05.8.2007

On Joseph Massey’s Property Line

Joseph Massey’s Property Line (published by Jess Mynes’ Fewer & Further Press) begins & ends in the same paradoxical realization: that the experience of landscape, while so close & near, is only perceivable through the perception of its being perceived. Check part II of the final poem, “Greyhound, North Through Sonoma County:”

Window
night makes

a mirror of —

my face
supplants
the landscape.

This face, superimposed (as if cinematically) onto the landscape outside the bus, a face that looks at itself looking beyond itself, appears much more subtly in the poem that opens the book:

Hill’s red
tethered
edge —

berries
that numbed
your tongue.

Here, it is not only the face that is superimposed over the landscape, but also the window of the final poem: the face, the eyes (os in Latin meaning both face & eye), are here the window through which the interchange of perception takes place. The liminality of perception is inscribed in the “Hill’s red / tethered / edge;” & it is in fact perception — sight — that tethers the hill to the perceiver. In this poem, as in all the poems in Property Line, we are presented with perceptions of what is ordinarily mundane, looked over; yet the manner in which they are presented points to the (often invisible) lines that divide perception & perceiver, owner & thing.

So many of Massey’s poems are situated at that divide, or meeting, between the natural & the human-made, especially where the two become (often literally) entangled:

Spider web
(wind-
ripped)

weighted with
a wet receipt.

A poem such as this presents a single, complex image of a single, complex moment. In the entanglement of two very different objects, which object do we identify ourselves with? I’d argue for the receipt, our invention for record keeping (also common garbage). Yet the web & the receipt are here equated, to be understood on one another’s terms: an abandoned spider web is a kind of receipt (remainder, proof) for a spent activity, that of domain-making; likewise, doesn’t a receipt signify an entanglement within commodity exchange? It is a circular entanglement, or two objects of entanglement having become entangled.

Ron Silliman wrote that Massey is in the business of making “miniatures,” which I don’t disagree with. Though the cutesy connotation that often accompanies that word is stripped away in Massey’s poems; the miniature, when it’s at its best, becomes the terrible, the terrifying, through all of its variegated ramifications. Indeed, its means & capabilities of entanglement (here’s a new spin on Keats: entangling capability) are achieved through dwelling in implication. And the sheer power of the terrifying occurs in Property Line, I think, not so much because of the poems’ contents, their presentations of complex stages of decay & abandonment, but through Massey’s strict attention to prosody. Take again “Spider web:”

Spider web
(wind-
ripped)

weighted with
a wet receipt.

It’s a poem that uses a remarkably small number of sounds. We are swept along in the alliteration, while, due to the carefully placed line breaks, simultaneously forced to go through slowly, pronouncing each syllable — “(wind- / ripped)” — before halting in the final hard t of “receipt:” in this way, the poem performs the wind that rips the web. It is thus curious that the word that contains the most complexities & peculiarities of sound is the first, “spider.” Within the nexus of sounds that makes up the poem, “spider” is then the heaviest word — it throbs in the mouth. Is it, then, the spider’s absence — or maybe our presence — that we feel throbbing?

Now about the book itself. Jess Mynes has done a beautiful job making a book that fits the demands of the work. At first glance, I was alarmed by the red ink used for the text; though while reading through the book, that deep, earthy red seemed more & more appropriate to poems that are themselves so fiercely & humbly concerned with breaking through that mirrored perception of self-in-landscape to a direct perception of the earthen thing — no small task, indeed. Yet the book, its portability (it’s very small, slides easily into the pocket), lends itself to what the work is: a field-guide. In picking up this field-guide, we are being summoned to perceive ourselves within a place, or two places: Massey’s northern California landscapes, as well as the bookscape that constitutes Property Line. In putting down the book, in whatever world we inhabit, we are left with an implicit imperative: perceive what is both outside of ourselves & entangled with ourselves, what we cannot own in perception, if we can.

Joseph Bradshaw (© 2007)