Areas of Fog
Shearsman Books, 2009
Paperback, 116 pages
Reviewed by Elizabeth Moore
At first glance, Joseph Massey’s Areas of Fog appears tediously Minimalistic, and indeed, with his affinity for brevity, Massey risks accusations of pretentious purism. But linger on Massey’s poetry and the suspicion proves vastly misconceived. Far from supercilious, Massey seems almost humbled, struck by the unassuming beauty of ordinariness. Whereas other Minimalists exert control through perfected precision, Massey uses concision to allow space for thought. Massey, who quotes Clark Coolidge’s idea that “[t]he line is an assemblage of broken smaller pieces,” follows in form. Divided into five parts, the book threads together impressionistic observations and subtle commentary – a fluid merging of shadowy existence and vibrant life. Massey drifts with focused intensity, and readers hover on the edge as witnesses to a quiet confrontation with the world.
The poems are perhaps best described as linguistic place constructions. Sparsely but meticulously crafted, they evoke the essence of Humboldt County, California, where Massey lives and works. Massey captures the county not only through subject matter but also through careful attention to structural form. “Empty” space becomes active space in that it plays a primary role in creating atmosphere. Not only does it allow for a wandering, unpressured reading of the poems, but it also reflects the openness of the county. It also complements the poems’ fragmentation, a characteristic founded on Massey’s skeletal diction and reinforced by his meditated enjambments. Massey’s pauses force readers to slow their pace. At first the spaces make for labored reading, but eventually they create an entrancingly hypnotic rhythm. Readers feel that they are there beside Massey, or perhaps floating in a soothing sensation of dejà vu.
And this is the effect of the book – that although the poems recall Humboldt County, they also remind readers of their hometowns, wherever they may be. Thematically, the poems are simple and approachable. The clipped lawns, stained coffee cups, and pockets of light could be anywhere. The poems easily slip into readers’ memories just as if they reflected readers’ own experiences – because they could be, or maybe they are. “[H]ere, the one speaking/& the one/ listening, is you,” Massey writes in “Bramble.” Readers and writer share a common voice.
Massey’s recognition of elegance in simplicity gives the book its charm. His book highlights the world as a quiet marvel where existing beauty is regrettably overlooked. Even the commonplace and the ugly become poetic: a television’s light shines mysteriously over the grass; weeds sway rhythmically in a cinder block; a spider web sags gracefully under the weight of a receipt. Already assigned significance through the sheer act of having been extracted from the jumble of the world, they also gain impact through form. Massey’s master craftsmanship reveals itself in his use of space, which he employs to force lingering concentration, even, at times, dividing words and stretching them to multiple lines. In “Bramble: A Gathering of Lunes,” for instance, he highlights the rare laziness of a bee, emphasizing the odd sleepiness of the moment with careful enjambment:
bee bends slow-
ly into sunlight
Massey often uses haiku-like forms, and appropriately, he pays particular attention to sensory perception. He explores the world as actively alive: “A neighbor’s/voice (is)/strained to a/thin thump,” a honeysuckle scent recalls “an open vowel,” a “tree/stammers/through fog.” Sensory stimulation transforms the normally distasteful to something surprisingly beautiful. In ¨Property Line,¨ for example, Massey describes the musicality of street litter, writing that ¨Glass/crushed/by a garbage/truck/cracks the/room’s/silence in/half.¨ Massey reprocesses and reevaluates the world, and readers can delight in his recognition of undiscovered splendor.
Massey’s magnifying of detail hints at latent meaning in a world readers thought they knew. Gradually, it emerges that Massey observes the world not for pure enjoyment but in an attempt to better understand how one experiences life. He seems to feel an incompleteness, and it’s as if his enlargement of detail reflects an aching need to find answers by reexamining what he formerly overlooked. He seems particularly puzzled by what is versus what could be. In “Property Line,” he admits to unfulfilled hope in the aid of words in comprehending the world. Either he loses what small grasp he had, as when he writes, “what words I/wrote with/dissolve,” or he remains trapped within self-construction: “Words occur to gather/a world–/not the world.”
The themes of perception and reality also extend to memory. Memory seems fleeting and fundamental, sometimes “stifled/by the day’s/lapse,” as in “Pulse,” other times caught “skid(ding) across/daylight’s/edges,” as in “Without a Field Guide.” Massey recognizes the temptation of the ideal, referring in “Reading,” for example, to “a world/behind the glass,/within whose/insistence/we drift, forget.” Indeed, many of his poems recall an episodic memory in which he remembers without the burden of analysis. And yet Massey also hints at a darker memory, a memory frustrated by confusion and unpermitted denial. A muddling of identity often results. The bewilderment following mistaken identity that Massey expresses in “Greyhound, North Through Sonoma County,” where “a mirror of –/(his) face/supplants/the landscape,” later returns prominently and drives the section “Out of Light.” There the speaker mistakes branches for fingers and watches as light patterns change shape across skin. Emptiness and nothingness overwhelm the poems. “Is there anything here/to say we’re anywhere/at all?” Massey writes in “Plein Air.” Just as the speaker in “Clyfford Still” “walks (himself) wordless,” so does Massey use his poems to dissolve into the unknown what he had previously clarified in precise detail. Objects disband into abstract shapes and silence absorbs voices, leaving “a stilted vacancy.” In his apparently fruitless struggle for comprehension, Massey seeps into “areas of fog.” Gone is the comforting clarity of the opening poems. “Here at the/margins,” he writes, “it’s all said/illegibly.”
And yet readers feel otherwise. Indeed, the book’s effect stems from Massey’s exposure of the margins, a poetic exploration that pushes beyond literal diction and evokes feeling. At the margins, Massey can meander through a world too complex to be received all at once. While meaning may not always be immediately comprehensible, it’s there. That there’s often no apparent resolution matters little. It’s enough for readers to revel in this re-presentation of the world. Readers sense that they’re on the brink of something quietly momentous. The book’s lasting impact comes from Massey’s indulgence in extant possibility: Brilliance can stem from anything – something ordinary, or extraordinary, or both.
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Elizabeth Moore is currently working on a series of short stories that capture how communication affects the experience of place. She is from San Francisco.