Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Double Trio: A Restless Messengers Symposium

Nathaniel Mackey, Double Trio
New Directions, 2021, $65.00

Joseph Donahue
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Peter O'Leary
Tyrone Williams


Norman Finkelstein

This gathering of essays, all by longtime readers of Nathaniel Mackey, celebrates the publication of Double Trio, the three-volume “box set” that continues “Mu” and The Song of the Andoumboulou, the intertwined serial poems that Mackey has been writing for nearly forty years. Each volume of this enormous continuation of Mackey’s “long song”—a total of over a thousand pages of verse—is, as he tells us, “composed of twice as many installments of “Mu” and The Song of the Andoumboulou as comprise each of the work’s three most immediate predecessor volumes, Splay Anthem [2006], Nod House [2011], and Blue Fasa [2015].” Double Trio (and the profile of Mackey in The New Yorker) will undoubtedly win him many new readers, so for the record, let me note that of his six full-length collections, only the first, Eroding Witness (chosen by Michael Harper for the National Poetry Series and originally published in 1985), contains poems outside of the two series, both of which begin in that book. School of Udhra (1993) consists of Andoumboulou 8-15 and “Mu” 4-14; Whatsaid Serif (1998) consists entirely of Andoumboulou 16-35. “Mu” reappears, completely intertwined with Andoumboulou, in the National Book Award-winning Splay Anthem, a volume that also contains a crucial preface in which Mackey explains his rationale for writing in serial form, naming some of his most important precursors in literature (H.D., Olson, Duncan, Creeley, Wilson Harris) and jazz (Ellington, Coltrane, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry), and identifying some of the myths and beliefs from the world-wide cultures that inform his vision.

As Mackey tells us regarding the original Dogon funeral songs of the Andoumboulou, the music we hear emerging from this cross-cultural mix of traditions suggests “not only debts to history or the dead or the past, a neglect of history or the dead or past, but other non-observances only an alteration of mind might set right.” And not only an alteration of mind, but a transformative work of the imagination: a great world-poem, a radical rethinking of both epic and lyric, endlessly expansive in its cultural frames of reference, endlessly moving in and out of history and geography, endlessly questing toward an unreachable utopian (or “blutopian”) horizon. Since Splay Anthem, Mackey’s band of pilgrims, his philosophic posse, his constantly morphing ensemble of lovers, singers, and gnostic strangers, have continued to move through a global space-time continuum to the accompaniment of tracks from numerous musical traditions which this cast of characters hears “on the box.” But always, as Mackey observes of his creation in the preface to Blue Fasa, “Locality and locality’s discontent continue, as do identity and identity’s discontent.”

Never has this been truer than in Double Trio, which Mackey wrote in the six years between summer of 2012 and summer of 2018, between the ages of sixty-five and seventy-one. As he tells us in the author’s note to Tej Bet, the first volume, “It was a period during which earlier health crises continued to occur, with further complications and greater severity. In the summer of 2012 the U.S. was just around the corner from re-electing President Barack Obama, but by the summer of 2018 it was into the second year of having reasserted its white nationalist roots and begun a descent into neo-fascism. It was a period of distress and precarity inside and outside both.” But as is sometimes the case with poets in such states of distress and precarity (think Keats, think Mandelstam), Mackey’s muse, his Sophia, seems to have been with him constantly. “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.”

The epic scope of this all day music, the breadth and depth of the long song, will amaze any reader who takes the plunge. What I have always found so moving in Mackey’s poetry are his permutations on the themes of communal aspiration and utopian desire, themes which complement what, for this reader at least, has always been an initiatic tendency in his poetry. (I make this argument in my chapter on Mackey in On Mount Vision.) But listen to how these themes rise up clear and strong in “Lay of the Lifted Again” —“mu” one hundred twenty-fifth part—:

              ...Lit by shipwreck we’d read
   so it seemed, rhapsodic resolve as it all
fell apart... Abstract music abstraction itself
   made more concrete. Boxheaded exegete,
   head ennui, box-had-there-been-one’s be-
quest. We gave a loud shout, beginning to
 be there again, the inconsequence it was not-
withstanding... There was a we we were on
  way toward regardless, no utopic elsewise
too utopic, a we we would eventually be. “Let
  the parts congregate and grow,” we got up
ing, a shout so loud it lifted us, our feet left the
   floor, no matter it might’ve been mental at
  most... (Tej Bet, 239)

The reference to George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous (“the bright light of shipwreck”), a precursor poem likewise informed by historical disaster and utopian communal hope, leads the more musically inclined Mackey, a “Boxheaded exegete” to be sure, to insist upon “a we we would eventually be,” a we that cries out “Let the parts congregate and grow.” Music and poetry lift us up and sustain us: this is Mackey’s lay—a ballad, a story, a song.

But this is only one aspect of Mackey’s project, for the nomadic “we” we are forever becoming meets with painful resistance, and the “utopic elsewhere” toward which we forever wander is often obscured by troubling shadows. I have in mind the poem which opens So’s Notice, the second volume of Double Trio, called “The Overghost Ourkestra’s Next” —“mu” one hundred fortieth part—. Inspired in part by the police killing of Eric Garner, this poem offers anger and hope, lament and persistence, all in equal measure:

“Nub held my neck in the crook of its arm,” the
unworded song we sang said. “Nub took me
   but I got up swinging.” Could we only band
or bond we thought but it wasn’t so, together
   as we were we suffered, original sufferheads
for all eternity it seemed, wise ones and wounded
   it seemed... (So’s Notice 4)

“Nub”—Mackey’s shorthand for all that is hatefully, violently wrong with the world, and specifically with America—may take us down in an illegal chokehold, but we get up swinging—swinging our fists to defend ourselves, but also swinging as in jazz. “Hands up, wind- / pipes crushed, we blew...Notwithstanding we / couldn’t breathe we blew” (4,5). Here, the slogans in the streets renew themselves and take on lasting power in the Overghost Ourkestra’s prophetic “posthumous release.”

Gathered together, Mackey’s prophetic books—yes, I do believe he is our William Blake, gnosticism and all—constitute the scripture we read, to borrow the title of the third volume of Double Trio, in our Nerve Church. Written upon the nerves in a nerve-wracked time, Mackey’s address to the congregation turns us into exegetes, mournful, joyful, always hungry for the Word. In “Song of the Andoumboulou: 245,” dedicated to Robert Duncan (one of Mackey’s most important precursors) and Peter O’Leary (one of his best commentators), “We slept inside myth but were stirred by ythm” (Nerve Church 237). “No redemptive narrative paved our way” (238), yet “Out of the gold bell of many a horn...we rang / free- / dom” (240, 241). “Ythm” has long been Mackey’s term for the strange, combinatory power of both ancient story and immediate song that wakes us from our slumber and sets us again upon our utopian quest. Ythm pulses through Double Trio, keeping in mind that the last part of the work was written out of the depths of some of the worst years our nation has experienced since the Civil War. Nevertheless, “in the nerve church, metaphoric boat / of soul metamorphic” (Nerve Church 324), Mackey calls to us to transform ourselves and the join the band.

Post by Norman Finkelstein at 12:00 PM on 4/24/2021