Nathaniel Mackey’s Blue Fasa is the latest installment of an ever-expanding “life work” in the tradition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and William Carlos Williams’s Paterson. Mackey, a recent recipient of the Ruth Lilly and Bollingen Prizes, has been adding new sections to the long poems Song of the Andoumboulou and “Mu” for decades. These two strands first emerged in Eroding Witness (1985) and were explicitly intertwined in the National Book Award–winning Splay Anthem (2006). What Mackey now calls “a long song that’s one and more than one” is a tale of the tribe with a planetary scope, an expansive lyrico-epic worthy of the cultural demands of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Mackey’s long song speaks to a range of conditions of uprootedness across time and space, conveying the affect of such diasporic experiences through a powerful musicality:
there no matter where we were,
we of the phonographic
diaspora motored on, we of
inconsequent arrival, we of
the interminable skid.
The protagonists of Song of the Andoumboulou and “Mu” have been involved in an (anti-) epic journey with an endlessly deferred and receding nostos, or homecoming, a voyage as much spiritual as spatial, involving incessant arrivals and departures, deaths and rebirths, as well as sudden and periodic additions to a cast of colorful characters. (Blue Fasa features the emergence of “Mr. P” and “Mrs. Vex,” for example.) In Splay Anthem, Mackey calls this collectivity “a lost tribe of sorts, a band of nervous travelers [who] know nothing if not locality’s discontent, ground gone under.” “Phonographic” is an apt term for their arduous, sometimes traumatic, sometimes oneiric sojourn from locale to locale, since this diaspora is accompanied by an eclectic, ongoing soundtrack. The poem begins in Jaipur and hits such real, allegorical, and mythical stops as “Stick City,” Atlantis, East St. Louis, Tetuán, and Baltimore before traversing Uttar Pradesh. All the while, songs often come on as if played on some spectral jukebox, segueing, for example, from Billy Paul to Charles Mingus: “They were Mrs. Vex and Mr. / Fret but on the box ‘Me / and Mrs. Jones.’ 1972 it might’ve been. . . . The / Black / Saint and the Sinner Lady / followed, ‘Solo Dancer.’”
The ambiguous “we” of Mackey’s extended poem scratch—and, in scratching, sound—what the canny theorist of the phonograph Ralph Ellison might call the “groove[s] of history.” They brush history against the grain by rasping a skidding stylus against its inscriptions: “Endless / ignition, it sounded like, it went / on, unending. . . Static. Rasp and / abra- / sion. Scuff. . . .” Even as they are hurt by history and are, by turns, caught in and excluded by it, they—however syncopatedly—manage to groove to it:
Down on all fours,
we called what we were doing danc-
ing. We called what Nunca and
Anuncio were doing dancing,
The penultimate enjambment that fractures the word “different” makes it possible to read “ferent” as a neologism derived from the Middle English fere, meaning “able to go, in health” and “able, strong; sound, ‘whole’.” The seemingly paradoxical logic of steps that are at once footless and“ferent” has precedent in Mackey’s work. In his essay “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol,” he describes the dancing limp of Legba, the Fon-Yoruba deity, as a “‘defective’ capacity,” “an emblem of heterogeneous wholeness”: “Impairment taken to higher ground, remediated, translates damage and disarray into a dance.”
Enjambment is a fundamental poetic device that can qualify a semantic unit with a prosodic one. But Mackey’s use of it is specifically Legbic. (The word “enjamb” comes from the French jambe or “leg.”) In “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol,” Mackey builds on Williams’s idea of the “variable foot,” suggesting a poetry of what we might call a “variable leg”: “Legba walks with a limp because his legs are of unequal lengths, one of them anchored in the world of humans and the other in that of the gods.” We might see the short, one-word line “the” in the phrase “we of / the / inconsequent arrival” as a dancing limp between longer lines. Indeed, one of the distinctive rewards of reading Mackey’s poetry is tracking how he dances across the worlds of sound and sense with feet firmly anchored in both.
Mackey’s lyricism seeks to heal the contemporary rift between poetry and music through a kind of “root work.”
Mackey’s music can be appreciated apart from his complex subject matter and rich intellectual content, but it is also a potent form through which his political and cosmological vision finds an elegantly articulated instantiation. His poetics of the long poem draws on many sources. It takes a cue from jazz avant-gardist Don Cherry, the music of the Dogon of Mali (whose mythology tells of the Andoumboulou, a “flawed, earlier form of human being”), and the ritual song of the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea. It is also inspired by the serialism of New American poets Robin Blaser, Robert Duncan, and Jack Spicer, the extended compositions and improvisations of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane, the ancient African oral epic The Dausi, and what he has called the “divergent, refractory practices” and “linguistic marronnage” of Kamau Brathwaite’s Afro-Caribbean trilogies.
To help readers make sense of his vast pantheon of influences, his syncretic ecology of references, and his often brilliantly punning allusions, Mackey begins Blue Fasa with a preface, which continues and extends the remarkable preface to Splay Anthem. Like liner notes to an album, it offers important contextual information. We learn, for example, that the book’s striking title merges trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s bossa nova–inspired “Blue Bossa” with the Fasa clan of The Dausi, suggesting an intriguing circum-Atlantic conversation. Mackey promotes not only a Poundian “ABC of reading” but also an XYZ of xylophonic listening.
Blue Fasa’s preface is also an incisive statement of poetics, a kind of serial manifesto. Mackey observes that the lyric, which originated in “the musical instrument the ancient Greeks accompanied songs and recitations with,” is “of late being so widely equated with phanopoetic snapshot, bare-bones narrative, terse epiphany and the like much more than with music, signaling an ongoing split between poetry and musicality.” Mackey’s lyricism is radical in that it seeks to renovate the root of lyric and heal the contemporary rift between poetry and music through a kind of “root work.” Root work itself is related to hoodoo, a magico-shamanic practice which, as Zora Neale Hurston says, is “older than writing.” Rather than rely on a predictable binary between lyric and experimental forms, Mackey takes both in new directions by turning not to the mellifluous music of comforting listening but to traditions of black music that cut with a radical edge—what he calls, for example, the “dues-demanding sound” of African-American blues or Dorham’s hard bop revision of samba into something “bluesier, more propulsive, more boisterous . . . with the memory of harder diasporic times.”
Riffing on Louis Zukofsky’s oft-cited poetic “integral” of “Lower limit speech / Upper limit music,” Mackey proposes the limits of “check” and “enchantment”—the former a form of critical testing or critique as well as a challenging of power (in the way that a king is put “in check” on a chessboard) and the latter deriving from the Latin cantare, “to sing.” “Poetry is the art of having both,” says Mackey, though he chides the contemporary scene for its “recent turn toward promoting check over enchantment.” He insists that protest and critique can be embedded within the materiality of a poem’s music: “The long song, the long poem, particularly the serial poem, the extended lyric, is one in which carol and qualm, carol and qualification, carol and caveat run as one.” Mackey finds a key example of this restless, discursive music in Coltrane’s version of “I Want to Talk About You” from Coltrane Live at Birdland, a song in which, as Amiri Baraka has suggested, “each one of the notes is given the possibility of ‘infinite’ qualification.”
In translating a musical aesthetic to the realm of language, Mackey achieves an art of qualification not only through obvious features of repetition and enjambment but also through the subtle involutions of his figurative syntax. He insistently shuffles around what linguists call the “canonical word order” of a subject-verb-object sentence, often putting the object before both the subject and the verb. The inversion creates a sense of disorientation that mirrors that of the poem’s travelers: “The near side of sound’s end we pulled / into next.” It seems that sound is always a step ahead of us, proleptic and perhaps prophetic.
Equally unconventional is a section from “Song of the Andoumboulou: 89” that begins,
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
These lines contain several strategies of repetition: assonance (was, grudge, come, us; time, decline; doom, fortitude, soon); consonance (dues, decline; forfeiture, default); antanaclasis, the repetition of a word with a change in meaning or grammatical function (was as verb and was as noun); and polyptoton, the repetition of a word through a different form (was, wasn’t’s; time, time’s). In such a short passage, these patterns create a dense sheet of sound, an energetic array of recursive echoes.
Even more subtle is Mackey’s use of the construction “It was X that Y,” which linguists call a “cleft,” as in “It was wasn’t’s grudge against / was come to haunt us.” Why cleave the sentence into two parts? Why not adhere to canonical word order (“Wasn’t’s grudge against was [had] come to haunt us”)? The cleft version accentuates the noun phrase “wasn’t’s grudge against / was,” which Mackey also introduces with rising metrical feet. Listeners better apprehend and remember material focused by such semantic structures; it is tempting, therefore, to understand Mackey’s use of them as a mnemonic storytelling device, a way of orienting listeners among constantly shifting language and information.
Sound is always a step ahead of us, proleptic and perhaps prophetic.
But Mackey also establishes focus specifically for the sake of refocusing. In his strategic attention to the sentence’s predicate, the accent on “wasn’t’s grudge /against was” allows, in turn, an improvisational accumulation of meanings: “dues time / owed eternity, time fronting time’s / decline.” Syntax, in other words, is the engine that drives Mackey’s propulsive, dues-demanding sound; it helps it “motor on.” Cleft begets riff, which begets a remarkable cleaving together of musical phrases, an odic extension of variation: “It was an ode to the nth self / and soul our ride rang changes on, / bled / undercoat’s blue primer painted / over, a coat of many colors we / wanted to say.”
Despite their ever-changing ride, Mackey’s band of nervous travelers are “[n]ot yet / there no matter where [they are]”—in part because, as he noted in a 1998 interview, “There’s a way in which that old line of [Gertrude] Stein’s, ‘there’s no there there,’ is always true.” There’s no there there because the ground continually shifts and goes under in his synesthetic, hallucinatory topographies: “There were notes hung from / branches, faint, scribbly, what- / nots, sound more than scent, / Lebanese perfume.” Linguists call this sort of sentence “existential,” because it asserts the existence of something; as with the “it” in cleft constructions, the word “there” doesn’t refer to a thing or place. Opening a sentence with such placeholder words leaves the predicate open to rich possibilities for elaboration: cleft and existential structures have, as Mackey says elsewhere, a particular “openness to openness.”
Mackey includes such constructions within larger units, achieving deeper levels of qualification and clarification, implying that the partiality of one phrase just won’t do. Here, a “pseudo-cleft” sentence follows another in a stunning parallelism:
remained was to pry the one from the one,
two we rode concurrently from the two we
were alternately on. . . What remained was
to sort knowing from knowing, know with
cloud as the cloud the sun’s glare created
the tunnel our hair had grown
This layering of syntax is aspirational, as if the cleaving could help perform the prying and sorting of which the sentences speak. Mackey suggests that pseudo-clefts can help us “know with / no,” that is to reach a negative knowledge such as that described in The Cloud of Unknowing, a medieval mystical text to which he alludes by way of homophonic pun.
Mackey’s figurative syntax displaces and replaces linguistic units at the same time that it articulates states of exile and ecstasy (a standing outside oneself). It speaks to the condition of Mackey’s lost and displaced tribe, whose trans-historical “songs of transit” evoke, as he says in Splay Anthem’spreface, “travel and migration,” which “for the vast majority of people have been and continue to be unhappy if not catastrophic occurrences brought about by unhappy if not catastrophic events: the Middle Passage, the Spanish Expulsion, the Irish Potato Famine, conscripted military service, indentured labor systems, pursuit of asylum. . . ” Mackey’s ellipsis deliberately breaks off what could be a much longer series of unhappy traumas, travels, and travails from the past, present, and future.
“[T]o see / ourselves we set ourselves adrift,” goes a haunting phrase from Blue Fasa. As I type these words, thousands of Rohingya, a stateless ethnic minority fleeing persecution in Myanmar, are at sea in precarious vessels, being turned away by Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The Mediterranean migrant crisis continues into a new season. At the same time, the problems driving the Central American migration crisis, which so heavily affected the U.S. border last year, have not been ameliorated. One mark of great poetry is its transpersonal potential, its capacity to resonate with a myriad of social contexts. The fact that Blue Fasa can speak to such geopolitically fraught migrations in registers of both “check” and “enchantment” is nothing short of astounding.