Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Double Trio: A Restless Messengers Symposium

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“So?”: A review of the consequential Double Trio of Nathaniel Mackey

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

The author alludes to the long modes pooling into his enterprise—the extended forms and capacious prospects of free jazz are explicitly mentioned in Mackey’s brief author’s note heading this decisive work. Double Trio is announced as a Boxed Set—an apogee of musical maturity, a summary of a career, and a notable benchmark for jazz and classical music creators and performers. So this is a book as a Box. But it’s also a box of Book—like the book as ark, holding itself in readiness. I want to point to a linkage revealed in the ongoing poem, and I say it as baldly as Mackey himself does: the Box (boxed set, also the box in which you send yourself to freedom [Henry “Box” Brown]) is also a Book (the metamorphic text where insights are stored and elaborated). Both are linked with “break,” a shift, a significant intellectual and musical move to change or intensify because a soloist plays a riff unaccompanied; and all these are also modes of transport (literal and figurative): the boat and/or bus on which pilgrimages will occur. “Box, book, break, //boat, bus” (Tej Bet, 326) is the summary of this chain of proposed equivalencies. This combination occurs in reminders, throughout.

Certainly any long poem comes as a book, but it may have an enhanced self-presentation as a Book—capital B. That is, a long poem knows itself as a cultural item and event. Definitionally speaking, a long poem is not simply an incredible lot of pages, or cantos, or items, or sentences; in fact, sheer lengths of works called “long” may vary considerably. A long poem, definitionally will make an address of seriousness, persistence, and distinction, with “poeticity” and intellectual-conceptual nuance; this address is self-consciously enunciated into the culture from which it emerges. This address has a seriousness, nobility and intensity that comes from vocation: the poet enters and disturbs a cultural (and possibly social) compact, in proposing and elaborating the poem’s own terms. Because such a long poem is an address of some seriousness into the culture, the work claims its status as book—and Book. I might rephrase what I just said by saying that a long poem has a cultural address to the society in order to propose (or even to insist) that the poem is needed to affect how that culture “reads” itself. Hence—for many reasons, a long poem is often not only a book with lots of poem-pages (or “writing”) or sets of those books in various structural arrangements. A long poem aspires to be a Book. The capital B is a signifier of ambition and also of much allusive interest.

This pact bases itself both on a given culture and on resisting it; long poem authors ambitiously draw on a range and scope of considerations with intensity and panache. Does any given long poem “change” that culture as a society? Very, very rarely. Does it change the terms by which that culture considers itself? If it’s serious and telling work, the answer is yes. (There may be a shelf-life stamped on that yes, or some qualifications, but that won’t concern me here.)

Hence the theme/action of naming the book IN the book that the author claims to be writing has doubled/mirroring interests. Here Mackey settles on (or into) The Book of So as that title inside the Double Trio. However, not only does Mackey repeatedly locate The Book of So as what has been accomplished here, he qualifies it in his Author’s Note as the “equanimous Book of So” (xvi). Why in the world is this “equanimous” (serene and calm), given the disruptions, the pain and blockage of quest and political suspicions even unto despair that are revealed and have been always part of what Mackey has been accomplishing in this work? Undiscussable at length here, it is certainly a hard-won equilibrium, and involves facing death (in a general, but real way). But it is also a calm and pleasure of acceptance of the achievement of scope and power displayed here—linked to the very Whitmanic word “amativeness”—an accepting and generous inclusivity. However, here I will ask mainly “So, what does ‘so’ mean/signify?”

You already suspect that this unassuming word will take up 14 columns in the OED, so The American Heritage Dictionary will do. Mackey likes the unassuming turning intense and semantically rich and undecidable, especially as so is a conjunction, an adverb and an adjective, hence operating in hypotactic syntax and with verbs and nouns. Tonally, the word can be used to affirm the veridical (this is so) or to indicate sarcastic doubt or astonishment (so, you really think so?). So puts both options in play; it says—the yes and the no. The truth and the doubt. And most emphatically the act and the consequence—real or derisory. It also plays in another combination: so, done in this way (a better choice), so, done in the same way as usual (not necessarily a better choice) and so, in consequence/result, something already joining act and effect in a linked (fixed) chain. So can point to limiting conditions—solong as this or that happens, or even more interestingly how far any action gets: so far so good.

That is, so is one of those devastating have-it-both-ways words that Freud points to when he names a property of language as “the antithetical meaning of primal words.” I have proposed elsewhere that poetry as a mode of thought has the effect of (and the impulse to) make many of its words behave like these multi-meaning antithetical primal words. In Mackey the word so is already dizzyingly suggestive in purely semantic terms, and his poetry compounds in its own intensifications, particularly in the imagined title The Book of So. The book of truth? the book of doubt? the book of causes? the book of consequences? The book of Thus It Is (and don’t you forget it)? The book of So What, so How, so Why—that is, something like the book of questions? Also of some certainties—in Mackey community connection, genial debate/ sparring, music (and verbal arts), sexualities and the senses of pleasurable haptic communion are all certainties, returned to repeatedly as ground tones of rightness: the so that is veridical or at least satisfying is also “versed in amative and spiritual resolve” (Double Trio, “Author’s Note,” xiv).

It’s worth noting that the varieties of “so” are not proposed in an either-or form—so is too weird for that. Further, such absolutist claims are uncharacteristic, but are often negotiated among Mackey’s band of seekers with a characteristic sideways motion, crab-like explorations that approach something at an odd, unexpected, resourceful angle (as when a path is blocked, try something else). There are also—it appears, several books of so, a statement that can only be observed here, not elaborated, because to say this here is only a tease. Understanding all of the Books of So as they occur as titles and emerge in different contexts would involve entering into the allegorical narratives in Mackey, given this work’s Big Tent of characters with various couples taking up positions (intellectual and analytic ones—and others, too) that seem to become overviews of Mackey’s readings of U.S. Black history, and African diasporic history, reckoning with, for instance, alternative experiences of “polis.” Some thing like this: “ ‘The Book of So, so-called,’ Itamar/ declared, ‘so to the second, so-called Book of So.’” (Tej Bet, 290). Later on—on one of these Mackey “car rides” the narrator muses: “The Book of So back in good/ standing, The Book of Not So to the side. . .” (Tej Bet, 310), suggesting that this Book is open road possibility, soon to be qualified. Given there’s enough trickster material here to spin many positions, I’d simply remind people that despite his elaborative sprezztura, Mackey is not kidding about creating a spiritual and a political long poem and that it’s plausible that , in this case, his readings of simultaneous or sequential stages of history are also in question. This is because of the following—possibly a confession of an illusion—like Pound’s illusion of Oneness (one truth). And to note, appreciatively, that plural paths are characteristic of solutions in Double Trio. Consider these lines, coming at the beginning of the Trio, but at the end of its first book: All my life I plotted the one book of so, no / clue there’d be others, the book of a better / life ”like so” such as the one I drafted ... (Tej Bet, 284).

Coming as this does, only in Tej Bet (the first of the Trio), we know that we are going, among many other activities and insights in Double Trio, to have The Book—and plural Books of So be part of the strands of the quests. The whole second book here is, after all, called So’s Noticeand it begins with three citations: “So that:” from Pound’s first canto, “So What” from Miles Davis, and “Like so” from P.D.

There are also usages of the word so in a particularly important phrase in Mackey (one that links the end works of Song/Mu to this new work), the term: Insofar. That phrase can sound tired and legalistic, still, “insofar as” is of particular interest to Mackey: since it indicates to what extent and is often a qualifier —a thus far and no further. It can sound like a benchmark of achievement (or blockage), taking the words separately—we have gotten in so far at least—in to whatever complexes of circumstances are being faced, but no further. Because so is involved with actions and manners of actions, it is an allegorical word concerning the achievement of social justice in Nub, a figuration of the flagging U.S. under Trump (as a gathering of those forces of undoing social justice that have beset us for 50 years, at least—even more, a hundred—even more)—this being a fierce and explicit motif of Double Trio. A canto titled “Insofarian Regress” (Tej Bet, “mu” 134; 302) signals this word. And a sardonic reiteration of this occurs toward the end when Itamar’s book called The Book of Inconsequence is poised against and with The Book of So—where we find “Doubling the book pursued some elusive truth” (Nerve Church, “mu” 223; 231).

This review—really simply a reminder of how much of importance is going on in Nathaniel Mackey’s work in this consequential triple book—will close with this provocation to more reading, defining and understanding Mackey’s hermetic charm and seriousness:

                          “Insofar” was something we
            and then said again, said again and again. We were
                    iterative, ontic, etiological, as if say-it-again-said-it-
            said some-
                        (Nerve Church, “Song” 243; 229)

Post by Rachel Blau DuPlessis at 12:00 PM on 4/24/2021

Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s most recent book of poetry is Poetic Realism (BlazeVOX, 2021), and before that Late Work (Black Square Editions, 2020), both from the multi-book work Traces, with Days. Her Selected Poems 1980-2020 is forthcoming from CHAX in 2022.