come towards the foreground from an impressively long distance back in the background. I don’t have the painting anymore, but it was/is a fabulous work and its memory was welcome, a gift offered by the poems in Joseph Massey’s TO KEEP TIME. For Massey’s poems are lovely: nuanced and resonant such that one of its overall effects is the evocation of an atmospheric world.
Massey is in essence a landscape photographer of Californian treks. He is a student of surroundings as well as of sources; of climates and of angles; of captured moments, kept time. One who builds terrain from space, who daily revisits that split second before violet flees sunset, who doles worth to flowers as readily as he does road pylons. And by being such a student, Massey is able to distill into his wispy verse all the complexities of humanity’s Earthly wedlock.
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.
As a whole, Joseph Massey’s To Keep Time is an ephemeral collection of poems that
wrestle with the visual and auditory components of poetry in such a way that language and
silence are equal partners. The blank and silent pages of the book are filled with poems that
present the noise of life at its most vibrant. The human mind is central to these experiences of
creation and perception, or as Massey says, “the mind unsettles in.”
from an undisclosed location in northern california
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.