Joseph Massey, “Last Spring”

When I teach my students to close read poetry, I like to demonstrate using Ezra Pound’s famous poem “In a Station of the Metro,” which is only two lines long (three if you include the title). Students have usually encountered the poem before in high school, and with so little material, you’d think there would be nothing to talk about, but I’ve led probably a dozen discussions about it now, and they’ve never lasted less than 45 minutes. The point is that a lot of great poetry works through compression, and the reward comes from dwelling in the poem, reading it over and over, testing its shallows, and plumbing its depths.

Here’s a poem I love by Joseph Massey, from his wonderful collection Areas of Fog:

Last Spring

On the horizon
what you thought
was exhaust
from the pulp mill
was rain frayed
over the mountains–
mottled blue,
in the foreground
locked by eucalyptus.

Length-wise, it’s not much more substantial than Pound’s. I’m initially tempted to dismiss the poem as simply an invocation of a beautiful image. Honestly, I don’t think a poem has to do anything more than that. But this poem does.

I have no frame of reference for exhaust from a pulp mill, but I imagine something like exhaust from other kinds of factories or refineries. Rain frayed over the mountains, on the other hand, I know very well, as does anyone familiar with the spectacular vistas of the Wasatch Mountains. It makes me think of coming up to the top of Victory Road  and seeing a storm stretched out on the southern edge of the Salt Lake Valley, or rounding the point of the mountain and seeing rain backlit against the Oquirrh Mountains to the west. A beautiful sight, and a far cry from the mundane, gray nastiness of factory exhaust.

Oquirrh Mountains and rain, mottled blue and black

Oquirrh Mountains and rain, mottled blue and black

So this is a poem not about a momentary beautiful sight, but about the act of perception itself, how it changes depending on our vantage point, our state of mind, and our memory. Notice how the poem toggles among different scales of perception. First it invokes the horizon, far away and vast, then moves to “the pulp mill,” a reference that sounds local in its specificity, but then back to “the mountains,” another big, perhaps distant point of reference. One thing that’s happening is the poem is describing our poor ability to distinguish depth at a distance under certain conditions. What is far away in the poem, the rain, looks like it’s something nearby, and in fact at the end of the poem, it looks like it’s trapped in the foreground, “locked” by eucalyptus.

The title of the poem concretizes these difficulties in perception: “Last Spring.” Here is a moment that the poet has held on to for how long? A month? A year? I imagine him turning it over and over in his mind, wondering how he could have mistaken the rain for the mill exhaust, then wondering how the image of the rain could appear locked in by the trees the way it did. (I’m thinking of the poem as an interior monologue here. That is, I’m assuming the “you” is the poet himself, that he’s talking to himself. But that’s not necessarily the case. It’s interesting to think of him talking to someone else, reflecting on a shared moment of (mis)perception.)

I always think of UCLA campus when I think of eucalyptus.

I always think of UCLA campus when I think of eucalyptus.

The poem subtly reveals something about the poet’s state of mind. (When I say “the poet,” I mean the voice speaking the poem, not necessarily Massey himself. And definitely not “the Poet” that sometimes gets invoked in church talks.) Why is the poet so quick to think that this haze on the horizon is exhaust from the pulp mill? Why assume it’s something ugly? Even when he does perceive it for what it is, he uses metaphorical language to transform the image into something dark, almost violent. The rain is “mottled,” or splotchy, blue and black, an image that evokes bruising to me. And it’s “caught,” “locked” in the foreground by the eucalyptus. (I love that repeated /c/ consonant. So harsh, so cutting.) But that’s impossible. It’s not really caught; it only appears so to the poet.

Having read the other poems in Massey’s book, I know that the pulp mill is important here, that the poet’s general attitude toward what he sees is colored by his thoughts about environmental and labor issues. The poem makes me wonder how my own perceptions of the world are refracted through my thoughts, feelings, biases, and/or mood swings. Am I really seeing what I think I’m seeing? Did I really see what I thought I saw?