“How the World Expands / As a Thought Expands”: Review of Joseph Massey’s A New Silence
There is a quote which I’ve always liked, which I found one day on the poet and teacher Sarah Gridley’s academic profile for Case Western Reserve University. Gridley’s profile is refreshing; unlike many more staid academic listings of classes taught, books published, interests separated by semi-colons in small paragraphs, etc., Gridley, who is a wonderful poet, takes the time in her profile to outline a kind of stance related to her philosophy of poetry. This attempt to outline an orientation towards her poetics seems in keeping with Stevens’ forever quotable line from “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” in which he argues that “the theory / Of poetry is the theory of life”. Both Gridley and Stevens are aware that discussions about poetry are not just about poetry — they essentially pivot around worldviews, ways of seeing and thinking, that are the extra-literary mulch from which poems grow. When we attend to the way poets speak and write about poems, we are essentially pressing our ear against the ground of poetry, its (Stevens again) “ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.” Gridley, after speaking about “the poetry that surrounds us,” ends her description/philosophy with the sentence, “We wrestle with that always superior adversary: silence.”
“That always superior adversary: silence” — this might be the cri de coeur of Joseph Massey’s latest collection, aptly titled A New Silence, published this month by Shearsman Books. For Massey’s poems are, in a way, protests against that superior adversary, while at the same time, at the level of form, diction, and syntax — not to mention voice, which incorporates all these more formal properties — they embody, in their very terse issuing, a desire to achieve the impossible — to become silence.
This is not exactly a new project. Think about the haiku form — how, in the intensity and vividness with which it presents an image, it gives the reader a experience of awareness that seems to inhere within the words, while at the same time standing back from or beyond them, suggesting transverbal forms of presence. Massey, I think, would agree with Pound, when the latter wrote about the haiku form, “The image itself is speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.” Image-speech-word-language-beyond: these are constellations of words, experiences, concepts, realities, that Massey is constantly moving through, cogitating on, playing with intensely. If Massey’s project is somehow new, I think it is through the inflections he gives this desire to become silence: the emotional lifeworld of Massey’s poems are sometimes despairing, always visceral, raw, jagged, almost expressionistic, though the sheer austerity of the language somehow mutes this lifeworld, so that we are given astonishingly breathing fragments that point to deeper interiors that the poems both express and muffle.
Like the haiku form, Massey is fascinated by constraints. It seems apt that he recently wrote an homage to the painter Robert Ryman, the abstract and minimalist painter who painted in all white for six decades. For Massey, constraints work in at least two ways: materially, through the actual physical environments Massey chronicles — alleys, rooms, windows, during rain, through blinds or curtains — suggesting a near-Dickinsonian concern with physical confinement and the consequent desire for mental/spiritual release — and formally, through the repetition or, better yet, weaving, of certain words and their endlessly vivid connotations — “room,” “season,” “light,” “world” (one of William Bronk’s favorites), “mind,” “echo,” “name,” “noun,” “shadow,” “day,” “silence,” “dusk,” “vision,” “sepia,” “nameless.”
Of course, I am abstracting these words from the texture of the poems themselves, and that is dangerous. The poems themselves are not allegories but deeply phenomenological explorations of consciousness in intense instants of thought, perception, and a sort of grounded, brooding speculation. To read them is to encounter, to paraphrase Pound, the image as the word beyond Procrustean language. It is to encounter a form of presence, through language, that reaches towards silence, as if towards an unspeakable name — not the names we give things, but the actual things themselves, seen somehow, participated in, witnessed, beyond the terms we give them that, by defining and definition, ultimately occlude and even blind. In Massey’s poems, the unsayable, the negative, reverberates within the tight, taut structures of the poems’ echoings. In this sense, Massey uses language to erase language. His poems are attempts to surmount thought through thinking.
Let’s look at a poem. Here is “What Follows,” the last poem in the third section of the book (the book has seven sections):
To arrive at a kind of quiet
that won’t recoil into speech
or uncoil into music, illegible
as dusk and its marginalia.
Mind is place
and world, pieces —
how one runs into another, another.
Remember the dark as it creases the dark
could be any animal.
What does it mean “to arrive at a kind of quiet,” a form of silence that is “illegible / as dusk and its marginalia”? The word I find most interesting, not to say baffling, is “illegible” — what does it look like, feel like, for quiet to be illegible? Think of asemic writing, how its unreadableness conveys both polysemic fullness and unsemantic emptiness. The word “asemic” actually means “having no specific semantic content.” In this sense, a quiet that is illegible as dusk is very much like the asemic, as both allude to a content-less content, as if speaking about a form of consciousness that does not represent or communicate “subject matter,” so much as represent its own suchness or self, shorn of or apart from what we could call “realism” (literary, philosophical, scientific, or otherwise), or subject matter in any conventional sense. On the surface, Massey’s poems at times can seem like interesting transcriptions or descriptions of the material world, like certain aspects of Bishop or Schuyler, but that’s not what is happening. Massey’s poems are instead near-relentless experiences of avagnorisis — recognitions — (re-thinkings, re-seeings). The material world is what he uses for the purpose of these recognitions, but it is not the subject matter per se. The subject matter is consciousness.
Viewed this way, as poetry “about” (through, within, as) consciousness, Massey’s work can be thought of in the context of Angus Fletcher’s “Noetics.” Fletcher writes, in Colors of the Mind: Conjectures of Thinking in Literature,
Noetics names the field and the precise activity occurring when the poet introduces thought as a discriminable dimension of the form and meaning of the poem. If poetics show us the ways by which the poet arranges his poem so that it will cohere poetically, as a thing made, then noetics shows us how thoughts, ideas, reflections, memories, judgments, intuitions, and visions are involved in the fundamental process of the making of the poem…Noetics will shed light on texts in which the active process of thinking is a dimension of meaning. (p. 4)
The “active process of thinking,” and its relationship to silence, is at the heart of Massey’s work. There are many overt references to thinking and thought in A New Silence, but equally interesting is the expressed desire in the poems to stop thinking:
I’d die to stop thinking.
It can take all day to filter out the debris of a dream, to see a thing contained by its terms. Call it clarity. You have to almost stop thinking; get up to the edge of the clanging at the back of the brain. Go dumb to the light.
A silence beyond
mind, beyond thought. The way air
and light hum soundless-
ly over a field patched with
frost. The way vision listens.
Eight days without
definition: gray walled
the room in, and I
thought I found a way
to stop thinking — to allow
gray to become a sound
I couldn’t hum myself out of.
All I heard was a window.
A long weed beat
unevenly against it.
Each excerpt above is from a different poem —the first is from “For a Failed Suicide,” the second from a series of prose poems called “Garden Level,” the third is from a series of short five-line poems called “A Window in New England,” and the fourth is from a poem called “Clear.” What these poems share is an attempt to become silence, through language and thought. For although the poems express a desire to stop thought, and although the poems do convey a presence that is transverbal — the poems are, of course, ultimately made out of thought and language. Thought here is both a burden and a liberation. Writing becomes a method for both articulating and suspending thought. “Vision” seems appropriate to invoke here as well — a vision is not necessarily verbal, but to share it one has to eventually think about it and convey it in language. We often think of “vision” as a great vaulting Blakean experience, but Massey’s visions are humbler, more “ordinary,” though still searing. They take a page, as mentioned, from Schuyler, who is also interested in ordinary visions, and who writes memorably and somewhat funnily in a poem called “Joint,” that
It is not what carrots are like,
it is the carrots.
To see things without metaphor or symbol, “as they are,” a la Stevens, suggests, at least in some ways, what Eliot termed “a continual extinction of personality.” Yet Eliot prefaced this phrase in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” with the strange observation that “the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice.” “Extinction,” “self-sacrifice” — these words drip with a guilt I don’t find to be relevant in the ordinary visions of Massey et al. What Massey in A New Silence and elsewhere is essentially doing is witnessing, though not in the more political sense of historical tragedy implied by Caroline Forche in her anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. In Massey’s poetry, witnessing is a state of consciousness that involves the suspension or cessation of discursive thought. Underlying his work is a philosophy, a stance, which states: when we stop thinking discursively, the world stands up. We can actually see things, apart from their names. This is Massey’s desire and his method.
Massey’s work has been discussed in the context of Williams, Creeley, Niedecker, Bronk, Robert Grenier, “the new sincerity,” the minimalist tradition, Cid Corman, Rae Armantrout, and many others. All of these comparisons are onto something and important. I think there is something as well in the spirit of Massey’s poetry that is close to the late poems of Wallace Stevens, though with an important caveat. From what I have read, Massey is not really interested in the imagination apart from the senses. He is less concerned with the relationship, to use M.H. Abrams’ terms, between text and artist, and more with the relationship between text and universe. He wants to be a mirror more than a lamp. Having said that, there is something very close to Massey’s stance when Stevens writes, in “Esthetique du Mal,”
The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical world
Like Stevens, Massey is much more interested in weather than people. Both poets chronicle devastation, and convert it into a way of being and seeing. Helen Vendler once described Stevens’ late poems as “asymptotic,” which is an adjective used in mathematics to describe a formula “becoming increasingly exact as a variable approaches a limit, usually infinity.” Massey, like Stevens in certain poems (I’m thinking now of “A Dish of Peaches in Russia” and “The Poems of Our Climate”) wants to become “increasingly exact” as he approaches infinity, world, place. In the final poem in A New Silence, “To the Reader,” Massey suggests a somewhat different direction in his poetry that seems to me to be close to the Stevens in “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm.” Here is Stevens:
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
Here is Massey (had to use image here, as Medium is weird with indentations):
Both poems move within the worlds of the page, the book, the reader, the room, the dark. Both poems are also concerned with the meaning of truth, as well as a calm that seems connected to this meaning, and that radiates outwards from both poems. Perhaps the main difference is that Stevens’ poem is entirely in the third-person — we hear about “the reader” and “the scholar,” but there is no “I,” “me,” or “you.” Massey, on the other hand, uses both the “I” and the “you,” as well as a slightly more confessional tinge — “to share in the failure / the poem becomes,” that seems somewhat antithetical to Stevens. Essentially, however, both poems — and this seems connected with calmness — desire to become silence. In that sense, Massey and Stevens are both ascetics of a sort, whether more hedonistic, a la Stevens, or more harsh and severe, a la Massey.