Monday, July 26, 2010

When I used the phrase New Precisionist, the particular template I most had in mind was Joseph Massey, a relatively young poet – well under 40 – who hails from the Philadelphia area though he’s made his home along the coast in northernmost California for several years. Massey was / is my model because he’s a precisionist on two, sometimes three separate axes of the poem at once:


whacked to pulp
between slits
in cinder
blocks laid
in gravel.
A path
to these
porch steps,
their chipped
blue paint
the rain-
stained wood
cracked through.

“Path” is a work that aims at perfection in all dimensions. As an act of description Massey is principally a descriptive poet the attention to the minutest detail is immediately evident. Although the title offers one focus, the two sentences that make up the poem’s body present the literal path of the occasion from two very different vantages, the first being the weeds that are not allowed through the cinder blocks, the second being the stairs at its end.

Even more than to sight (he has a bit of the Ashcan School sensibility, which offers an interesting tension with the often otherwise rural and/or small town landscapes he presents), Massey is a poet committed to an exacting deployment of the poem’s aural possibilities. The elders he inevitably reminds one of – Niedecker, Zukofsky, Corman, Samperi, Creeley – are all masters of the minimal. In a text like the one above, you can sense not only the importance of the sound of each line, but its commitment to a formal view of the world that extends beyond the poem’s ostensible content. Every line in “Path” contains two words save for the first two. It would have been easy – and a poet like Cid Corman or James Weil would have given us this – to have presented the four words of those two lines in pairs. But by starting off with what will echo in the ear as we settle into the set rhythm (the words in the last eight lines all have one syllable each) as something a bit ungainly, a deliberate awkwardness, Massey sets up the rhythm of the whole precisely in a manner that reminds us that this form is not passive. Just look the use of the two-syllable words in the first sentence. And the total absence of same in the second.

The risk in such fidelity to sound / sight / form would seem to be that it becomes only that, an art of great technical skill but with real limits on what it can do. Areas of Fog, gathering together material from five Massey chapbooks, is in that sense an apprentice work, much in the same way one might think of Creeley’s For Love. The real news – the great promise – in Massey’s work shows up more completely in Exit North, a new chappie from Toronto’s BookThug. Consider, for example, “A Line Made by Walking”:

Humid June
air that barely

moves, and yet
the water in the

creek wrinkles,
pushed around

fronds and
broken bottle,

or is it
chipped quartz

trapping the
glare. Rusted

shed at the road’s
shoulder falls back

into flowering
brush falling over

the hill’s edge.
Train tracks, grass-

smothered, run
behind it. A crow

collects trash
from a strip-

mall parking lot,
carries it to the

church roof,
then claps off

to collect more
as a gnat

a floater in
my right eye

bobs back and forth.
Traffic’s sustained

sibilance grows
louder later. Still

the sun’s white,
the haze is

white, the air
is locked

in it, and I
squint, and lean

into it, as if
to find

a word there.

This is by no means a “perfect” poem the shift from crow to gnat to floater is ungainly at best – but in all other respects, I think it’s a better one than any found in Areas of Fog simply because it lets in more risk. This is true even with some of the shortest pieces here:


dredged in
shadow, where

a song’s
roosts, tell

the time.

It’s not so much that this poem is willing to move in two directions virtually at once – tho it is – as it’s willingness to be something other than depictive in that last move that strikes me here.

The big risk for all the current crop of precision-driven writers – from Massey to Graham Foust to the new haiku poets – is that a reader will find not extraordinary care, but rather the careful imitation of that which has already been done before. And, no doubt, there is a vein of neophobia that can be found amidst this group of poets who are otherwise entirely post-avant¹. Massey’s real project lies not in becoming the next Robert Creeley, but rather using his extraordinary gifts to help map out what the poetry of this new century might become.



¹ One of the reasons I prefer the term School of Quietude to the more pathologically diagnostic adjective. If neophobia is the universal rot of quietude, it remains a risk for all poets regardless of orientation.