by Housten Donham
Joseph Massey’s third full-length collection, released by Omnidawn last October, is arguably his best work yet. It is certainly his most abundant. To Keep Time happens to be Massey’s final collection completed while living in Humboldt County, California. (He has since relocated to the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.) These poems are infused with the space of northern California, full of fog, pulsing life, loneliness, the mercy of the seasons, and Massey’s now-trademark adjacency between the natural and the artificial. I would hesitate to call this adjacency “ironic juxtaposition,” because that would presume some kind of break, and if nothing else, the poems in To Keep Time are full, reflecting an abounding wholeness that necessarily generates the world.
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. Take, for example, one of the shortest pieces in the book:
Sun gluts a gull’s
Syllable lodged in fog.
If, like William Carlos Williams says, a poem is a machine, then this little machine certainly operates perfectly, almost like some clockwork language. The sounds, the textures, the images are all sharp and full, at their peak productivity. But, beyond mere mechanical workings, these poems generate lives of their own. This isn’t a book of the simple characteristics of a surface, however beautiful and striking those linguistic operations may be; there is something living here that is deeper, but it is always shifting and eluding our attempts to define it, to stop its movement. This book pulses with richness. There is a prime, breathing force behind the words, a central attribute of which is its elusion.
[. . .] Call it
we lose to recover.
Acacia branches bend
the hill’s edge
off-orange. A blur,
a deeper blur.
A clarity I can’t carry.
This elusion is generative. This clarity that it is impossible to carry itself carries us in its grace, mercifully changing, transforming, being reborn. Call it consciousness. Carefully positioned above a void, these poems somehow deny that nullity by their emphatic insistence upon the generative.
a path to think
while the real flares
in and out of focus.
a world. We stand,
somehow, in place.
It is the incessant movement of consciousness that makes the world thinkable. This continuous, contiguous flow of the phenomenological world is the final subject of To Keep Time, though nothing here is really final. There is always more, always an outgrowth of something else, as an assurance of the stable sufficiency of the world. While the insistence of irresolution originates the world, these poems, like life, when experienced in brief moments of realization, are sufficient. To Keep Time doesn’t stop the world in some static, unbroken pause. It does, however, harmonize with experience, sounding in tandem with perception, with the operations of the world. These poems don’t fracture time, nor do they coddle it; but they do keep it, and that’s enough.
To Keep Time is available from Omnidawn
Housten Donham is the co-editor of The Volta Blog.
(This is the third in a series of reviews focused on titles released by the Oakland-based small press/poetry cult Timeless, Infinite Light. TIL is currently on a West Coast tour.)
by Housten Donham
Poetry is language’s excess: poetry is what in language cannot be reduced to information, and is not exchangeable, but gives way to a new common ground of understanding, of shared meaning: the creation of a new world.
-Franco Berardi, from The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance
In a city where “the city” means another city, Oakland poets ironically possess an acute sense of self-perception. It’s night in San Francisco but it’s sunny in Oakland is an anthology of Bay Area poets, many of whom have never before been published. While it is a broad sampling of the phenomenal poetry that is currently being produced in the Bay Area, it is by no means exhaustive, in representation or in depth. Among the 60 poets included in the book, 18 of them are queer and/or trans people; 3 of them are people of color. These statistics are included in the book’s introduction. And while power can’t necessarily be quantified, it may in some sense be owned. In that owning, the introduction here sets a theme, or moral, of the anthology: one not of elitism and ethical superiority, but of a constant re-awakening and maneuvering of awareness. These poets see themselves, though not always clearly, as part of a complex, changing, and troubling social context.
Appropriately, It’s sunny in Oakland opens with a poem about San Francisco, a place symbolized as a kind of evil twin or pathetic uncle to Oakland throughout the book. In “San Francisco Poem,” Amy Berkowitz immediately zeroes in on the gentrification that has now wholly consumed the city:
Right now a CEO is trying to see
if he can have a functional fireplace put in
and his fiancé is trying to scrape
the moped gang insignia off of the French doors.
Right now everything is gutted:
they’re scrapping everything
our slumlord slapped together.
Granite, stainless steel, strip the carpets.
Nonchalantly coupled with acute social critique is a playful sense of sound and connotative language. From the echo of “a CEO is trying to see” to the bourgeois Europeanness of “fiancé,” “moped,” and “French doors,” this is a kind of politically-engaged thinking that is formed within and around a profoundly nuanced sense of language. Berkowitz’s is the perfect poem to open this anthology: it is “political poetry,” whatever that means, but it asks the reader to move through content to a kind of understanding that is aesthetic and sensuous—and that is a thoroughly political move.
The work here is not didactic, affected, or pretentious. While much of this poetry does not hesitate to directly comment on disturbing social realities, it is the forms engendered here that are ultimately, deeply radical: they are rhizomatic, ambiguous, perplexing. For example, in “That’s When,” Elaine Kahn writes
There is nothing wrong
with being sensitive.
I just want to say that
there is nothing wrong.
I make myself into a line.
I have on no outfit
when I’m waiting for you
in the wings.
Intelligence is loose
like I’m a blind thing,
your baroque wet
lips are telling
me a number. One.
The feeling here is simultaneously direct and ironic, pivoting between heartfelt sincerity and an odd performance of theatrical sentimentality. Or, rather than pivoting, both registers are indeed being produced at once. Sincerity and irony are not mutually exclusive emotional vibrations. Sincerity and cynicism, yes, those are opposing tones. Like many poets, those included here may be heavy on the irony, but they are never lacking in their caring; above all, these poets care. In Kahn’s work, and in the work of most of those included in this anthology, there is very little that is cynical. After all, it is San Francisco that is dark and cynical and hopeless; it is sunny in Oakland.
The book also has a fitting conclusion (though it comes far too soon). It is from Zack Haber’s larger work “The Echoes” that the anthology’s title is derived.
If you don’t not wish you were mad mad mad–A
conceptual reading?–Go ahead, I ain’t mad at you: it’s night
in San Francisco while it’s sunny in Oakland–Can the city
be deleted?–Yeah, figuratively yes, now, literally no, but in
the far far future which is also now, so yes, that too, but at the
same time no–The instant I was born I died but there wasn’t
an instant–an exact instant I was born in–How must I dig
out of my grave unchained-throwing chains into the dirt–I’m
talking about zombie love–When the bulldozers came into
the plaza and more and more people came into the plaza and
the bulldozers all became soft and quite and disheveled and
purple and sexy and they all went afar afar away to be together;
I’m talking about bulldozer love.
The future is now in Oakland; it may even be a thing of the past. On a global and local scale are signs, if not of the apocalypse, at least of a movement toward one, an inevitable and necessary derangement of the social order. What that looks like, what that might look like, will and does hopefully resemble the kind of understanding that is produced and is emerging from this poetry. Most of the work here was written in the shadow of the Occupy movement. As in that moment, these poets continue to open forms, to look toward a political future whose evidence, in both necessity and possibility, is all around us. The broken pieces of an empty culture might be filled with something that we may as well call love: a vulnerable and exposed insurgency. It’s sunny in Oakland may be an indication of a new kind of political understanding that proceeds from poetry into the socius and back again, deleting the lines of demarcation that is often assumed to separate them.
It’s night in San Francisco but it’s sunny in Oakland is available from Timeless, Infinite Light
Housten Donham is co-editor of The Volta Blog.
For decades, Robert Lax has labored devotedly and quietly on a poetry that draws a diagonal through visual, minimalist, and lyric aesthetics. This new selection from Wave Books, edited by John Beer, attempts to serve as a kind of introduction to the work of this forgotten poet saint. Poems (1962-1997) represents the whole of a career that seems almost mystically consistent. Steadily focused on syllables, nature, and the ghost that mobilizes the word, Lax, through a fidelity to poetry and language, seemingly transcends any avant garde principles—though in hindsight his work might be said to bare the trace of an experimental approach founded in the materiality of words. To subscribe to this “belief” wholeheartedly, though, would be to miss the point and the profound affect charging Lax’s poetry. These poems are not concrete machines pointing at their own constructedness. Instead, they fix shadows over the imaginary line separating word and thing. The physical world manifests the spirit, and the spiritual world materializes.
This transit between the physical and the linguistic is a two-way blur revealed to be both tangible and imaginary. The phenomenal world and the intellectual web purposed over it give birth to each other in a permanent and incomprehensible give-and-take. For Lax, this intellectual web is profoundly spiritual. Lax’s biography indicates that his life was one devoted to a deep belief in the reality of religious experience: a Catholic convert, conscientious objector, and practitioner of “Passage meditation,” Lax lived in a reality illuminated and made meaningful by the spirit. His humble and unassuming poetry attempts to reveal the interconnectedness and profound beauty of human experience. As John Beer writes in his enlightening introduction, Lax’s writing possesses an “assurance, less in its own abilities than in the potential for the simplest words and most common experiences to speak across our human separateness.”
John Beer’s editing in this collection is authoritative and generous. At 350 pages (which includes the entirety of the long out-of-print 1962 New Poems), the book is a significant selection of poems over a long career. Rather than organizing the poems chronologically, Beer’s arrangement aims at selecting “some of the most striking and evocative pieces” in order to demonstrate the depth and the often uniform endeavor of Lax’s work. As Beer notes, “a conventional narrative of development appears antithetical to the nature and aspirations of of Lax’s work from the 1960s on.” Much of this work stems from Lax’s “discovery” of a new kind of poetic arrangement in the column. At its best, this form affirms a reality that is both horizontal and vertical, varied and plain.
wind si more more
lence wind si
si & si than
lence wind lence wind
Lax truly is an unacknowledged master of late twentieth-century poetry, and this collection is a necessary introduction to his generous and generative vision. Lax’s poetry, through simple and undressed language, reveals the world to be complex, infinite, and radiant.
Housten Donham is an assistant editor for the Volta’s 365 reviews project. He holds an MA in poetics from Mills College and lives in Tucson, AZ.