Time: an odd phenomenon in light of the way it communicates, deposits emblems, plays hide-and-seek with consciousness. “Let Your Dreams Set Sail” says one such emblem, printed on the wall above the bed in which I’ve slept of late. A box on the ground displays the Paramount logo, a mountain pointed toward an outer sphere, like a Bucky dome lined with stars. Outside the sphere pokes SpongeBob SquarePants: the Flammarion engraving rejoined or reversed.
SpongeBob disrupts the first sphere’s fourth wall, smiles at consciousness, injects among solemnity a spirit of mirth set free to roam the cosmos. He, too, partakes of the image’s directionality, the vertical ascent narrative involving spaceships: the thing toward which the parts of the emblem incline. Let us imagine among these ships of possibility that which is prophecied in the mythology of the Dog Star — black anti-slave ships, lines of flight like Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line. Nathaniel Mackey fuses these symbolisms in his poem “Dogon Eclipse.” The poem ends “as if by then I’d / been thru / Hell / and back.” As if the “I” of the poem were Orpheus, the poet of ancient Greece, founder of the Orphic mysteries. Orphics revered Dionysus. He, too, is said to have descended into the underworld and to have returned. Through his poem, Mackey initiates those who read. So sayeth Michael S. Harper in his preface to Eroding Witness: “These poems are about prophecy and initiation.” Poems like “Dogon Eclipse” hint at mysteries; they transmit a secret knowledge. Other poems in the collection conjure loas from Voodoo and Vodou. Loas are the “mystères,” “the invisibles.” They act as intermediaries between worlds.
Sympathy and sympathetic identification. “Sensitivity.” Being-with, being-toward, relating. Chip to Grudge: Lay Off. And suddenly I’m in the presence of a bunch of smart, wise musicians, and beside me a brilliant mythmaker-griot, all of us conversing about ouds and masonic lodges and memory palaces; binary code drum patterns used to initiate uploads and downloads between orishas and human beings; the Order of the Eastern Star. Nate and Sandy recommend Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Dorian and Vattel note the ideas of Pythagoras. I feel at times like I’ve been inducted into a society of secret-sharers, Mackey’s Mystic Horn Society made real. With his cane, I realize, Mackey reminds me a bit of Papa Legba.
I’m having lunch this week with the poet Nathaniel Mackey. Excited by the thought of our conversation, I play Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa” and begin Mackey’s Blue Fasa (2015).
Words going as music goes. Mackey is writing two intertwined, ongoing serial poems, both mythologically conceived. I’ve been invited, in other words, to share a meal with one of the greatest and most accomplished of living poets, a Winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. I’ve read some of the early sections of the first of Mackey’s serial poems, Song of the Andoumboulou. I haven’t yet explored the second, a work called Mu. In the preface to Blue Fasa, Mackey writes, “the long song, the long poem, particularly the serial poem, culls and extends a field of sympathetic resonances, lingering while moving on by way of recursiveness and feeling-with. To borrow a phrase from Rahsaan Roland Kirk (whose album Boogie-Woogie String Along for Real also pertains), it wants to be a vibration society. This has been and continues to be the practice of Song of the Andoumboulou and Mu” (xi). Dwelling upon Mackey’s words, I decide to build a playlist. Trance-inducing chants. “To pull the song,” Mackey says, “is to be taken over by it…to be taken over and taken afar” (xiii).
Birdsong midafternoon rich, dense, populated by conversation among many beings. We arrive as sounds, resonances, sense-data in worlds populated by all the others, the traveling companions, fellow players in what Nathaniel Mackey calls the Mystic Horn Society. We sit close to one another, each with a head buried in a book, reading, breathing, being. We shake, we stretch, in our own way, on our own time: birds, squirrels, humans. Mackey’s project is to operate language as an “eroding witness” while still living in a universe of sound, language used to allow sound once again to be heard. On an evening prior to discussing his poems for the first time with students, I catch a performance by Chick Corea in a chapel. Mackey himself is set to perform with the Our True Day Begun Soon Come Qu’ahttet early next week. Somewhere in the midst of these doings, I find my way to Larry Coryell’s Spaces (1970), on which Chick Corea played electric piano. In all honesty, not a great record. A hummingbird speeds past the window as I listen. Afterwards I turn to Return to Forever’s “Crystal Silence.” What I really like, though, are tracks that lead elsewhere like “Spain.”
My dad listened to a lot of “smooth jazz” on his car stereo when I was a kid. At the time, my feelings about the genre were mixed at best. Often I would beg him to change the station. Sometimes I changed it myself, with or without his permission.
Upon re-reading a collection of poems by Nathaniel Mackey, I find myself scribbling in the margins at the end of “Song of the Andoumboulou: 22” the cryptic statement, “The story of the garden, the story of the desire for knowledge, is the story of intoxication and altered consciousness.” Bruce Hornsby interjects, stating, “Ha, but don’t you believe them.” Is that just the way it is? Do words get in the way? Mackey suggests otherwise, words used otherwise allowing us to ascend and descend reality’s ladders and trees. He refers to this otherwise as a kind of “musical speech.” Music that lifts readers into other ways of experiencing space and time.
I establish as part of the “setting” of my “set and setting” the Visible Cloaks mix, A Young Person’s Guide to Unseen Worlds.
The mix forms a semi-stable backdrop as I sit with Eroding Witness, an early collection of poems by Nathaniel Mackey. He’s performing with the Our True Day Begun Soon Come Qu’ahttet on campus this semester, and I hope to read and discuss some of his work with students in advance of that performance. Horns echo and cascade across space. This work is challenging. One has to lift up one’s arms and breathe, like the colophons for Verso and City Lights. Sarah arranges for us an online baby registry containing beautiful friendly objects, many of them with faces. I read about the Ghede, a family of Haitian Loa said to embody the powers of death and fertility. Those who are “mounted” by these deities launch stinging critiques of bosses and elites. I note down Mackey’s “Song of the Andoumboulou: 6” as a work I might include in my course.