Online Edition: Summer 2006

This is a printer-friendly version of this article. Click here to return to Rain Taxi.

Splay Anthem by Nathaniel Mackey

Splay Anthem

Nathaniel Mackey

New Directions ($15.95)

by Grant Jenkins

In Nathaniel Mackey’s latest book of poems, Splay Anthem, we see a poet at the height of his powers. Gathering work published over the past decade in journals as various as Calalloo and Conjunctions, Splay Anthem is Mackey’s first book of poems since 1998’s Whatsaid Serif and consists exclusively of poems from two continuing series, “Mu” and “The Song of the Andoumboulou.” The book contains “Mu” parts 15-40 and “Andoumbolou” 40-60, with each poem counting as one in the other series though not named as such. For instance, “Andoumboulou: 40” is also the nineteenth part of “Mu” though the former is not explicitly titled as a “Mu” poem. Begun back in the 1970s, these two open-ended series are Mackey’s greatest achievement to date and make this book essential to anyone interested in the African, American, and African-American future of the avant garde.

Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of the book is the preface, a “paratext” in Susan Vanderbourg’s sense of the word, that refines and redefines the parameters and purposes of the two twin and incestuously intertwined series. Invoking jazz legend Don Cherry and the funeral rites of Africa’s Dogon tribes, Mackey claims that the most apparent commonality between the poems is music. On the one side, you have the Dogon song, “a long, laconic voice—gravelly, raspy, reluctant—recounting the creation of the world and the advent of human life. Other voices likewise reticent, dry, join in, eventually build into song, a scratchy, low-key chorus.” On the other hand, “Mu” echoes Cherry’s trumpet and Trane’s sax, which in the words of Amiri Baraka, Mackey tells us, sounds like “a grown man learning to speak.” Both descriptions fit one series as well as the other.

Besides music, the poems, according to Mackey, share an interest in myth, migration, and the failure and process of human life. The Andoumboulou, “a failed, earlier form of human life” in Dogon cosmology, emblematize for Mackey humanity as a “work-in-progress.” But in these series Mackey is not content merely to reflect, in some sort of vulgar realism, that failure. “It is also a way of challenging reality,” he writes, “a sense in which to dream is not to dream but to replace waking with realization, an ongoing process of testing or contesting reality, subjecting it to change or a demand for change.” In addition to the musicians, Mackey claims in the preface Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Edward Dahlberg, and Robert Creeley as the poetry’s literate forbearers, and the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea in addition to the Dogon and American avant-jazz as their cultural ones.

The interpretive nature of this preface challenges us as readers to test its claims for ourselves in our reading of the poems. Like broken shards of a mirror, each piece almost equally reflects each of the above elements. This synechdotal logic can be seen particularly well in the first lines of “Spectral Escort”:

Not exactly a boat or

        not only a boat…

Weathervane, boat,

    flag rolled into

one, furled spur

                      it

    fell to us to

unravel… What

    we’d risen above

        tiptoed up in

back of us. Lipped

    hollow, big

                blow-thru

gust we roughed

                      our

    heads with, we

of the andoumboulouous

    brush… Bank of

                                 shade

        mouth of shadow,

fraught mouth. Deep

    song’s bucketmouth,

Rubichi’s caught mouth

                             moaned,

dreaming’s ever after

    intransigent, ultimacy’s

ruse make more obdurate,

                               “mu”

Along with Olson’s idea of myth as muthos, Greek for “myth” and “mouth,” which Mackey mentions, this poem also implies Olson’s poetic imperative to “find out for oneself,” since the boat is also a boat and not just a mythic symbol. We also see Creeley’s short line and Duncan’s use of tabs and spaces to denote both song and gaps in visual page space. But beyond these influences, we hear the echoes of African shores painted by drum brushes and the stutter of jazz lead rhythms. This cross-cultural mélange is what Mackey is best known for.

But like the spectral Andoumboulou themselves, this poetry does not always “work,” and praise be. Within the music and the naming of the poems and their paratext is a current of “more than could be said of it said,” in which the poetry overflows its banks and floods chaotically the plane of the book. Such paradoxical phrases, along with the consistently tortured syntax of both series, unsay anything the poem might say or more-say. Understanding the deconstructive limit of any pronouncement or self-description, Mackey understands that his account of the poem in the preface will too fail, as will any critical account. But the preface, in its paratactic and poetic form, embodies not a singular form of argument but a dual movement, like the sides of a crab, that favors the break downs and gaps in language as well as its ordered aspect. We see in the poetry not fear for this phenomenon but an enactment of it, in a splayed anthem. Hence the book is divided into three parts, “Braid,” “Fray,” and “Nub,” the last part providing, perhaps, an alternative to the double-bind of opposition:

                Nub, no longer standing,

        filled the air, an exact powder, fell

                                                                   as

    we ran thru it, earth-sway swaddling

                                                              our

  feet

If you are reading Mackey for the first time, the humility embodied in this book provides the perfect entry into his work. Start here and work back, crab-like, through the rest of the poems in these influential series and Mackey’s entire corpus.

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.com