I Think We’re Alone Now
To Keep Time
Further Other Book Works 2014
As I read through Joseph Massey’s and Jean Donnelly’s newest books of poetry, I was reminded of my tenth grade English class. Our curriculum, for reasons known only to some long-lost committee, was centered around the concept of “Man Versus _____,” with God, nature, society, and other weighty nouns filling in the blank. Like the stories and poems through which my semi-bewildered cohort and I were herded during that year, both Massey’s To Keep Time and Donnelly’s Green Oil can be read as confrontations. In both cases, what is being confronted is our language-haunted world.
Stephen Burt has called To Keep Time “aggressively minimal.” I agree with minimal, inasmuch as Masssey’s lines tend to one or two words. But the aggression here is detached—a presence, yes—but a ghostly one. The poems of To Keep Time reproduce the hollow intimation of emotion’s aftermath: the scoured-out sensation that follows a storm.
Shadows fall farther
from what they fail to copy.
to hear the ocean
pierce an aperture
not wide enough
even a word—
More than once in reading this book I found myself thinking of Edward Hopper. Not the dark city scenes in which bob-haired brunettes lose themselves in neon anomie, but the sunwashed lighthouses and empty rooms—all sharply-delineated angles and blinding whites against the deceptive flatness of the sea. These pictures seem to show the sets for some passion play that is already completed, the actors and audience departed and the stage cleared, as though nothing had ever happened— could ever happen— there. They are neither unhappy nor happy
paintings, but unsettling ones, with a strident simplicity that creates its own tension.
To find a way to live
with the gray—
is the thing. To walk
without rut or ledge; to track
through static. To stop looking
as If looking
were a way out.
Massey’s work has been called a poetry of place. But while California is the ostensible location of To Keep Time, the landscape its poems describe is as anonymous as Hopper’s lighthouses, consisting of clouds, sun, sky, a hillside or two, as in “Surround”:
A cold front culls other colors: look
long enough and the brush becomes
another hill or mountain, cloud
In fact, To Keep Time appears to revel in non-specificity, with Massey going so far as to gloss a particular bit of flora as only “some sprawling pastel plant / I still don’t know the name of.” Even those animals and plants that are specifically identified aren’t peculiar to place. Hummingbirds can be found throughout North America; oaks and ravens would be as much at home in a Japanese or an Irish poem as an American one. But these obliquely fitful poems are, as the book’s title implies, not about place, but time—waiting through it, weighting it, as the speaker keeps watch over his internal seasons. Detailed geographies would be beside the point.
Massey describe the passage of time in words tinged with surgical violence. Both internal and external mountains, seas, and shadows are constantly being “sutured,” “laced, “pierced,” “blistered,” “incised,” “etched,” “pocked,” “splinted,” “shattered,” and “sloughed.” The world of To Keep Time is in perpetual, shifting triage, an
brush of insects
bores a slit through.
Surgery can facilitate healing, of course, but it can also be merely exploratory, in aid of diagnosis, or, more worryingly, simply an experiment to be endured. Despite a few references to hangovers, Massey describes no particular trauma, illness, or addiction. The focus here is on aftermath—if not the speaker’s “recovery,” per se, then his coming to grips with the world as it is and his place in it. And again, specifics aren’t the point. It’s hard to be uniquely depressed, uniquely recovering from trauma, uniquely at sea after a divorce or death or illness. The causes may be specific, but the resulting emotional experience is common.
Our speaking treads the water of his own emotions, with a half-resigned acceptance of the process of each day. Glimpses of a wry humor are rare but welcome, shafts of sun slicing through the fog:
in the driveway.
A rat runs under
While trees, mountains, and cloud banks garnish To Keep Time’s exterior world, the real action is internal. The outside world has light and shadow, wet moss and shrieking gulls; the mind transforms these into syllables, chants, jabber, palettes, glyphs, words, pixels, and holographs. References to vision and hearing abound, as do references to “words,” “consonants,” “vowels,” and “thinking.” In these poems, Massey’s speaker takes his own emotional temperature via angles of light, acutely aware that the senses reproduce the world only through the mind’s translation, as in “Drowse”:
The German mathematician and physicist Hermann Weyl wrote that “[t]he objective world simply is; it does not happen.” Massey’s consideration of the shifting relationship between the flat fact of the world and our subjective experience of time borders on the obsessive. The word “world” appears again and again, not just across poems, but within them. Here it is in “An Undisclosed Location in Northern California”:
World no more a world
allows, and the light
bound here in its place.
And again in “Vault”:
is the visible
The sense here is of someone who is trying to avoid escape—to force himself to face his actual mind, these actual shadows, unembroidered and both altering and unaltered. Massey writes, in “Roost”:
above the peninsula
and my vision there
is no other world.
Read this way, the poems take on an almost monastic tone—one of penitence or purgatory.
Somewhat paradoxically, extremely short lines and significant white-space slow Massey’s poems down, turning each word into an object, round and sufficient to itself. Massey’s sense of sound produces “chewy” lines—say them out loud and you’ll find that pronouncing them requires a certain deliberateness. They compel you to move one word at a time.
And occasionally, they compel you to move less than one word at a time. Massey often cuts words (particularly those with a first syllable of “no”) across lines and stanzas, so that what first appears as negation then becomes continuation:
No memory. No-
thing’s retained, the land-
The first time this particular technique is used, it’s surprising. But reprised throughout the book, it becomes a sort of tick, as distracting as it is informative.
Although To Keep Time’s poems sometimes refer to a “you” and a “we,” these begin to seem like mere placeholders—different ways of saying “me, myself, and I.” The salient question is how to be oneself, by oneself, despite the mind’s ghostly population of words, thoughts, regrets, despite the unfolding passage of time—at once relentless and poorly understood.
Whereas Massey’s book can be read as a dialogue with the self, “a private speech” that simultaneously attempts to hold the world at a distance and to grapple with it, Jean Donnelly explicitly describes the poems in her book Green Oil as tracing a “path from one voice to another.”
Green Oil grew out of loose homophonic (or homo-visual, as Donnelly professes that she has no knowledge of French pronunciation) translations of poems by the surrealist Francis Ponge.
Ponge was known for his prose poems describing individual, quotidian objects in minute detail. Donnelly’s translations eschew the focus on particular items and are exclusively in lockstep couplets. Ponge’s poem “Le Grenouille” (“The Frog”) begins:
Lorsque la pluie, en fines aiguillettes, rebondit aux prés saturés, une naine amhibíe, une Ophélie manchotte, grosse à peine comme le poing, jaillit parfois sous les pas due poète et se jette au prochain étang.
And here’s the opening of Donnelly’s translation “Green Oil,” the title poem of her collection:
lords do squalls ply a court of aging
that rebounds our praise
& saturates our amphibian impulse
one Ophelia version
mangled gross & pained with being
poets & suggestions
“Minimally aggressive” might be a better description of Donnelly’s poems than Massey’s, as Green Oil forces a rigorous, lineated form onto Ponge’s unbroken prose. But her couplets are a visual reminder of the terms of her project, which she describes as “listening at the threshold” of another’s voice, and attempting to communicate with or through another’s words, “the elegant/volley//of souls/in speech.”
Donnelly’s couplets are “chained” in such a way that the first line of a succeeding couplet often twists or adds to the meaning of the second line of a preceding one. The awkwardness this engenders in reading is purposeful. It complicates the act of reading, forcing the reader to double back, re-read, and then continue on. This awkwardness feels less interruptive than Massey’s syllable-splitting, if only because it is so integral to the text as a whole. Donnelly’s couplets reproduce the act of speaking and answering, of interpreting and listening, attempting to understand and be understood.
dawn with sense
This kind of writing is in many ways a species of play, digging through the sand of language in search of pretty pebbles and bright bits of shell. There is charm in spades, particularly in the opening poem “atoms,” which commingles bits of various Ponge poems. It begins:
is a lit placard
that says so
It’s not hard to hear the echo of the Lucretian concept of the clinamen—the unpredictable swerving of atoms that creates change—in Donnelly’s method. And though this is not a poetry of recovery, with nothing monastic about it, some of the same anxieties that animate To Keep Time are at work here. Where Massey writes that it is necessary to “stop looking / as if looking / were a way out,” Donnelly chimes in with “neither is it // a way out / this being // & the silence / that forms it.” Their dual rejection of escapism is linked to a philosophical concern with actual versus perceived reality, with how words both assist and resist our efforts to translate our sensory perceptions into thoughts and communicate these outward. In “land thrash sites,” Donnelly writes:
. . .
along with the view
as a sort of tonic
Words communicate both more and less than we mean by them. Their inherent inexactness gives rise to the “swerve” that can either charm or disturb. As Donnelly says in “atoms,” “we thought / sense // was distinct / from reason,” but it’s through the senses that we obtain the information that permits reason to operate. Garbage in, garbage out. Or perhaps not—an appreciation of our own fallibility in translating and communicating the world may be what permits us to make and take moral actions—actions sensitive to the uncertainty that invades and surrounds us. Again, from “land thrash sites”:
said facts are lazy
they never need
they can attune
nervous bonds . . .
what else could be
A fact can’t perform the moral labor of communication; it does not inflect or change to accommodate either listener or speaker. To paraphrase Weyl, the outside world doesn’t happen: it just is. But as for us? Donnelly seems to say, we’re all in this together. Massey’s speaker grapples with facing up to himself in the world; Donnelly asks us to face up to one another.
In doing so, she implicates the falsity of language that promotes comfortable certainties, rendering us insensitive to one another’s needs, and to our world’s potential destruction. In “the lazy,” Donnelly asks, “can you harpoon / & gut each bout // with the point / of language,” and then accuses books (the repositories of memory, thought and language) of falsely assuring
like the middle class
petty bronze light
Too much faith in language as an accurate mediator of reality exposes us to the great risk of comfortably assuming (in the face of common sense and history) that what has been shall always be, and that progress is inevitable, leaving nothing on the page
but a violent desire
for observation &
declaiming clarity &
shoving at the blanks
In Donnelly’s view, language is both capacious and narrow. In attempting to communicate, we must recognize both its limitations and ours. To use it well—to use it ethically—we cannot overlook its bugs and quirks, or our own. Our senses can deceive us; language can be used to lie as easily as it can be used to tell truth.
Like Massey, Donnelly is alive to the music of words, though less insistent on it. The short lines of Green Oil’s opening poem, “atoms,” are chock-a-block with alliteration, assonance, and half-rhymes, like
& punt past
harassed saints &
the nervy absurd
the moral meant
But as the book proceeds in developing its theses, this intensity of sound abates. Lesser sonic charm permits for greater philosophical complexity:
to conduct a theme
equal to trauma’s
enunciation, we don
a certain reflective part
& abstain from delivery
we proceed through
what is not simply
evidence but a theme
that yearns for
Although Donnelly claims that Green Oil is an “engagement” with Ponge, I read it as a rejection, albeit a sometimes playful one, of what she calls Ponge’s “clinical descriptions.” For Donnelly, language is only approximate. We cannot define the world through words alone and must triangulate reality through additional means if we are to act responsibly to one another and to the world. At least, in using language, we must be as wary of its lacks as we are dependent on its virtues.
Although they answer the question in different ways, both To Keep Time and Green Oil ask us to consider our relation to reality, to the world outside our individual selves. The world is a fact (although facts may be other than we perceive them) we must face. What better time than now?
Maureen Thorson is Open Letters Monthly’s poetry editor. Her second book of poetry, My Resignation, is available from Shearsman Books.