A kid interrupts my wondering about my relationship to Language Poetry. Leaning over a low fence as I sweep leaves from my back deck, he hails me with a “Working hard or hardly working?” or some such commodified, scripted banter, then tries to sell me an alternative media provider. My response is “No thanks, capitalist roleplayer. You bore me,” thus in no uncertain terms sending him on his way. Back to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Why have I never taught any of that material, venturing only so far as poets with whom they conversed? Ginsberg, Olson, Mackey, et al. I suppose I’ve lacked courage — though opportunities to do so also never materialized, really, until this past year or so. Perhaps it just felt a bit too rarefied. Work that makes demands, with comparatively little gain. When does one have time enough to keep up with contemporary poetry? Apparently I did, if only for a brief moment, during my first years out of college, during my stint as a “text editor.” Back when I used to sit at a computer all day listening to early recordings from PennSound and the Kelly Writers House.
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).
Students and I discussed Allen Ginsberg’s “America” today. What if instead we had taken the poem’s use of apostrophe — America addressed as though it were a person — and performed it together as a class? What might we have said to one another? Would any of us have dared to be as candid as Ginsberg?
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.
My relationship to food is bound up with my discontent under capitalism. The latter arranges within me a libidinal economy, an internal punishment-reward system, an internal calculus of hours for work and time for play, with no allowance for the planning and prepping of meals. By the time I contemplate dinner each day, cooking appears difficult, time-intensive. When Sarah and I arrive home each afternoon, neither of us wants to grocery shop — so we opt to eat out at restaurants in town, despite the undesirability of most local fare. To will change, I imagine, one would have to plan. One would have to commit to a recipe and buy ingredients. One would have to anticipate one’s appetite –becoming, in a sense, known in advance. It needn’t be a chore, though. It can be as simple and as pleasurable as going to a supermarket and eating more veggies. Kim Gordon can soundtrack it with her song “Hungry Baby,” head frequented afterwards by the owl on her song “Olive’s Horn.”
By these means, we quiet ourselves temporarily to hear the speech of the birds. Ginsberg cranks up afterwards, addressing the nation by way of apostrophe. “America” appears in his poem of that name as an “absent third party.” Those of us who receive the poem find ourselves implicated in this party, just as it occurs to Ginsberg mid-poem that he is America and that he’s talking to himself. Childish Gambino uses the same mode of address in “This Is America,” speaking candidly toward song’s end, confronting listeners with the line, “America, I just checked my following list and / You mothafuckas owe me.”
Sometimes I respond to concentric circles representing the orbits of other entities and beings. What did William Blake mean by phrases like “the starry floor” and “the watry shore”? Look, too, at the Silver Surfer figure at the base of the “Introduction” engraving from Blake’s Songs of Experience, lounging on a chaise in outer space.
Blake speaks in the same poem of “the starry pole” that the “lapsed Soul” might control, “And fallen fallen light renew!” In the voice of the Bard who knows the power of words in the act of creation, Blake beckons the Earth to awaken again after years of slumber. And to the “lapsed Soul” of fallen humanity, he says, “Turn away no more.” Or so I thought at first. However, maybe he’s still speaking there to the Earth. Perhaps Earth is the “lapsed Soul,” the slumberous mass of which the humans reading the poem are but a part. This makes sense, given that the next poem in the series is titled “Earth’s Answer.” Awakened into language, Earth denounces the “Father of the ancient men” who would shame her and place her in bonds. In Blake’s estimate, the Father imagines himself as Reason, but behaves like a jealous tyrant, chaining us with “mind-forg’d manacles” to a prison-world, a false totality, a construct. Have critics read this work in relation to cousin genres: image-text parings like Tarot cards and graphic novels?