Epic poem by Nathaniel Mackey



Since 2015, following the Charleston Church massacre, protest groups and municipalities across the United States have removed more than 150 Confederate memorials. If toppling a statue is an exclamation point, calling into question an interpretation of the story, the empty spaces that remain leave us with a lingering set of question marks. One question – what to do with vacancies – prompted various responses. Some advocate erecting elaborate memorials to the liberation of blacks, while others have proposed simply preserving the vestigial pedestals, without any distinctive markings. But these questions escape the more central question. The story of black fugitivity – with its resistance to state-sanctioned power structures – contradicts the ideology of monuments for several reasons, the implicit embrace of fixity being perhaps the most apparent.

The tension between fugitivity and monuments is nonetheless proving to be generative in the recent publication of the eminent scholar and poet Nathaniel Mackey. With over a thousand pages, his much anticipated three-book box Double Threesome has monumentality written everywhere. Laid flat, the imposing three-in-one volume itself resembles a vacant marble plinth. Yet Mackey offers a different approach to the memorialization project: rather than freezing public memory in stone, the work attains its monumental size by abandoning such predilections. While monuments commonly exist as a means of grip, Mackey’s makes a monumental gesture of letting go. Both collective and individual memories appear and disappear without warning – giving up one gives way to the other – in a meditative work that seems to be able to stop at any moment or continue indefinitely.

Over the past 15 years, Mackey has achieved a status seldom achieved by writers of any kind, let alone those who eschew the appeal of conventional forms. His eminence in the fields of experimental literature and diasporic studies is in part due to his mastery of various types of writing. While poets wrote lengthy essays on poetic form, Mackey was part of a first generation to be dubbed as a literary scholar, perhaps serving as a prime example of what we mean by the phrase “poet.” -critical”. In Double Threesome, his idea for the poem remains in many ways a reflection on the writers who feature prominently in his own critical writing: Amiri Baraka, Kamau Brathwaite, Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. Yet where they have undergone many stylistic changes over the course of their careers, Mackey has stayed the course, arriving early on, arriving at a poetic idiom that has remained flexible enough to carry him through his previous six collections, each as Double trio, composed of two poems in ongoing series, “Chant de l’Andoumboulou” and “Mu.

Photo by Nina Subin

This idiom – characterized by subjunctive syntax, penetrating repetition, and hypnotic alliteration – draws heavily on Mackey’s ubiquitous interest in improvisational music. Former DJ of public radio, he puts his discographic intelligence at the service of a range of expressive forms, from epistolary novels and scholarly monographs to long poems and solo writing of the review. Ham bone. In these endeavors, Mackey is crafting an ever-evolving dissonance-tuned canon, where various song traditions merge and clash over the promise of utopia, on the fringes of mainstream society.

Double Threesome It is the kind of literary object that only a prominent poet, with a series of awards (Ruth Lilly, Bollingen, National Book), could make, or rather have published. Even with the rise in notoriety, Mackey’s writing remains a broad, heavy chronicle of speculative migration – following as it does a traveling gang of troubadours from one strange outpost to another. Here he extends the epic sweep that has been part of his work from his early chapbooks to the level of book design. Far from being a superficial projection of literary reputation, this chance to experiment with container size allowed Mackey to bring his famous brand of cross-cultural poetics to our moment of contested monumentality.

This subject of monumentality materializes throughout the book as a thematic concern. An instance arrives towards the end of the first volume, Tej Bet.

Sister C stood white as a ghost, never more
  naked, no coat of color in sight's way. What
we saw in her face was its critique of sight's
  tease, musing forfeiture, straw we grabbed at,
                                                                                       grope
  no matter we might. "Say something," it said,
unremitting, "Say something," meaning to or
  not. "Say something," the it underneath it also
                                                                                       said...
  "Dreamt I woke up dreaming dream's defeat,"
we all said at once. We held our noses at the polling
  place. Not to get weary she counseled us, weary
though we already were. No one worth voting for to
                                                                                            vote
  for, we broke into a dragged-foot walk. It was a 
slow commencement walk, dirgelike, polis's roots'
  recall... Polis was a wall we remembered, polis
                                                                                       was

to keep others out. We make our peace with the
  passing of things caroling complaint, peace our
 bulería belied. Piled rocks, rock pile, part spill, 
                                                                                        part
  rumba, peace with the passage of time. Polis's
would be reign armed against it, slow tread we gave
  ourselves over too, up to, monument's erosion we
                                                                                             re-
  hearsed...

Returning to Olson’s idealization of the Greek city-state, Mackey, always the suspicious annoyance, reminds us that the polis is always the police, taxes, ineffective polemics and territorial partitions. Mackey’s tendency to speak through an invocation of the unspeakable is here contextualized by the story of the suppression of black voters and the closing of borders in the United States. The death of the dream, alluding to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech and Ezra Pound’s “The Huge Tragedy of the Dream”, is felt in the material collapse of the 1965 Law on the right to vote, as well as the lack of viable options for minority representation.

Mackey’s meditation on political representation turns into a consideration of the monument’s representational politics. It connects the beaten stone and the enslaved population by the invocation of “[p]rocks, pile of rocks. The implicit image of a chain gang suggests something larger than the monument. This something is the condition of common weariness, expressed by the song of work, the rumba and the bulería flamenca. As a collective spirit, common weariness poses alternatives to monumentality. The “dragged walk” triggers a “slow start”, where slow implies letting go, in opposition to the aspirational permanence of state monumentality. The “slow walk” sees value not in standing the test of time, but in “making peace with the passing of things”. The work of alternative monumentality lies in the permanent repetition of the erosion of the monument.

The ethics of letting go take on increased importance given Mackey’s admission in the preface he wrote Double Threesome in “a period in which previous health crises continued to occur, with new complications and greater severity”. More than any of its previous volumes, this collection has a plaintive, almost confessional note. In a surprisingly unusual poem, Mackey chronicles the act of letting go of those material things that made his poetic life possible, doing so, ironically, by letting go of his own infallibly regular sense of form.

The box of lens wipes on the desk
  across the room rubbed away...
The sheen on the wood floor erased...
                                                                   The

  mug of tea on the coffee table up
in steam... The Frances Gray poster
  gone in a flash... The rollaway, write-on
measuring tape dispatched... The Julius
                                                                           Hemp-

  phill record whisked away... The Leila
Pinheiro CD a quick mist... The Splen-
  dours and Miseries book fallen through the
                                                                               floor...

  All just barely a begin-
ning

The lyrics have none of Mackey’s characteristic disembodied dialogue between characters as irritable as they are playful; no names rearranged to the point that naming becomes a philosophical affair; and no mythopoetic investigation of any of the many African Orishas. In the absence of these formal features, which make Mackey’s line the equivalent of Miles’ muffled trumpet, recognizable everywhere, the passage appears to be almost conventional. And yet, the poem only disguises itself as an everyday story. It’s a visionary experience, evident in Mackey’s emphasis not on the visible but on the invisible, not on the things themselves, but on their alluring disappearance. The effect is melancholy, for it is a sobering sight. The material realm, with its illusions of certainty and solidity, has melted into the air, foreshadowing the poet’s own downfall.

These two concerns – the external crises of white nationalism and the internal crisis of deteriorating health – explain the monumental size of the Double trio. In the preface, Mackey reveals that such severities prompted him to turn with a renewed commitment to the prospect of a daily practice of poetry. “During this time,” he wrote, “a certain disposition or dispensation occurred to me which I would characterize or sum up with the words music all day long.” What Mackey gets from the whole day, as opposed to the everyday, is a sense of continuous availability, a rhapsodic counterpart to the ticker, allowing the poet some leeway to digest or digress. The continued nature of the numbers throughout the day at the end of the above lyrics. Though devoid of the frills, the lines retain one of the characteristic Mackey-style tics: the monosyllabic orphan word suspended dangerously above the rim. This remnant pulls us through the vision, never allowing us to stay too long in loss. Letting go is never gone; he continues, “barely a start”.

Double Threesome by Nathaniel Mackey is published by New Directions and is available online and in bookstores.



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