How does one read Dante’s Inferno here at the ass end of 2019 without concluding A) Dante’s a vindictive prick, B) the universe is a cruel joke, and C) thou art that? Not to be Doug and Wendy Whiner or anything — but man, what a slog. The only good thing, I suppose, the only thing keeping me reading, is the fact that at the end of it lies Purgatorio and Paradiso.
Sarah and I discuss the name thing. The act seems weighted with all kinds of symbolism. It’s a commitment to a different future. Taking the mother’s father’s last name while with the first name honoring matrilineal roots on the father’s mother’s side of the family. What does it mean to relinquish a given name? It’s not like I have to become Mr. Mom or anything. Should I rewatch that movie and report back from Michael Keaton’s 1983? Should I shift into third-person? Or is that the same as reducing oneself to another’s shadow? Does the Author worry he’ll be rendered anonymous? Author as ego-dissolved invisibile man? But I do wish to practice poesis, don’t I? Are those things related? Is the poet one who, operating on language, practices a kind of wizardly freedom, not legislating so much as renaming certain things anew? Hard to say. But of the names, whichever we go with is the one that sounds best.
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.