Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review


By Joseph Massey

Reviewed By John James

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Illocality depicts the world through a narrow aperture, one so studied and imagistically precise it admits little by way of hermeneutics. Rather, Massey’s taut minimalism converts the things peopling these landscapes—trees, fog, parking lots, the feral subject matter one might expect to locate in a volume of status-quo ecology—into an investigation of emotional and philosophical import that tends more toward universality than locality. Indeed, the book’s title suggests a resistance to the merely local, a dwelling in and through it. “Thinking,” Massey writes in “The Span,” “is site-specific.” The title is a Dickinsonian neologism, from 963, which reads in its entirety:

A nearness to Tremendousness—
An Agony procures—
Affliction ranges boundlessness—
Vicinity to Laws

Contentment’s quiet Suburb—
Affliction cannot stay
In Acres—Its Location
Is Illocality—

Massey’s specificity draws us nearer to “boundlessness”—an existence unrestricted by language and law—urging readers to scrutinize the binarism of our understanding of nature and subjectivity, of the thinking mind in partition from the objects it perceives. The result is a thin but complex tome, one that, through its sparse lines and pared syntax, resists the staggering enclosures of consciousness, denaturing readers from the strictures of duality and attuning us to the fluid interchange between thinking and objects of thought.

The needle’s eye of Massey’s scope is reflected mimetically in his form. “Parse,” whose spare, highly enjambed line structure ranges from two to six syllables—with rarely more than two beats per line—mirrors his linguistic precision:

This rift valley

A volley of
seasonal beacons

where mind

finds orbit

The poem’s lack of punctuation—an absence of structural limitation—frees the poet to operate outside the boundaries of conventional syntax. That fragmentation allows “Parse” to tacitly defy the laws of grammar, challenging the conceptual partitions we so often perceive between our environment and our selves. There are only a few full sentences in the poem—few subjects verbing objects—and only one first person pronoun (not an “I,” but a “we”). The poem’s opening lines place further pressure on the boundaries of subjectivity, noting—through careful repetition—the scalar differentials of perception itself:

Dawn marks the wall

a thin flange of

An imagined

Always an imagined

For Massey, silence is presence, not the usual absence by which we identify it. Or is it? Readers might step back to understand silence as a cognitive projection. Sound and its absence are relative to the aural registers the mind perceives; silence is only present insofar as we “imagine” it to be. The difficulty of these poems—what rewards multiple readings—rests in Massey’s fragmented syntax, which offers up so little by way of interpretation, underscoring the semantic limitations of language itself.

“After Wittgenstein” is among the most grammatically standard poems in Illocality, departing from the fragmented, unpunctuated style Massey tends to prefer. Here, the poet plays the role of logician, elaborating on—and gently pushing against—a passage from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, grounding it (through humor) in the banalities of time and location. Wittgenstein writes, “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.” Massey rebuts, “There is the inexpressible / but it doesn’t show itself / today.” Despite the poem’s grammatical regularity, Massey’s syntax permits a great deal of ambiguity: “A contrail divides the skyline / wrinkled with heat.” On which noun is the heat acting? Smoke or horizon? Does it matter? Neither gloss greatly impacts my reading; perhaps that’s the point. The line’s resistance to absolute meaning illustrates the poet’s opposition to stricture, be it semantic or syntactic. Even when he’s writing in full, mostly conventional sentences, Massey’s meaning is rarely fixed. When it is, it tends to destabilize his reader’s presuppositions about reading itself: “Even shade as it erases / radiates.”

Massey is especially at home in the long poem. Illocality contains several of them, all of which are comprised of many compact installments, permitting white space to reverberate around each fragmentary lyric. The first section of “Take Place,” which takes up an entire page, reads:

It must be enough
to live in the variations

of wind alone.
To sing the seams.

by vision, we
think we’ve seen.

The poem continues Massey’s investigation into the mind’s perceptual contours—its complexities and paradoxes—highlighting the liminality that comprises subjectivity: the senses are but a medium between the object world and the thinking mind. Massey urges us to “sing the seams,” decentering the dualistic rendering of matter through mind, or vice versa. He notes, for instance, the “exchange // between light and wind,” wherein “the objects between them… pronounce[] / only themselves.” Massey privileges a holistic presence-absence that exists only in a tautological understanding of experience: “The world is real,” concludes “Take Place,” “in its absence of a world.”

Illocality is a rare specimen in contemporary poetry, where the din of loud, sometimes unnecessarily experimental work can drown out such a quiet and contained voice. These poems are subtle, but sharp. Their formal precision—so nimble on the page—gives way to a rigorous thematic investigation into the nature of intellect itself. We think; we perceive. We think we perceive. In part, we imagine. That much is sure. “The eye / unfocused draws inward” (“January Sheaf”). Of course, poetry offers no proofs, no ontological arguments for the structures of thinking or the boundlessness of consciousness. Rather, it poses questions and offers up images, and in so doing, instills readers with uncertainty. Its confines are linguistic and noetic. Illocality resists such limitations, though it, like anything, inevitably conforms to them. Nevertheless, in pressing those limits—of language and of thought—Massey parses the strictures of linguistic meaning, revealing, in the end, a sheer ontology of words: “All a world can do,” he notes, “is appear” (“Parse”). The same can be said of language, of objects, of thinking in and of itself.

John James is the author of Chthonic, winner of the 2014 CutBank Chapbook Contest. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, West Branch, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. He serves as graduate associate to the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University, where he is also a Lannan Fellow.