Reviewed November 1, 2015 by John Tamplin.
If I were to describe as “new” the most persistent strain in Nathaniel Mackey’s most recent collection of poetry, Blue Fasa, I would only demonstrate an indifference to the work’s place in an ongoing serial poem of Mackey’s making. “Serial” does not only mean “sequential”; the uninitiated reader should not avoid this book for lack of familiarity with its predecessors. As Mackey himself notes in the book’s preface, the role of the serial form is analogous to the role of the sympathetic string: “A sympathetic string on the sitar, sarangi and other Indian instruments vibrates in response to a note played on the corresponding main string, sounding, by way of sympathetic resonance, the same note in unison or an octave above or below, or at an interval such as a fifth or a fourth away.” Each instantiation of the serial poem sympathetically vibrates with all its predecessors and successors, to a greater or lesser degree.
One of the book’s two epigraphs is a musical notation of the first phrase of Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa.” In the book’s preface we are referred to a recording of that piece on Joe Henderson’s album Page One, where Dorham’s trumpet solo begins with a raspy variation on the descending opening phrase. The rasp in the trumpet is a clue. “Rasp” is a central concept in Mackey’s poetic practice, a concept whose ramifications he has elaborated in the various prefaces and essays that serve as the critical scaffolding for an ongoing “braid” of his two serial poems, “mu” and Song of the Andoumboulou.
“Rasp,” “scratch,” “fray”; these and other monosyllables variously connote modification, qualification, abrasion, degradation. They also describe a basic verbal technique in Mackey’s verse, a sort of punning made by minimal syllabic or typographic variation. The poem is elaborated in the distance between sound and meaning that comes from rubbing or fraying one word into another. “Moment’s Gnosis,” a sequence of poems early in the book’s first part, is a poignant exploration of the semantic space opened up by the auditory pun on “moment’s notice” (also the title of a track from John Coltrane’s early masterpiece Blue Train) and, later, the visual/typographical pun “moment’s novice.” Mackey writes:
to make moment more than
moment, they kept asking,
to make moment not elapse…
And later, in the same sequence:
I was moment’s novice, as
were we all. I spoke on the near
side of knowing…
These lines sing of an alienation from fleeting, transcendent knowledge. They mourn the loss of momentary ecstasy. The raspy qualification of the singer’s voice, or Kenny Dorham’s trumpet, serves as the musical analogue of this classical lyric complaint: the “frayed” voice of the singer qualifying and contradicting his own transport to the sublime instigating, and/or instigated by, song.
Insofar as there is a grand theme to Mackey’s poetry, it is the lamentation of sublimity’s evanescence. If it were objected that this “theme” is no theme but a necessary condition for most lyric poetry, I could only answer that Mackey’s project is vast. The theme of experiential loss admits of endless elaboration, and Mackey is more interested in getting it all down than committing himself to a creed. Think of jazz. In its halcyon days jazz was encountered in person as live music, and you might have seen Eric Dolphy play the same set a different way every night for three weeks at the Five Spot. There is no such thing as the definitive performance of a tune.
Mackey is a discursive poet. Every statement is qualified, sonically and semantically, and these qualifications play out in the poem just as melodic and harmonic variation elaborate basic riffs in improvised music. Mackey’s musicality hovers on at least two levels, the cognitive and the phrasal. The cognitive music follows the dianoia, the dialectic, the argument of the poem; this music’s themes are those engendered by the application of typographic and sonic stress to words. The cognitive music structures the poem as a whole. But the phrasal musicality is apparent in each line. Listen to these lines from very early in the book:
If I saw myself I saw myself
stagger. To see was to be in my
own way…Albeit to be went
without looking, see caught
delay, see saw possible miscue,
look-see made it so… If I saw
myself I saw myself stumble,
myself steady myself. Quick
step, leg stuck, saw myself
These lines describe a tension between looking/seeing, and being. Looking interrupts our seamless, habitual coping with the world in order to open onto seeing; but looking gives pause, and we gain sight at the cost of stumble, the interruption of our mindless but adequate flow through the world.
But the cognitive music is complemented most musically by incredible phrasings, cadences that trip and stumble across perfectly placed enjambments. The first line’s repetition of “I saw myself” is both protasis and apodosis of the simple conditional; and stutter, the verbal correlative of stumble or stagger. The lines “Albeit to be went/without looking” recall the idiom “it goes without saying,” by which we indicate that something is given or presupposed by all parties. The irony of the idiom is that it is self-contradictory; I have to say that something “goes without saying.” Likewise, looking and seeing occasion a stumble over that which “being” had been before look/see’s intervention. Being is taken for granted, but any other taking of it is troubled. Things are not what they seem; what are they?
The dialectic of vision and being Mackey sets to verbal music reverberates with the passage quoted above, the lines from “Moment’s Gnosis”; for there may be a causal relationship between the difficulty of seeing without stumbling and our alienation from moments of transcendent insight. When I spoke earlier of the persistent “new” strain in Blue Fasa, I meant the book’s preoccupation with ageing and death. But these concerns must be seen to vibrate sympathetically with all that has come before (and is yet to come) in “mu” and Song of the Andoumboulou. Here are lines where ageing is treated as a figure of our falling away from the sublime:
driven mad, he said, waistline, rump-
swell, pout no longer murdered
Missed being murdered, he said. Late
in the day we stood straddling the
tracks, athwart though we rode inside…
The decline of eros, the insensitivity to its crush, is one more mode of sublimity’s lapse. And here is a meditation on death’s inevitability:
It was wasn’t’s grudge against
was come to haunt us, dues time
owed eternity, time fronting time’s
decline… Night Choir caroling
stoic fortitude, soon-come’s
forfeiture, default. Death omni-
vorous, life the anomaly, Night
sang Saturn’s rings wet, galactic
heat the high note they struck…
Enjambment makes a phrase of “dues time” before “time” is predicated; “owed eternity” is, in certain accents, indistinguishable from “old eternity.” “Fronting” recalls affront as much as adjacency: a defiance of the nearness of death, crushed into four words. The new emphasis on death retrospectively informs earlier sections of the serial poem, in earlier volumes, that apparently had more to do with life. But the larger consistencies bind Mackey’s work into an ever-renewed whole.
I have tried to illuminate aspects of Mackey’s musicality. I have had to forgo a treatment of his use of narrative; his eschewal of “phanopoetic snapshot, bare-bones narrative, terse epiphany”; his political concerns; and the various proper names of people and places that darkly recur. Such is the breadth of the poet of Blue Fasa.