Poetry, From Noun to Verb

Poetry, From Noun to Verb

Nathaniel Mackey’s most recent collection of subtle, intricate poetry weaves images from Arab and African diasporas with a contemporary sense of dislocation.


“Waters/wet the/mouth.” So begins, quietly enough, the untitled prefatory poem of Eroding Witness, Nathaniel Mackey’s first volume of poems. One phrase and four words; two nouns, one verb. They portray what–an image of refreshment? If so, what is the water’s source? The poem continues: “Salt/currents come/to where the/lips, thru/which the tongue/slips, part.” Refreshment, then, from immersion in an ocean. Perhaps a baptism, or a drowning, is being described. “At the tongue’s tip the sting/of saltish/metal rocks/the wound. A/darkness there/like tar,/like bits of/drift at ocean’s/edge.” Neither baptism nor drowning, then, but an invocation of the muse, and one that mixes exaltation and dread. To open the lips to a bracing power is also to expose those lips to the taste of loss, since, as with the progression of images in the poem itself, the ground turns unsteady and slips away. Or, as the poem concludes, it is “An undertow/of whir im-/mersed in/words.” Not driftwood, then, but driftwords.

Any number of poets would turn this observation into a lesson about language doubting itself, but Mackey has other things in mind. He is a lyric poet whose probing of wounds and the whir of words reaches into epic dimensions. Beginning with Eroding Witness, each of Mackey’s four books of verse has contained two intertwined series of poems, “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “Mu.” They tell the story of a band of nervous travelers perpetually confounded by displacement, disorientation and estrangement. Like the great Modernist epics, most notably Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Mackey’s ongoing series has been stitched together over the course of many years, and its fabric is thick with mythological allusions, from the domestic to the cosmological. The title of “Song of the Andoumboulou” refers to a failed, earlier form of human being in the cosmology of the Dogon people of Mali, in West Africa. The Andoumboulou’s song is a funeral song, and its themes of lament and rebirth recur throughout the peregrinations of Mackey’s tribe. Mackey also frequently draws on North African mythology. His second book of poems, School of Udhra, recalls a Bedouin poetic tradition affiliated with the seventh-century Arab poet Djamil. Like the medieval Provençal troubadours admired by Pound, the poets of the Udhrite school wrote about an ecstatic love-death sparked by a vision of a beloved.

Pound called the epic a “poem including history,” by which he meant a poem not only preoccupied with the past but that attempts, through various formal techniques, to make the past a living part of the present. Crucially, Pound always presumed that a poem including history, one in which all ages are contemporaneous, could be written only through the attainment of a point of view outside history. “Ghosts move about me/Patched with histories,” he wrote in an early draft of The Cantos, the image being a conceit for a visionary point of view capable of resurrecting lost worlds.

For all his shouldering of myths from ages past, Mackey is an epic poet who doesn’t share Pound’s Olympian ambition of writing a poem including history. “What’s more immediate to me is the sense of being contained by history,” Mackey explained after a reading in New York City several years ago. What’s fascinating about his poems is that they do not always lament the sense of being contained by history. Nor do they seek to restore a lost paradise that transcends history’s confines. Instead, they dramatize the search for an imperfect remedy for lives and lands bruised and broken by history. Often turning adversity to their advantage, the poems sing not of resurrection but repair, and Splay Anthem is the most delicate and delirious installment of Mackey’s epic song of salvage. Its poems speak with a torn voice, a rasp punctuated by gasps of anguish and rumbling with the desire for rejuvenation.

Mackey, who was born in Miami in 1947, grew up in California and attended Princeton University, where he was one of a small number of African-American students. After graduating from Princeton he returned to California and taught mathematics to eighth graders for a year. Mackey then began graduate studies in literature at Stanford University; he wrote a dissertation on Robert Duncan’s Vietnam War poems and received his doctorate in 1975. Since 1979 Mackey has been a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he teaches courses in literature and writing. His imagination is prodigious. Alongside his poems he has published three novels and numerous essays about poetry and music. He is also the editor of Hambone, an indispensable little magazine that for more than a quarter-century has featured work by everyone from Sun Ra to Susan Howe. Equally syncretic is Tanganyika Strut, a two-hour radio program hosted by Mackey on KUSP in Santa Cruz. A set on a recent broadcast began with a piece by the flamenco pianist Diego Amador, segued to a song by the Cape Verdean queen of the morna, Cesaria Evora, and concluded with a track by Mississippi bluesman Bukka White.

When Mackey was in high school he bought an Ornette Coleman record and played it over and over, enraptured and puzzled by its bleats and blasts. He hasn’t stopped listening since: His poems ring with allusions to bop and post-bop musicians, from Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane to Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton. But at the center of his pantheon is Miles Davis, the only musician about whom he has written an entire essay. In “Blue in Green” (the title alludes to a ballad on Miles’s Kind of Blue), Mackey explains that Miles moved the trumpet along “the path from reveille to reverie–extrovert, heraldic axe turned introspective.” This movement is most audible in Miles’s “less-is-more approach” of withholding or foreshortening notes, Mackey says, a style of playing that “introduces us into what’s already underway, already there” in a tune. The listener isn’t so much addressed by the trumpet, in the manner of Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie, “as allowed to listen in.” Mackey calls Miles’s sound “one of emergence–on speaking terms with dream, without a doubt, but awake nonetheless.”

Mackey might as well be describing “Septet for the End of Time,” the final section of Eroding Witness, in which eight historical and mythical personae awaken into introspection. The circumstances are hardly tranquil. The section’s title alludes to the “Quartet for the End of Time,” written by the French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1941 in a prisoner-of-war camp, and in each poem a persona drifts into fragmentary recollections of his or her past after waking up into, rather than out of, horrifying dreams. But the personae aren’t necessarily trapped in a nightmare from which they never awake. Instead, they are simultaneously constrained by history and compelled by musical powers to test its limits. In “Winged Abyss,” Messiaen mumbles, “A war camp quartet for the end of time/heard with ears whose time has yet to/begin…/An unlikely music I hear makes a world/break/beyond its reach.” Similarly, in “Falso Brilhante,” the Brazilian tropicália singer Elis Regina says, while peering through the see-through lid of her coffin, “my self-embrace/a rickety crib I serenade/myself/inside…/And I’m singing all the songs that made me a/star, my arms like wings as though/they were not quite my own anymore…”

The fixation of Messiaen and several other personae on a sudden and violent end of time lends “Septet” an apocalyptic mood. The overall outlook of the series, however, is not apocalyptic but Sisyphean: Loss is inexorable, and the test is how one manages to endure it. Given this outlook, it’s not surprising that in an essay about the interplay between writing and music that appeared after the publication of Eroding Witness, Mackey seizes on the following sentence from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “The mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived.” This sentiment is also implicit in the structure of Eroding Witness. “Septet” follows the first installment of “Song of the Andoumboulou,” a sequencing that reinforces that the struggles of the forlorn personae in “Septet” are conceived against those of the Andoumboulou. As Mackey is fond of saying, the Andoumboulou are “not simply a failed, or flawed, earlier form of human being” but “the work-in-progress we continue to be.”

By “work-in-progress” Mackey doesn’t mean some New Age scheme for self-realization. Instead, he’s talking about the possibility of fulfillment in the midst of anguished ground, a predicament that coalesces in his poems around the history of forced migrations from Spain, North Africa and West Africa to the Caribbean, Latin America and North America. In “Song of the Andoumboulou: 4,” in Eroding Witness, a nameless speaker announces, “The rocks/inside our stomachs/want blood,” a reference to the holy Santería stones that Yoruba slaves are said to have carried in their bellies to Cuba and Brazil. The opening lines of the first poem of Whatsaid Serif, Mackey’s third book of poems, inventory the names of central cities of the slave trade. The poem then vividly alludes to the Spanish Civil War and Federico García Lorca, a poet whose overlapping interests in the Moorish remnants of Andalusia, the vernacular roots of the Harlem Renaissance and the mysterious trait of flamenco singing known as duende have always been touchstones for Mackey. The African and Arab diasporas play a part in Splay Anthem too, but the book’s migrations also span an uncharacteristically contemporary landscape. At one point the wandering tribe of the Andoumboulou poems piles into a van and cruises around Los Angeles, eventually having a bite to eat at a children’s restaurant called Chuck E. Jesus. Salvation on the cheap.

Mackey is equally sensitive to how the history of the diaspora has been cheapened. In an essay on the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris, a writer second only to Robert Duncan in Mackey’s personal canon, Mackey writes that it is “customary to speak of the West Indies almost wholly in terms of cultural deprivation or cultural parasitism.” Following Harris, Mackey notes that the novels of V.S. Naipaul epitomize this tendency by judging the West Indies according to European cultural standards. Naipaul clings to the conventions of European fiction to insulate himself against the islands’ “conventionlessness.” Harris, on the other hand, writes about the West Indies in a way that avoids “imprison[ing] it in its deprivations.” “The insularity of the various African peoples brought to the New World,” Mackey argues, “was broken or dislocated by the Middle Passage. Harris views this breakage, this amputation, as fortunate, an opportune disinheritance or partial eclipse of tribal memory that called creative forces and imaginative freedoms into play.”

Such a breakage occurs in the last pages of Splay Anthem. Not long after the wandering tribe leaves Chuck E. Jesus, its van explodes. As the smoke clears, the tribe finds itself in a place called Nub, a shrunken land strewn with debris and where the bells of trumpets are filled with insect husks. It gets worse. In the final poem of Splay Anthem, “Song of the Andoumboulou: 60,” Nub itself collapses:

  Nub no longer stood but lay and we
lay with it, earth-sway cradling our
   backs. What the matter was rocked
us, a way we had with dirt, awaiting what
  already might have been there…


These lines are startling because they describe disintegration with a majestic music. Instead of sounding panicked, like the apocalyptically fixated personae of “Septet,” the lines are confident and calm, their gentle rhythmic sway complemented by soft alliteration and assonance. The tribe’s situation sounds limned with possibility.

Then again, the tender tones of the lines could be deceptive, a means of concealing anguish. The disintegration of Nub occurs at the end of Splay Anthem, so it’s impossible to know whether the breakage that has beset the tribe is a fortunate one. For all their soothing music, the lines leave the tribe swaying on a dusty threshold, thereby frustrating the wish for a definitive conclusion. In The Odyssey the wandering Odysseus returns home because of his ability to respond to circumstances that continually change. In the epic of the Andoumboulou poems, the only dwelling the wandering tribe can hope to inhabit is amid continuous change.

As Mackey knows, to write such an epic is to risk cultivating a macabre obsession with wounds, a habit that is all too common, whether it’s Oprah touring Auschwitz or a literary theorist fixated on trauma. In “Gassire’s Lute,” a book-length essay on Duncan’s Vietnam War poems based on his dissertation, Mackey notes that Duncan walks a tightrope between “humanist outrage and a cosmologizing acceptance of war…. The outrage has to do with the suffering of actual men and women and the cosmology, the poetics, with our being other than the suffering part of ourselves.” Throughout the Andoumboulou poems Mackey walks a similar tightrope, one stretched between the poles of humanist outrage and a cosmologizing acceptance of the diaspora. He favors neither pole, instead spending most of his time at the tightrope’s midway point. He almost never loses his balance.

Another constant strength of the Andoumboulou poems has been Mackey’s talent for making lines, and in Splay Anthem his skill has grown so supple and refined that it seems deep and familiar to him, yet never mechanical. His typical materials are two- and three-syllable words bundled into phrases and lines that begin emphatically with a strong stress; lines vary in length from two to ten syllables and are usually enjambed unpredictably. Cadences are vigorous and varied, whether they animate description (“spiked earth at the/soles/of our feet, heels and the/balls of our feet/pestling/light”), lament (“That the/dead return in luxury cars made/us/weep, pathetic its tin elegance,/pitiable”) or scat (“Iridescent fin,/ redacted foot…/Recidivist fish, irredentist/wuh…”).

Sound is often the immediate hook of Mackey’s lines because his syntax makes sense crabwise. Phrases and lines usually begin without denoting clear subjects or objects (“What the matter was rocked/us”), thereby creating a sensation of suspension often compounded by the presence of the conditional, one of Mackey’s favorite moods. Mackey also enjoys using anagrams and puns to rearrange the familiar into the strange. Because of this crabwise logic Mackey’s lines feel simultaneously abraded and buffed, their meanings fugitive, tremulous, mercurial. “As Monk’s tune ‘Jackie-ing’ tells us,” Mackey has written, “even a so-called proper noun is a verb in disguise–present-participial, provisional, subject to change.” What better way to describe the prosody of Splay Anthem than to call it the art of Mackey-ing?

Splay Anthem is at times difficult, but its difficulty isn’t anything outlandish, since Mackey’s poems work by exploiting the slippages and stutters of ordinary language. And Mackey’s ambition isn’t to perfect a certain experimental strain of literary eloquence. In the preface to Splay Anthem Mackey calls poetry a “phantom limb, as if certain aroused and retained relations among consonants and vowels and progressions of accent were compensatory arms we reach with.” In a sense, the sounds of this phantom limb reincarnate the migratory breakages and drifts chronicled in the poems. When Mackey forces words to creak, he’s not only making a virtue of linguistic flaws but also trying to stretch language to grasp something that he can’t begin to name; the words always fall short, but failure is also evidence of the imperturbable search for an alternate voice. Try again. Creak again. Creak better. The fleeting pleasures of this endless search are spotlighted in Splay Anthem in four poems dedicated to Glenn Spearman, a free-jazz tenor saxophonist in the Coltrane tradition who died in 1998: “Music/the breath we took…. It was only/there we wanted to be, the everywhere/we’d always wanted,/ours,/albeit/only an instant, forever, never to be/heard/from again.”

“Aren’t we all, however absurdly, amputees?” This question is posed by N., a fictional composer and jazz musician, in a letter to his friend Angel of Dust. The missive is the second in a series of N.’s letters, all but two of which have formed the contents of Mackey’s three novels. “Aren’t we all, however absurdly, amputees?” is also a question Mackey has been asking the readers of his poems, with Splay Anthem being its most tenacious expression. The question is a provocative one because it hints that isolation, alienation and struggle aren’t limited to the existential crises of race and the diaspora. We all, however absurdly, may have a phantom limb.

To begin to sense why, abandon yourself to the textures of Mackey’s lines, where you may find yourself facing a landscape of whir, one that, while offering no place to hide from the precariousness of life lived before the unknown, also holds a potential balm. “We stood/on the lake’s bed, what was left/of it,/wished-for new beginnings no beginning,/the new world we expected up in/smoke. Again gave thought to the/he and she we saw embrace, etched/andoumboulouous forms we saw/in the/dirt, thought we saw Rorschachwise,” Mackey writes in “Song of the Andoumboulou: 56.” Splay Anthem is enchanting and haunting, provocative and unsettling. It speaks in a forked tongue, as if, on some lower frequency, it might be Mackey-ing for us all.

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