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Double Trio: A Restless Messengers Symposium

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The Subtleties of Ascension: Nathaniel Mackey’s Books of So

Joseph Donahue


Over as many books as are now doubled in Double Trio, a rich range of spiritual materials have taken their place in Nathaniel Mackey’s poetry. Prominent among these materials are historically interrelated, but distinct, ascensional discourses, each arising from a pervasive situation:  We’re in a bad place; we want one better. We’re in a place of pain, disappointment, oppression, and death, also known as Nub. What might seem at first separate concerns, Free jazz, Sufism, shamanism, gnostic thought, alchemy, tantrism, civil rights struggle, and open field poetics, comprise a single tale, an ever-unfolding supreme fiction. Each discourse imagines an ascent, out of the bad place; each also opens craters in that ascent. The fiction might be the myth of a mount, outside of Carmel, if not a Mt Carmel, rising in the midst of a Nub bordering on Blake’s Ulro. Mackey’s pilgrims, and so his readers, keep climbing up over ground going under. This may simply be because a key locale in Mackey’s psycho-spiritual geography is California, that long strip of Lone Coast. It helps to recall what some of his select discourses are explicit about: who we are. We have fallen from infinity into matter. At times the world of the long song may be a gnostic prison, but we are not helpless, or solely dependent on the awakening of a divine spark within. The long song relentlessly obsesses on ways to get out of where we are, to ascend, in whatever way, to whatever degree, and to endure the smack-downs of fate.


Here to there, all over the earth, however deftly or inexpertly pilgrims move through the long song, incursions of verticality challenge their balance. Could be merely a sign to rise up out of wherever one is, but that’s never quite sure. For Mackey, the divine is intrusive, yet too distant. The showing forth of the sacred is as common as loquats, but the gods presumed to be the source of the sacred seldom show themselves. They have, however, sent us John Coltrane. The prime teaching of this prophet is ascension. He even puts the word Ascension on the cover of a record, so there can be no excuse for gnostic laggards. This is no secret teaching. If there is an esoteric structure shaping the long song, I have to believe it will only reveal itself through grasping the interrelation of the exoteric discourses. Whichever of ascensions that we might take up, it will demand we imagine ourselves as within some vision of “tradition.” Whichever tradition, our advance in understanding, from fallenness to vision of the kingdom, relies on devotion and discipline. (No point just waiting for Jesus, as Baraka reminds us.) The devotion can be a bliss but also unease and bewilderment, perhaps because the discipline perpetually proposes, then upends, any hierarchy of upward. Mackey can be as paradisal as Pound, but there is seldom if ever a depiction of a light that falls on our suffering as if out of the blue. Mackey’s ladder to heaven is like that of Duncan, or Kelly, or Jay Wright, or H.D. A perception of steps upward, out of this world, is incessantly offered, then qualified, dismissed, and only after more wandering, recovered. Is this a wisdom as such? Too early to say. But there is a continual deepening of the texture of existence, amid ever more trying tests, and terrors, as these volumes document. There is, as well, an heroically unrepentant, dare I say shameless, craving for ecstasy. Ecstasy is the goal of all these ascensional discourses, and it does not just happen. It is not simply a gift from Jah. It is the fruit of focused study, of will, of self-appraisal, of ritual practice, of suffering and happenstance that reveal aspects of the divine.


The mythological foundations of the long song   (Andoumboulou and Mu) root all ascensional discourses in catastrophe. In regard to the first myth, humanity is a minimally ascended form. The gods botched the first draft. Here, as in Judaic lore, appears a vision of the divine creative intelligence for whom the world is itself a work in progress. God is, in effect, a serial poet. The Creation is all about the process. The truth of this, of a serial cosmology, scotches nostalgia for an unfallen state. If all is continuously composed in the moment, what Eden is there to be recovered? Are we “always already” there? If so, why do we feel so miserable? Mackey’s travelers are never free of this earlier draft of humanity. Fate can drop them to the status of poorly made at whim. To be Andoumboulou is less than human, but it may also be more, because the Andoumboulou are a link to a suprasensible world, perhaps where the dead are, who have information they might be inclined to share. As for the second myth, Mu rebukes any tale of simple ascension. Glorious and ruined, a highpoint of human culture, beyond the current world, idealized, polis was this, Mu was last seen sinking, though “survivals” may fleetingly appear. To twist a phrase from a principal poetic forbearer, for Mackey, the descent and the ascent both beckon. (Alternately, so. Simultaneously, so.) In some exegetical paradise these two myths would lead readers deep into the 18th and 19th century origin anxieties, to myths of ascent and descent done in a panoply of registers, from the beginning of evolutionary science, (the descent beckons, the ascent beckons,) to the unravelling of Christianity and the articulation of other cosmologies. (In Mackey, Roberson, Philips, and elsewhere, the Middle Passage appears as a crucial component of ascensional discourses. In the long song, the Middle Passage is the pre-condition of certain if not all the poem’s ascensional figuration.) The two myths cross paths. One posits a pinnacle of lost perfection from which mankind has fallen, a narrative of decline. The other, as it begins in failure, in gods not yet getting it right, proposes a narrative of ascent. In reading Mackey, it’s best to hold both myths in the mind at once. In any given passage, are we under the sign of the Andoumboulou, or of Mu? The magnetic vacillation between the two myths, the two stances toward reality, galvanizes the carmen perpetuum of the long song. If there is one place the polarities fuse, one place they come together, is as twin elaborations of the single sacred syllable in the long song, “so.”


In the second volume of Double Trio, so gets its own book’s worth of elucidation: So’s Notice: the second book or station occurs in a tripartite allegorical journey proposed by Coltrane for his record, Meditation. As a musical notation, so is itself a further iteration of ascension, of rising, if also of falling. (What song are we in? Can we say for sure?) In western harmonics so is five notes up or down on a scale of eight: so, the pitch formerly known as Sol, derived from the Latin for Solve. Coltrane proposes an ascent with which Mackey rhymes his volumes: “The pulse and plot of Double Trio’s three-part progression take their cue from the last three movements of John Coltrane’s Meditations—“Love,” “Consequences,” and “Serenity.”” Read by the greenish glow of a mystically transformed earth, this progression can only be Sufic, and so the variance between progression and movement is worth observing. Mackey tips us toward the temporal, towards events that perpetuate other events, towards the kind of causality he thrives on complicating. Read in a sufic light Coltrane’s movements propose the narrative of all narratives, the only story that really matters. Love is what is established before creation, between each soul and the Creator. Consequences are what happen in the long descent or sojourn of the individual soul, away from the One, and into the world of embodiment. Serenity marks the return of the soul to the divine Beloved, in moments of rapture while still here, and in eternal rapture upon return to the beyond. Mackey, however, is quick to modify the paradisal imperative. Before Double Trio even begins, Serenity becomes “Severity.” Suddenly the return sounds less than appealing. In fact, Mackey’s revision turns the Coltrane narrative of descent and return to a tale of plunging ever deeper. ( In terms of Attar’s great poem, the song of a sojourning bird that does not survive the seven valleys.) At any moment the long song could drop whole octaves of so, as Double Trio traces the consequences and severities of an earlier revelation. “So,” after all, recalls a transformative moment in the long song, way back in Whatsaid Serif:

Sat at the bar in the Long
Night Lounge. A cramped,
      capacious room, alternately
so, simultaneously so. . .
         himself down beside me and
said, “So.” Over and over

                                                Again said
Only, “So.” Gnostic stranger
     I embraced as though it
Was me I embraced. . .

     Caught me unawares. . .

Song of the Andoumboulou: 18      (14)

Remember what that was like? Happy hour at the Blue Sufi Lounge? A guy walks into a bar, utters the prime syllable upon which the Mackey cosmos is founded, “So.” The long song is never the same. How could it be? A cosmology lurks in this syllable, perhaps a rapture awaits, if the incantation is properly performed. But such hope is misleading. Set “so” beside the inaugural syllable of all, the Hebrew Bet, or the Indic ohm, or the Johannine word, or whatever logocentric creation myth is there to be found, and Mackey’s so shows itself to be other. So does not call forth all, it awakens us to what already, catastrophically, is. Robert Duncan, by contrast, shows a universe where the structure of language and cosmos are one, and where the poet is the king of nouns. To grasp the cosmogonic force of syntax reveals the laws of the major mover. For Mackey, more dire in his Gnosticism, we do not have access to that living syntax that Duncan imagines. Or to the Adamic capacities of the poet. For Mackey, the poet does not so much name as re-name, mostly places and people. Mackey’s seriality seems already begun by the time he enters it. Still, certain parts of speech remain capable of catching the light of the pleroma. There’s the verb, understood in its conditional, alchemical tense, and there is so. Mackey’s sacred syllable, made so by the mouth of the gnostic intercessor, defers evoking the presence of the real from which all devolves. “So” is condemned to this world shaped by the archons of language, along with us. Its fate, its grammatical function as adverb or as conjunction, makes it always belated. It cannot stop the flow of fallen causality, in fact in its role as conjunction it participates in organizing and sequencing fallen time. If the messenger is truly gnostic, the question of poetry’s relation to the primordial reality, from which creation plunges, is different. After all, why would we want the syllable that signaled creation, if creation is a hell? How is it that this syllable arrives in the world, and what relation does it have to the fundamental nature of the world within which it is uttered by the gnostic messenger? As a compositional strategy, placed at the beginning of a sentence, so limits complexities of causality. A sentence so begun and followed by another so begun that must submit to its own limit in advancing a narrative. In contrast to the dependent clauses and conditional tenses that work to slow the succession of events, an inaugural so moves things along at a prompt pace. If not for the harrying impetus concealed in so, wouldn’t we be forever climbing up a ladder leaned against a loquat tree? So, the adverb, slows us, as it pauses to qualify, lightly tilting our attention: towards, or more often away from, a presiding narrative consciousness that is constantly struggling to ascend.


Mid-trio, gnosis breaks loose: breaks loose in seven books, the totality of the six being the seventh. A more pedestrian apocalypse might find the opening of seven books sufficient to end the obfuscations of Nub. Mackey, however, within the seven of the six, writes further books, at least eleven, the quickly proliferating “Book of So.” These sermons of so, sent forth to the congregations of the nerve church, further the revelations of the gnostic messenger. (And then, given Mackey’s gnostic fondness for negation, there are whispers of an antithetical revelation, “The Book of Not So.”) Mackey’s turns upon the motif of a book within a book are purposively dizzying. Lest we become irretrievably disarranged amid the multiple annunciations of so, the poet slows, schools us in his truth: “consequent so, temporizing so, moot so, intensifying so.” And, a bit later, recalling the original utterance by the gnostic messenger: “interrogative so.” (“Song of the Andoumboulou: 217,” Nerve Church 42). Recite the descriptors of “so” and you are deep into the essential drama of the long song. This progress of adjectives is like a narrative of the word “so” within the long song: “consequent,” “temporizing,” “moot,” “intensifying,” “interrogative.” The prophet has returned. The what-sayer is with us. Adverb, conjunction. So slows and quickens, qualifies and unites. But so always unites one sentence to the previous with an aporia. Beginning a sentence with so beleaguers the causal link to what came before. Why else would “so” need to be uttered? So, in its role as conjunction, implies a before, but one that stirs our suspicions. Are we being hurried along? Are we being asked to ignore a less than compelling cause for the consequence of one sentence following another? When Mackey starts a sentence with “So,” who can help doubting that what follows does not quite derive from the logic of what has just been narrated? So is a discrepant engagement on the syntactic level. Mackey could have chosen a more congenial copulative. Consider “and,” that conjunction so at home in long poems from the Bible to Whitman and beyond, into the delirium of Surrealist anaphora. So is as generative as some divinely uttered initial syllable, but so defers a beginning. The revelation of the gnostic messenger abruptly continues narrative, saying as well what, but instructs us that our minds should be wandering in a wonder about origins, and about the gaps in what would seem cause and effect. The gnostic messenger, to the extent that he is a Sufi, there in the lounge or tavern or lodge of the blue, forever complicates this desire to recover origins, to return to the place of everlasting permission. So reminds us that some suppose the universe to be annihilated and restored in every second, as it pleases Allah. Might Mackey’s discrepant seriality open out toward the radical dependency of all created beings on the One? Too soon to say. Maybe too soon to say anything other than “what?” But say so while noting that the introductory note to Double Trio indicates the presence of a consummately ascensional figure, a Sufic angel of black history, an angel of other than dust, begging to be addressed, to be asked what has happened between now and then, now that we’re aware: “the unawares angel subsequence can be.”

Post by Joseph Donahue at 12:00 PM on 4/24/2021

Joseph Donahue’s most recent volumes of poetry are Wind Maps I-VII (Talisman 2018), and The Disappearance of Fate, (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019). He is the co-translator of First Mountain, by Zhang Er. With Edward Foster he edited The World in Time and Space: Towards a History of Innovative American Poetry, 1970-2000 (Talisman, 2002). Two volumes (Musica Callada, and Near Star) of his ongoing poetic sequence, Terra Lucida, are forthcoming from Verge Books.