Friday, May 06, 2005
The California Department of Fish & Game describes Eureka Slough as
3 acres of tidal salt marsh. Egrets, herons, seals and sea lions are often found here. Access is by foot or boat only.
It is also the setting for one of the most subtle books of poetry I’ve come across in some time, Joseph Massey’s Eureka Slough from
Eureka Slough consists of eleven short poems – none is above 15 lines long – plus a longer poem or suite containing nine sections. Save for the suite, titles refer to settings, some as simple as “Alley” or “Porch.” Here is the first of two poems entitled “On Samoa Peninsula”:
– left edge
a gray sliver
where the jetty
by a stiff tuft
of beach grass.
within the poem.
The logic of the poem isn’t that much different from that of a syllogism or haiku: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The long view of the first stanza is balanced by the close-up of the notebook in the second – a miracle occurs & we get the realization with which the poem concludes. I say “a miracle” because the conceptual leap between the second & third stanza, between the outer world of vision & the inner one in which consciousness exists & is acknowledged, is ultimately the premise of the entire poem. Massey sets this up perfectly, making terrific use of wonderfully crunchy consonants (jetty/juts, Notebook/propped, propped up/by a stiff tuft) that flow finally into the hush of the double s in grass. The long vowels of the last strophe’s first line are foreshadowed by beach (and You’s role as the first word following a longer pause is accented not just by the lengthier than usual stanza breaks but also by the way in which each stanza has begun with a syllable containing o). The reader pauses on that hard k in awake before slipping into that last flowing line. Just how well Massey constructs this can be tested by how very little the hard p in poem in that last line is felt. Reading it aloud, one is much more conscious of the hidden
This is, I think, the dynamic one finds in Massey’s poetry generally. You could say that there is little here that you haven’t seen before, but you can also say – you’re virtually forced to – that you’ve never seen or heard it done this well before either. What about the poems of Cid Corman or Ted Enslin’s miniatures or even the best of Larry Eigner? Massey is practicing his craft at an extraordinarily high level:
leaves latticed over
the sunk shed roof
gnats or bees
– both – blur.
For me, Massey raises the question of historical time in the poem in an interesting, sometimes troubling way. A poetry that isn’t seeking to evolve risks becoming merely decorative, the trap that Andy Goldsworthy’s earthworks fail to elude. Yet Massey’s attention to sonic & literal detail is so intense that it carries within itself a rigor that someone like Goldsworthy lacks. The joke in that piece above lies precisely in our recognition of how that final word mimics the sound of insect wings. Massey not only has to do it, but we have to get it for the poem to work. He makes it seem effortless.