“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.