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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Nathaniel Mackey: First Person Pronouns and Concrete Settings

[This is a continuing series of posts that reflect on Nathaniel Mackey's Songs of the Andoumboulou from various angles that interest me. I take into consideration his allusions, Mackey's prose, interviews with him, and critical discussions of his work. As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts. To access all of the posts, click on "Nathaniel Mackey" in the list to the right.]

So many of Mackey's poems begin by describing movement: sometimes traveling over continents, sometimes going across town, sometimes moving within a building. Who does this moving? Usually pronouns without antecedents, but in a surprising number of cases, a first person pronoun. This has become more pronounced with time. In Eroding Witness he uses a first person pronoun in the first stanza only once in the seven poems. In School of Udhru the number is seven of eight; in Whatsaid Serif, 14 of 19; and in Splay Anthem, 16 of 25.

From this here and now, this placed place, Mackey moves on to his famous philosophical, aesthetic and musical leaps.

He begins with physical motion in a specific and concrete setting, then moves outward (elsewhere).

And what comes later is not fragmentation and not fragments. Fragmentation assumes a prior whole. There is no prior whole in my cosmogony, and I suspect there is none in Mackey's as well.

What we move through are parts and portions, gleanings and guesses, speculations and pulsations.

Images and ideas hit us like the burst of a trumpet, a quick alto solo. Sometimes a longer, honking solo, darting about in myriad directions but held together only by its momentum, by the determination of the musician to bend and bend again, to the exigencies of the unfolding song, to his fellows.

Some poems creak and crack like Henry Threadgill's sextett of the 80's: short solos, stop-time transitions, unexpected instrumental combinations. See the albums When Was That?(october 1981), Just the Facts And Pass The Bucket (march 1983), Subject To Change (december 1984), You Know the Number (october 1986), Easily Slip Into Another World (september 1987),Rag Bush And All (december 1988).

Rhythms appearing and disappearing, coming back later, maybe appearing in the next poem, or three poems down the line.

The same for the lyric variables, the sounds; shapes appearing and disappearing, coming back later, maybe appearing in the next poem, or three poems down the line.

Some poems hold together, "Madame Erzulie"; some scatter, #16.

In Threadgill's band, rhythms switch, structures come and go, wrong notes are repeated until they are right, and throughout is the winding and rearing alto saxophone.

Why do I choose him?

While Threadgill's music can get raucous at times, there is always a dignity and restraint present. He does not seem to want to get into some spiritual sphere, some ecstatic zone as does the later Coltrane. I know that Mackey speaks of ecstasy and spiritual release, but I must say that I don't see the drive of Coltrane in his verse a whole lot. In those lines that seem to dance down the page there is an orderliness, and there is often not a lot of tonal variation: Mackey might be interested in ecstasy, but his tone is overwhelmingly reflective.

I say this not as a criticism, but simply as a way of characterizing his verse. There was not a lot of tonal variation or lineal experimentation in Stevens, but he is still considered great.

For comparison's sake, it might be useful for me to list some poems that emphasize ecstasy and or spirituality over reflection. Dickinson's poems on death and sex, "My life had stood a loaded gun." Some of Niedecker's nature poems. Clark Coolidge's mid-70's Polaroid and The Maintains. Almost all of Jayne Cortez.

In the look of his poems on the page, Mackey has invented a new poetic form, one specific to him, but it's still a form. If you hold up his books at arm length, the unreadable lines would look pretty much the same from page to page. Indentation on both the left and right. A variable number of words per line. Often, a sort of one word bob and wheel at the end of a stanza, which both connects and separates.

It wouldn't be as regular as holding up a page of Shakespeare's sonnets, but it would probably be almost as regular as a page of Wordsworth. And it would most certainly be more regular than Olson, Levertov, some of Creeley.

To a degree, this form stems from some of Robert Duncan's poems from the mid-60's on. But a lot of it is simply Mackey.

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