Joseph Massey’s Illocality

Joseph Massey is an American poet possessed with rare and authentic talent. He came to my attention two years ago, when he published a personal essay in Quillette about his experience of being “cancelled,” of having his reputation tarred and his already precarious livelihood taken from him. The piece, part mea culpa for past transgressions and part biography of past traumas, is searing in its honesty and self-examination, never descending into self-pity even as it wins sympathy from its readers. It’s also a love letter to poetry, which Massey approaches with the life-and-death seriousness it deserves precisely because his dedication to his craft ultimately saved him from himself: “After a decade of suicidal behavior, I realized that I could have a life – a decent, stable life – in poetry.” For the sake of my integrity, I should also say that I interviewed Joseph Massey, and the man I spoke with was kind, gentle, self-effacing, and possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of modern poetry.

Illocality is Massey’s fourth full-length book of poetry, the last to be published before his public excommunication, and perhaps his most widely read and reviewed, garnering praise from The New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, Rumpus, and Publishers Weekly, among other prestigious outlets. As the title suggests, these are poems of place and perhaps of displacement, arresting celebrations of the kind of everyday scenes most of us pass by but Massey consecrates. Here, for example, is “Route 31”:

Yellow center-line
split with roadkill.

First day of summer – I’ve got my omen –

the clouds are hollow, roving
above a parking lot.

Each strip mall pennant blurred.

So much metal
shoving sun

the sun shoves back.

Long before I encountered his poetry, I saw the pictures he shared on Instagram and Twitter, and there too we see the same keen eye at work, capturing with a camera what, in “Route 31,” he creates with language. “Thinking / is site-specific,” he will tell us, and most of this volume’s poems attest to that truth, though it isn’t always clear if thought shapes our perception of place or place shapes our thoughts. Consider:

Grief ground down
to the bare sense of an I
imagining itself here.

Winter-chipped sidewalk
annotated by grass clippings

and bird shit
white as paint.



an adjacent

a simulacrum
for panic

Human detritus also figures prominently: curb-side waste, street signs, parking lots and shopping malls – these, too, are part of the landscape. “Ice on the field / recedes. Something – / silver cellophane trash – / flares in the monochrome.”

But as he tells us, “All a world can do / is appear.” The trash, too, has a place. “Thursday’s ruins collect / in the recesses of a walk / even this washed-out waste / is history is measure to notice.” Melting icicles, decapitated grasshoppers, the glare of the sun and the erasures of shadows all contribute to the locality, united by one common factor: the mind of the poet. “What’s seen / is dreamed / We think / ourselves here.”