Sunday, October 23, 2016

Poetry Monday: Joseph Massey and “Polar Low"

As I’m sure anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m in the midst of a 10 week (annual!) poetry course being held at the UPenn on Modern and Contemporary American Poetry.  One of the many things I like about the course is how different it is each year.  This year is particularly fresh, with a lot of material I haven’t come across before, including, to my delight, the work of Joseph Massey, whose book Illocality is on its way to me now from the US.  The poem that really got to me was "Polar Low”, and rather than try to summarise it, I’ve put the text of my essay on this poem below, not only because it covers what I want to say about the sparse complexity of this poem, but also because it provides an example of a close reading of a poem - the sort of thing I tend to do when reviewing a book (and why I’m continually drawn to reviewing, and the way it forces me to take time).

I've found a full text version of of this lovely poem here:  More on Joe Massey can be found at his website.

The nothing that is: approaching nirvana in Joseph Massey’s "Polar Low”

There’s a precision in Joseph Massey’s “Polar Low,” that owes much to the Imagist tradition.  For one thing, Massey’s “direct treatment” of the trailer is described with stark clarity. The poem could be a painting, with its single image of a “yellow double-wide trailer”.  There is “nothing else”, aside from setting: the winter sun, the snow, and the sparse vegetation. The singularity of this observation and the absence of an ‘observing self’ is pure Imagism. The contrast of the colours between the yellow trailer and the white snow becomes luxurious in such a desolate scene, calling to mind William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”.  However, there is much in this work that takes it outside of the Imagist tradition.

The colours themselves are more than what they seem. The yellow of the trailer mirrors the yellow of the winter sun, which has been anthropomorphised into amnesia, while the morning becomes inarticulate.  Suddenly the reader becomes conscious of a human presence, whose suffering (coldness/poverty), and inarticulate amnesia is suffused into the scene by reversal of the pathetic fallacy, as if the human were transforming into the sun and morning rather than the other way around.  The white of the ice sheathing the trailer mirrors, both literally in terms of the light being reflected, and metaphorically in terms of matching, the white of the snow and the implied white of emptiness (the dimming scene as the piece progresses), and perhaps the white of an unwritten page. These “variations” also contrast with the green/brown of the winter thicket, a dying remnant of spring.

Rhythm is created by repetition of sound and structure, with short couplets that don’t necessarily couple up.  The first stanza has two hyphenated constructions, which are semantically opposite—half-sheathed versus double-wide—as well as being metrically and syllabically reversed.  The word “mirrors” also becomes a connector linking the trailer with the much more abstract morning – disparate images equated.  Massey uses punctuation between stanzas to slow the reading down and force a pause for reflection at each full stop.  We stop after morning as almost a shudder in our movement across the scene, and then again after sun, so that the two phrases, “The inarticulate morning” and “The amnesiac sun” are paralleled rhythmically and semantically, creating a breathlike quality to the reading.

The next sentence begins with the conjunction “And”, the point at which the poem begins to move, the trailer receding. The repetition of sound becomes stronger here, taking on a more regular rhythm that doesn’t pause until we reach (the) “perimeter”, creating a meditative effect.  This is further heightened by the soft rhymes of thin, dim, perim-eter.  Alliteration throughout the poem also adds to the deepening of breath, with the m sound in “mirrors", “morning", “amnesiac"; the s sound in “else", “contrast", “these"; the k sound in “thicket" and “choked"; the o sound in “other" and “over"; and the n sound in “noun” and “frozen".  These sonic connections give the poem a deep unity that not only creates motion in the stillness of the scene, but also draws the reader into the inarticulateness - a meaning beyond semantics, as if all we could see is white and all we can hear is our own heartbeat. At this point, the entire poem transforms the present moment itself, rather than the trailer, into its subject, and the dissolving of those names (or “nouns”) into a kind of mindful emptiness or the realisation of non-self, and both the reader and writer’s union with the scene, as the denouement.  

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