This Bramble Will Not Break: “before we feel the breeze”:
Joe Massey. Bramble. Hot Whiskey Press: 2005. $5.

Joe Massey is one of the poets I keep up with, not just one of the many who catch my attention when their names appear in magazines and readings I frequent. He’s got a brain and a heart and best of all an ear. I can imagine sitting down and drinking enough cheap whiskey that he and I could have it out over the poets we like and then over his work, why it works for me and why it doesn’t and why neither of us in the end know anything but that we love poetry down to the core of it where all that’s left is a bit of pulverized char that we’ll both take as evidence that beauty is inevitable despite our worthlessness. I can much more easily imagine that than explaining why I chose to review a book I love though I do not find perfection in some of its fine points. PhillySound and Silliman reviewed Joe’s book, and since Bramble promises to go down as a great early work for Joe and as a beacon of amazing productions to come from Hot Whiskey Press, I might as well, like critiquing my brother’s swing, make my thoughts public.

Although his formal constraint is syllabic (5-3-5), Massey’s ear drives each line through its poem, often culminating into single lines of nearly flawless iambic pentameter. In the first lune, “on the page, a stain/or an ant/crushed in the margin,” “a stain,” the one pure iamb in the poem, takes a solid form amid all the weeping anapests and the forceful spondaic “crushed.” We see a few examples of labored prosody, such as “pulp mill steam plume falls/up against/dusk, the stretched red clouds.” Though the extra stress on “red” coming off the “e” in “stretch” has potency, everything before it seems to lumber along, and “against” doesn’t do enough to ease the tensing monosyllabic word string to give “dusk” the surprising emergence Massey seems to have sought. However, more often Massey makes meter, consonance, and assonance his love slaves: “crows cackle over/an engine/starting & stopping.” Or he synthesizes mind and mouth immaculately: “through makeshift curtains/(blue blankets)/the sunset stutters.” Putting the odd rhythm on the representational “(blue blankets)” before the pattern of the closer-to-literal “sunset stutters” is genuine ingenuity.

Massey’s sympathies for the tradition result, interestingly, in conflicting impulses for imagery and awareness of the poem as language. While some lunes directly evoke the presence of the page, some near the precise imagery of their formal predecessors from the East: “when the window throws/your image/back, bound to the moon.” His least image-driven lines prove the least intriguing, often too didactic (“when you say it, say/it—what’s there/to be said—what’s here”), or too intentionally aware (“dictation taken/daily from/the weather’s phrasing”). Poems like some of Larry Levis’ which become aware of themselves work because they comment on rather than observe the poet’s part in the poem. We hear and see much more of poem and poet in “yellow striped bumble-/bee bends slow-/ly into sunlight.” We feel a synthesis of Dickinson’s ear and the Oriental eye, a condensation of perception honed down to a moment when language can reveal it exactly as it happened. Through such imagery, Massey has the power to dictate, “before we feel the/breeze we see/the weeds folded over.” His awareness of what poetry has been and is best asserts itself when put to work on images rather than reference to the poem.

When forging imagery Massey’s language reveals his sense of form that is traditional and innovative. So many unnamable miracles can occur in a Joe Massey poem: “a snail’s vacated/shell lies next/to a wad of gum.” Few of his image driven poems come off as overly symbolic, as does “television light/lies on the/American lawn,” and his prosodic exertions rarely interrupt the evocativeness of his images, as they do when “the moon/rises red & round.” More often, he gives us sounds and sights utterly new and unalterable: “sun’s still rewinding/into sky/the white morning haze.” At his best, Massey can bring up a similar sort of mysteriously precise ambiguity Stevens could conjure: “just the sound of them—/engulfed in/fog—shuffling southward.” Certainly uncertain, “them” creates a blank that gives us the most powerful sort of assertion a poet can contribute.

Massey is a poet I think all poets, especially the young and hopeful, should read, and not only read but look through to adopt Joe’s influences as their own. Few of my favorite young poets resonate the past so deeply. Though he seems to admire many poets looser in style than those I most adore, he reflects both the widely adapted sides of, say, Creeley and Spicer, in the loosened beat strain, and that side of those poets that particularly strikes me—immaculately clean lines of prosody that could just as well get away with being prose. Don’t read this: buy the damn book already.

                                                    --Review by Matthew Henriksen.

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