Category: Joseph Massey

REVIEW: To Keep Time by Joseph Massey


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:

The Seams

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
consciousness. What
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.

Obstructions clear
a path to think
while the real flares
in and out of focus.
Vacillation voices
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.