Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Double Trio: A Restless Messengers Symposium

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Notes on Epic Regarding Mackey’s Double Trio

Peter O’Leary

Double Trio nearly triples the extent and duration of Nathaniel Mackey’s braided and serial epic undertakings, “Songs of the Andoumboulou” and “mu,” “each,” in Mackey’s characterization, “the other’s twin or contagion.” In the brief but illuminating Author’s Note to Double Trio, Mackey admits that it “names an ensemblic doubling and self-parsing that harks back to Ornette Coleman’s album Free Jazz and its Double Quartet,” adding, “post bebop jazz, free jazz especially, bears heavily on my conception of the long song.” Double Trio may involve the most impressive recognition of one of the means for encountering improvisational jazz in the past century—in the form of the LP boxset, with its sprawling gatefolds—has borne directly on American epic poetry. Mackey seems especially drawn to the complex textures the Double Quartet’s interplay avails, the spontaneous group intervolvement whose openness yields expansive structural improvisations Jackson Pollock’s epic “White Light,” depicted inside the gatefold of Free Jazz, somehow reflects. Mackey’s anthemic claim on epic drops the needle on the adventuresome prospect of deep listening to the long song’s ongoing mythos. How do you get from Gilgamesh and Homer to Coleman and Mackey? Not surprisingly, the answer is Dante.

What are the terms of epic? What are the terms of vision? What are the terms of visionary epic? Of all literary forms, epic is the most consuming, the most compelling. The adjective epic exceeds its literary applications, used to signal in other arts, in other things something great – an epic improvisation, an epic sculpture, an epic road trip, an epic meal. Even these vernacular uses signal back to the word’s ancient origins as the form existing before drama, history, philosophy, or lyric, existing before all other forms. In its antiquity lies its authority. So how does epic speak in the present, in the future tense?

“For the epic,” wrote Georg Lukács, “the world at any given moment is an ultimate principle; it is empirical at its deepest, most decisive, all-determining transcendental base; it can sometimes accelerate the rhythm of life, can carry something that was hidden or neglected to a utopian end which was always immanent within it, but it can never, while remaining epic, transcend the breadth and depth, the rounded, sensual, richly ordered nature of life as historically given.” Lukács was fixated on “the extensive totality of life” that epic’s transcendent naturalism (of gods and goddesses and winged supernatural beings) mysteriously interweaves with, even while “the richly ordered nature of life” prevails. But Lukács’s objections don’t quite defy the lure this ancient form carries for working poets. (Quotations from The Theory of the Novel.)

My brother Michael wrote me back in 2016, “I think Lukács rightly privileges the epic because it is the form of art in which the whole of life – the personal, the political, and the religious – can be taken in at a glance. Why is this so valuable? Because it is utterly simple in its totality but multifaceted in its unfolding complexity.” That gets close to the lure of epic, the relationship between a simple reflection of the whole and its complexity unfolded over time. It captures some of the draw of the form. And let it be said about Mackey’s braided epic that its prodigious power has its source, in part, in the degree to which the simplicity of its total sweep of the ongoing pilgrimage of an unidentified subjectivity allows for such various complexity to unfold with ever-freshened vigor and dread over the course of its length. “Departure from Troy,” in Tej Bet, forcefully begins:

   So it was we came to red sky
country, flame red were flame
  red, blood red. Stylized fire
                                                          flared
everywhere, red flame water-
   color brush tip, brush blood
  mixed with water... Rumor
                                                          had
   it we were in Troy, leaving
     Troy. Stylized boats we
shoved off in. Sketchical fire.
  Blasé sun... (Tej Bet 124)

The poem intensifies into an epic masque, dromenon’s woe:

                   We put our pharaonic
beards on. It wasn’t Spain we were
  in though we sang like Gypsies,
                                                                 the
     Pharaoh’s black torso roughen-
  ing our throats, red that we wanted
   the red of the rooster’s comb,
rue waking up though we did...
                                                              We
     were black Orpheuses, black
       Odysseans. We were trying to
   get home, trying to make heaven
                                                                     home.
       Home had a way of burning was
   red’s awakening, home not home
                                                                    any-
 more (128)

As these passages from Double Trio suggest, modern epic operates differently from ancient epic. In poetry, as opposed to epic novels which are still expressions of narrative, modern epic is serial, wrought from lyric glimpses, a dream-like memory of the totality Lukács praises, a visionary undertaking to recover, remember it.

In this light, Dante is a great turning point, a transformation.

Erich Auerbach attributes the shift Dante enacts to the Christian epic originating in the gospels – which express a form of naturalism – and its permissions to imagine passionate love as a topic appropriate to epic form. Dante’s intimate divinizing of passionate love transformed epic into something new, unforeseen. In classical epic, time is mytho-historical, in which destiny gradually unfolds. In Dante, time is apocalyptic, in which destiny is fulfilled. The vision of Christ at its root initiates apocalyptic time.

This means in Dante’s poetry, epic becomes a matter of individualvision. In time, individual and personal have been conflated. Which means, simply, the great epic poets of the day are exploring individual – often simply personal – vision. Turbulence, eruptions, catastrophes, and ruination in modern epic often come from misreading vision/apocalypse in terms of the mytho-historical. (I suspect many of the problems Pound encountered in The Cantos can be ascribed to this misreading.) Successes, clarities, surgings, and power in modern epic can come from fidelity to this vision (as Mackey’s vision of Troy above), its flashes and absences, such that the other-worldly realities drawn down in vision are reflected in intensity and fulfillment in everything the poet sees.

Auerbach attributes the shift in the epic imagination specifically to the narrative transformations that erupted in the gospels and in subsequent Christian history and thought. Writes Auerbach, “The historical core of Christianity – that is to say, the Crucifixion and related events – offers a more radical paradox, a wider range of contradiction, than anything known to the ancient world, either in its history or in its mythical tradition.” Christ’s movement, according to Auerbach, “could not remain purely spiritual” but began erupting into apocalyptic narratives. “Christian eschatological conceptions took on an unprecedented concreteness and intensity; this world has meaning only in reference to the next; in itself it is a meaningless torment.” (Quotations from Dante: Poet of the Secular World.)

The world to come begins to propel itself into the present, intuited in visionary glimpses, oneiric desires, like an apocalyptic clockwork for which the machinery is only partly understood. Insists Auerbach, “The depth and scope of the naturalism in the story of Christ are unparalleled; neither the poets nor the historians of antiquity had the opportunity or the power to narrate human events in that way.” He goes on to argue that it took a long time – over a millennium – for the mimetic content of the Christian narrative to enter into the imagination of the faithful, but when it did in Provence – having survived the lures and distortions of Neoplatonism, various heresies, and efforts to spiritualize this content – it emerged with what Auerbach calls an “eerie reality,” one formed from “an equivocal apocalyptic profundity from the barely discernible vestiges of the original narrative.” In effect, claims Auerbach, an ability to depict the sensuous reality of the world – something ever-present in ancient epics – returned, specifically in the form of allegorical passion, especially as manifested in Dante. Auerbach imagines medieval Europe as an esoteric stronghold that Dante penetrated and opened up completely. “In a defensive, esoteric form, as though behind high walls, they [the keepers of culture] hold the endangered secret form of the soul; what was first a game and then a defense, became the refuge of a dwindling élite, and in the end an expression of the inner cleavage of the soul striving, in an allegorical dialectic, to master the torment of passion.” Then along comes Dante who turns the torment of passion into a narrative of salvation and the individual epic is born.

Must all great epic in the West since Dante be Christian? No. Dante’s shifts are to individual vision encompassing a culture – seeing apocalyptic time in which destiny is fulfilled. Epic therefore becomes less mythical than visionary.

Mackey’s epic is utterly Dantescan, a visionary fulfillment of a destiny fractured by ruptured history, eroding witness, and oracular improvisation, drawn along forms of thought and culture originating in Christian heresy and Late Antique esotericism, Islamic mysticism and Andalusian Sufism, Rastafarianism and New World awakenings, and the Afro-futurist commitments of modal jazz. Pharoah Sanders’s masterful 1967 album Tauhid, whose title refers to the Islamic doctrine of God’s radical and unitive oneness, but whose track titles reflect an epic, improvisatory range (they are “Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt,” “Japan,” and“Medley: Aum/Venus/Capricorn Rising”), comes to mind as a parallel pronouncement to Mackey’s long song.

The novelty Mackey brings to epic poetry is improvisation’s ecstasy, a manipulation of the elements of language in order to draw the reader into an ongoing, metamorphic dream, but one whose experience is decidedly theosophical, such that a surplus of meaning in language is released into the semantic channels that course through ordinary meaning into those of daemonic vision where the inner structure of realms belonging to worlds natural and supernatural are revealed.

In the “Author’s Note” that begins Double Trio, Mackey specifically invokes John Coltrane’s Meditations, an LP from 1966, as a structuring model of “the pulse and plot” for his epic, specifically its last three movements from Side 2 of the vinyl, “Love,” “Consequences,” and “Serenity.” Each volume of the trio is keyed to a movement in Coltrane’s composition, Tej Bet as Love, So’s Notice as Consequences, and Nerve Church as Serenity, tweaked in Mackey’s working of it to “Severity.” “It would be serene,” he observes, were it not for an appetite for diminution and mistruth, “versed in amative and spiritual resolve as it is, free of tic, tremor, twitch, a bodily, earthical church felt as warrant, pledge.” Regarding the decision to add a second drummer to his players – now a sextet – for the Meditations sessions, Coltrane remarked to Nat Hentoff, “I feel the need for more time, more rhythm all around me.” More time, more revelatory, destiny-revealing time, is what Mackey pours ferociously into his epic poem.

In “scratch point meditation,” Song 226, Mackey muses:

   I lay there pondering the trace I’d leave, the whence
and the wherefore yet to be made out, musing’s
  radix a toss of water I thrashed in, many a move
                                                                                                    the
     wrong move I thought. Mystery might mean
doom I was thinking, requiem ever the note one’s
   tongue went toward, tears on our cheeks hot,
                                                                                               can-
  dle wax.

Mystery might mean doom I was thinking. Doom: The word is inordinately apt here in Mackey’s epic. Ominous, the word augurs apocalypse. It comes from an Old English root, dom, which means judgment, ordeal, sentence, justice, and interpretation. There’s an Old English verb, domian, which means to glorify, to magnify. A domhus (doom house) is a place of judgment, glorification. When I was a DJ at WHPK in Chicago, I admired that another DJ somewhere in the past had encircled Coltrane’s head on the cover of the Ascension LP with a blue ballpoint halo. Would that the trace that Mackey’s Double Trio might leave on all who enter the earthical church of its epic unfolding and apocalyptic revealing will be so eloquently etched as that ballpoint halo. Remove the sandals from your feet, you long-huthered pilgrims. This ground is holy.

Post by Peter O’Leary at 12:00 PM on 4/24/2021

Peter O’Leary’s recent books include Earth Is Best and Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age. He lives in Oak Park, Illinois and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. With John Tipton, he edits Verge Books.