Nathaniel Mackey’s Epic Poem

Since 2015, following the Charleston Church Massacre, protest groups and municipalities across the United States have removed over 150 Confederate memorials. If toppling a statue is an exclamation point, challenging one interpretation of history, the empty spaces that remain leave us with a lingering set of question marks. One question — what to do with the vacancies — has prompted a variety of responses. Some advocate for erecting elaborate memorials to Black liberation, while others have proposed simply preserving the vestigial pedestals, with all distinguishing marks removed. But these questions sidestep the more central issue. The history of Black fugitivity — with its resistance to state-sanctioned power structures — stands at odds with the ideology of monuments on several grounds, the implicit embrace of fixity being perhaps the most apparent.

The tension between fugitivity and monuments nevertheless proves generative in the recent publication by the eminent scholar and poet Nathaniel Mackey. At over a thousand pages, his highly anticipated three-book box set Double Trio has monumentality written all over it. Laid flat, the hulking three-in-one tome itself resembles a vacant marble plinth. Yet Mackey suggests a different approach to the project of memorialization: Rather than fixing public memory in stone, the work attains its monumental size by abandoning such predilections. If monuments commonly exist as a means of taking hold, Mackey’s makes a monumental gesture out of letting go. Memories both collective and individual appear and disappear without warning — surrendering one makes room for another — in a meditative work that feels as if it could stop at any moment or continue on forever.

Over the past 15 years, Mackey has ascended to a status rarely achieved by writers of any sort, let alone those who avoid the call of conventional forms. His eminence in the fields of experimental literature and diasporic studies is in part due to his fluency with various kinds of writing. While poets have long written essays about poetic form, Mackey was part of an early generation to double as literary scholar, serving as perhaps the leading example of what we mean by the phrase “poet-critic.” In Double Trio, his idea of the poem remains in many ways a reflection on those writers who figure prominently in his own critical writing: Amiri Baraka, Kamau Brathwaite, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan. Yet where they’ve gone through numerous stylistic changes over their careers, Mackey has stayed the course, arriving at a poetic idiom early on that has remained flexible enough to carry him through all six of his previous collections, each, like Double Trio, comprised of two ongoing serial poems, “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “Mu.

Photo by Nina Subin

This idiom — characterized by subjunctive syntax, permeative repetition, and hypnotic alliteration — draws heavily upon Mackey’s omnipresent interest in improvisational music. A one-time public radio DJ, he brings his discographic intelligence to bear on a range of expressive forms, from the epistolary novel and scholarly monograph to the long-form poem and solo editorship of the journal Hambone. In these endeavors, Mackey works out an ever-evolving canon attuned to dissonance, where diverse traditions of song coalesce and clash over the promise of utopia, at the margins of mainstream society.

Double Trio is the kind of literary object that only a prominent poet, with a string of awards (Ruth Lilly, Bollingen, National Book), could make, or rather get published. Even with the increase in notoriety, Mackey’s writing remains a vast, unwieldy chronicle of speculative migration — following as it does a roving band of troubadours from one outlandish outpost to another. Here, he extends the epic sweep that has been a part of his work going back to his first chapbooks to the level of book design. Far from being a superficial projection of literary reputation, this chance to experiment with the size of the container has enabled Mackey to bring his celebrated brand of cross-cultural poetics to bear on our moment of disputed monumentality.

This subject of monumentality materializes throughout the book as a thematic concern. One instance comes near 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, ever the wary contrarian, reminds us that polis is still the police, poll taxes, ineffectual polemics and territorial partitions. Mackey’s tendency to speak through an invocation of the unspeakable is contextualized here by the history of Black voter suppression and closed borders in the United States. The death of the dream, alluding to Martin Luther King Jr.’s renowned “I Have a Dream” speech and Ezra Pound’s “The enormous tragedy of the dream,” is felt in the material collapse of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, as well as the lack of viable options for minority representation.

Mackey’s meditation on political representation morphs into a consideration of the representational politics of the monument. He links the battered stone and the subjugated population through the invocation of “[p]iled rocks, rock pile.” The implied image of a chain gang suggests something larger than the monument. This something is the condition of common weariness, expressed as the work song, the rhumba, and the flamenco bulería. As a collective spirit, common weariness poses alternatives to monumentality. The “dragged foot walk” sets off a “slow commencement,” where slow implies letting go, in opposition to the aspirational permanence of state monumentality. The “slow tread” sees value not in standing the test of time but in “making our peace with the passing of things.” The work of alternative monumentality lies in the ongoing rehearsal of the monument’s erosion.

The ethos of letting go carries increased significance given Mackey’s admission in the preface that he wrote Double Trio in “a period during which earlier health crises continued to occur, with further complications and greater severity.” More than any of his previous volumes, this collection strikes a plaintive, almost confessional note. In a strikingly uncharacteristic poem, Mackey narrates the act of letting go of those material things that have made possible his poetic life, doing so, ironically, through letting go of his own unerringly 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 lyric has 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 matter; and no mythopoetic inquests to one of several African Orishas. In the absence of those formal features, that make Mackey’s line the equivalent of Miles’s muted trumpet, recognizable from around the block, the passage appears to be almost conventional. And yet, the poem only masquerades as an account of the everyday. It is a visionary experience, evident in the emphasis Mackey places not on the visible but the invisible, not on things themselves, but on their beguiling disappearance. The effect is melancholic, for it is a sobering vision. The material realm, with its illusions of certainty and solidity, has melted into air, an omen of the poet’s own undoing.

These two concerns — the external crises of white nationalism and the internal crisis of deteriorating health — account for the monumental size of the Double Trio. In the preface, Mackey discloses that such severities stirred him to turn with renewed commitment to the prospect of a daily poetry practice. “During this time,” he writes, “a certain disposition or dispensation came upon me that I would characterize or sum up with the words all day music.” What Mackey gets from the all day, as opposed to the everyday, is a sense of ongoing availability, a rhapsodic counterpart to the news ticker, enabling the poet some latitude to either digest or digress. The ongoing nature of the all day figures at the end of the lyric above. Though stripped bare of flourish, the lines maintain one of the characteristic tics of the Mackey style: the monosyllabic orphan word hanging perilously over the edge. This one remnant pulls us through the vision, never allowing us to settle too long in loss. Letting go is never gone; it continues on, “just barely a begin-/ning.”

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

Memories appear and disappear in a meditative work that feels as if it could stop at any moment or continue on forever.Read MoreBooks, Long poems, Nathaniel Mackey, Poetry, Reviews, WeekendHyperallergicRead More

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