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Luke Harley

Music as prod and precedent:

Nathaniel Mackey’s niggling at the limits of language

This piece is about 15 printed pages long.

paragraph 1

                                ... We rounded the bend and what
            we wanted was there, satiety’s rival tone a
    rendition of soul we were slow to accept...

 — Nathaniel Mackey, ‘Song of the Andoumboulou: 51’


After winning the National Book Award for Poetry in November 2006 for his experimental volume Splay Anthem, Nathaniel Mackey was quick to deflect attention towards the wider significance of the decision, suggesting it was ‘reason to hope that work such as this will find a wider readership beyond the sequestered community of reading and readers that it’s normally in’.[1] Certainly Mackey was a popular winner among his peers, and deservedly so; his earlier volumes Eroding Witness (1985), School of Uhdra (1993) and Whatsaid Serif (1998) had attracted quiet critical acclaim, and when a 2000 issue of Callaloo had been devoted entirely to his work, managing editor Ginger Thornton was taken aback by the ‘very enthusiastic’ response to the issue among its contributors.[2]


Splay Anthem is Mackey’s most impressive poetic achievement to date, and continues his engagement with the ‘new thing’ jazz of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor and others. Combining a Tayloresque conception of additive, paratactic rhythm, frequent use of sonic enjambments and alliteration, and a treatment of letters as equivalent to musical tones, Mackey seeks to occupy a liminal space between music and poetry, a cross-disciplinary realm of ‘nondenotative possibilities’.[3]


First, a brief introduction. Mackey is a poet, novelist and critic, editor of the journal Hambone and co-editor (with Art Lange) of the jazz-poetry anthology Moment’s Notice, professor of English at University of California, Santa Cruz, and a disc-jockey: he runs a regular jazz and world-music program called ‘Tanganyika Strut’ on KUSP-FM, which is regarded as something of an institution in West Coast cultural life. Although he modestly describes his own musical training as ‘to put it charitably, rudimentary’, he is an ‘avid listener’ to music from around the world, and has established himself as a leading authority on African American jazz.[4]


As a writer, he thinks like an experimental jazz musician, forever pondering ways to reinvent the art form in which he operates. By closely examining the similarities and differences between words and tones, he seeks to occupy a poetic realm populated by what I will call word-tones, a realm as free as possible from denotation.[5] But this gesturing away from denotation does not equate to a gesturing away from meaning; rather, the effect he seeks is directly analogous with what an instrumental musician achieves in music, an effect in which ‘what we’re listening to are by no means denotative sounds yet we have the sense that something very meaningful is being conveyed nonetheless’.[6] As he told Charles H. Rowell in 1997:


I listen to a lot of vocal music from other countries, in languages that I don’t understand. I don’t get the lyrics at the denotative level, but I respond nonetheless, learning to listen to language without the amenities of its denotative content. Doing that has probably had a significant influence on some of the ways in which I go about writing, an influence that I’m not able to talk about in an extended or exploratory way but that I know to be there nonetheless.[7]


Mackey ‘respond[s] nonetheless’ to this vocal music sung in another language because it contains what music theorists call referential meaning: that semantically elusive, nonsyntactical quality by which he has been influenced but has difficulty describing ‘in an extended or exploratory way’.[8] What is meaning in music? How can it be adequately described in language? In his fiction Mackey responds to these ‘vexing’ questions through humour (‘laugh not to cry’), by having one of his band members, Penguin, blowing comic-strip balloons out of his oboe in Atet A.D. (p.121), the balloons poking fun at the linguistic elusiveness of the music coming out of his instrument, its untranslatability or elusive translatability.


In his poetry, however, Mackey takes a more adventurous approach, preferring to test the capacities of language to achieve the nondenotative ‘referential meaning’ he hears in music. He quotes some semantically elusive imagery by Pablo Neruda in his introduction to his critical volume Paracritical Hinge (2005), which he thinks strikes a note of consonance with the musical aims of his own poetry: ‘Interstellar eagle, vine-in-a-mist. / Forsaken bastion, blind scimitar. / Orion belt, ceremonial bread’(The Heights of Macchu Picchu, section 9). Neruda’s rapid-fire images dart from one unrelated denotation to the next, with ‘no predication offered, no argument advanced’.[9] Splay Anthem has Mackey attempting similarly ‘fugitive’ effects with musical imagery: ‘dubbed loquat scat’ (p.12), ‘Harp-headed ghost whose / head we plucked incessantly’ (p.25), ‘Sirening fonio, helical whir’ (p.62), ‘Puppet / run, strung wood, stump trumpet... / Bugled admonition’ (p.86). Such ‘unbound references’, to borrow Robert Duncan’s phrase, appear, unpremeditated, like the brief hint of a musical riff, restlessly veering away from denotative comprehensibility and linear argument.[10] The intent is rather to emphasize language’s ‘communicative and expressive’ qualities, to replicate the effect Mackey hears in songs sung in another language.


Throughout his career, Mackey’s template for poetic innovation has been new thing jazz, which he first discovered as a teenager in the early 1960s. In its search for alternative forms of beauty, its invocation of African vocabularies, and its culmination of bebop’s movement away from the ‘the tradition of the black musician as an embodiment of instantaneity, instinct, pure feeling’, new thing amounted to what Mackey has called ‘a coming out into the light of the black improvisational music tradition as an intellectual tradition’.[11] Most importantly, it espoused technical innovation, seeking a complete overhaul of harmony, rhythm, structure and timbre, or what Amiri Baraka proclaimed as ‘new forms, new modes of expression, to more precisely reflect contemporary experience!’[12]


Having been ingrained from this early age with a love of innovation, Mackey has remained faithful to the jazz avant-garde ever since, closely following the careers of a new generation of ‘outside’ instrumentalists. These include the bassist David Holland and the saxophonists Malik Yaqub, Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, Frank Wright and Glenn Spearman. Mackey actually references Malik, Wright and Spearman in Splay Anthem: ‘Song of the Andoumboulou: 42’ (p.30) is dedicated to Spearman’s memory, with Mackey tracing an ‘outside’ lineage from musician to musician, ‘Glenn remembering Frank [Wright] remembering / John’ [Coltrane]; ‘Beginning With Lines By Anwar Naguib’ (p.8) evokes the ‘crackling blueness’ (to use Lorca’s phrase) of a ‘city / lit by a saxophone reed, found / wanting, measured by Malik’s / blue horn’; and ‘Song of the Andoumboulou: 44’ (p.40) captures the religiosity of Mackey’s early musical experiences in the Baptist church, referring to ‘the Right Reverend / Frank at our backs blowing “One for / John,” endlessly taken one step beyond’.[13]


It was through new thing that Mackey also discovered Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), his interest having been sparked by reading Jones’ liner notes to John Coltrane’s 1963 album Live at Birdland. Coltrane’s interrogative ‘testing’ (Jones’ word) of each note during his performance of the Billy Eckstine tune ‘I Want to Talk about You’ spoke to Mackey, who then read The Dead Lecturer (1964) and found a hesitant, stuttering verse which ‘appeared to obey an aesthetic analogous to that of experimental jazz – mercurial, oblique, elliptical’.[14] Jones/Baraka was, of course, Mackey’s great forebear in terms of translating free jazz into poetry. As William J. Harris has noted, he sought to ‘draw on the jazz tradition to expand, modernize and vitalize the black literary tradition’ – which could equally be said for Mackey.[15]


However, the two poets differ markedly in terms of their respective politics; and, more pertinently, their view of the role of politics in poetry. While Mackey respects that Baraka came from a different generation, and ‘had to fight fights that I didn’t have to fight’, he is eager to distance himself from Baraka’s fiery, occasionally vicious political tone – a tone ‘that is not a tone that you’ll find me making use of’; his class ‘anxieties’ relating to his middle-class upbringing; and his exclusionist, near-racist tendencies, such as in his notorious 2002 tirade ‘Somebody Blew Up America’ in which he implied that the Israeli military was complicit in the World Trade Centre Attacks, warning ‘4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day’.[16] To be fair, such crudely politicized verse (if not mere ‘conspiracy theory’, as  David Yaffe has described it) is hardly Baraka at his best; certainly it is a far cry from the slippery, metaphor-infused verse of The Dead Lecturer, which Mackey admired for its semantic and phonic restlessness, its tendency to ‘slide away from the proposed’.[17]


Mackey has become internationally known for his critical work, and two essays in particular address the relationship of music to language. One is ‘Cante Moro’ (1991), in which he claims to have always been struck by Louis Zukofsky’s formulation of poetry as an integral function ‘whose lower limit is speech and upper limit is song’ (although he is adamant that ‘even before I came across Zukofsky’s formulation of it I heard poetry as a musical deployment of language, the music peculiar to language, language bordering on song, speech bordering on song’).[18]


The other is ‘Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol’, published in Discrepant Engagement (1993), in which Mackey  ruminates on Steven Feld’s anthropological work Sound and Sentiment. Feld’s book is an account of the gisalo sung by the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, a semi-sung, semi-spoken song that closely follows the melodic contours of the muni bird’s cry. According to Kaluli myth, a brother and sister go fishing for crayfish, but the boy catches none, and the sister refuses to give him any of hers to eat when he pleads for some. The boy then turns into a muni bird, a kind of fruitdove with a purple beak, and sings a weeping song that laments this erosion of kinship.


In his preface to Splay Anthem, Mackey refers to the song of the muni bird as his ‘prototype’ for a hybrid poetics, an art of word-tones that is quintessentially elegiac but also a cry for social healing.[19]


To emphasize the extent to which gisalo permeates Mackey’s thinking in Splay Anthem, three poems from his ‘mu’ series recall Feld’s book in their title: ‘Sound and Semblance’ (p.55), ‘Sound and Sentience’ (p.86) and ‘Sound and Cerement’ (p.115). A few poems also involve motivic references to the muni myth: ‘Song of the Andoumboulou: 40’ includes the term ‘birdlike’ to describe a sense of spiritual hollowness (p.21), Mackey writing of a ‘we’ who floated ‘boatlike, / birdlike’ (p.21), and on the third line the words ‘Semisaid, semisung’ give thematic prominence to this idea of a hybrid art. Elsewhere, in ‘Sound and Semblance’ (the title also references Peter Kivy’s 1984 book of music philosophy), ‘Pecks what had been kisses, beaks / what once were lips / other than we / were as we lay under tree-limbs, red-beaked / birds / known as muni what we were’ (p.56). The peck of the muni bird is a kiss of lament, a denial of social kinship, a registration of a mutual orphaning between the ‘we’ of a whole people – presumably African Americans – and the Kaluli boy.


On another level, this invocation of gisalo inherently draws attention to the limits of music and language, and brings Mackey to similar philosophical territory explored by Zukofsky’s conception of poetry as an integral function. ‘Song of the Andoumboulou: 52’ provides an ars poetica of sorts for Mackey’s attempts, following Zukofsky, to explore the extremities of language, its borders with, at one extreme, conversational speech, and at the other with song:


                                        It wasn’t signs
we were after, we sought what signs
      replaced, pitiless wish to be all
     there, that it all be there... It
                                                    was a
healing song we sang had there been a song
   sang, a soothing song, Wagogo we’d have
been. A winding sound we’d have made
      had there been a sound we made. Zeze
     by raffia, mbira plucked by thumbs,
          a grinding sound we made had we
        made a sound... But by the end there’d
           be no sound, sign’s mute witness
      rescinded as well, white rug’s amalgam
                                                                       of water
        and sun now neither water nor sun... It
           was a dream drummed into the air we
         took in, a brink we backed away from,
       bridge. Had there been a song we sang it was
         extremity we sang, all but strangling song,


Led by earlier glances to Africa by new thing musicians, such as John Coltrane’s composition ‘Africa’ from the album Africa/Brass (1961), Cecil Taylor’s album Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come (1963), Alice Coltrane’s Ptah, the El Daoud (1970), Pharaoh Sanders’ composition ‘Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt’ and Sun Ra’s compositions ‘Ancient Aiethiopia’, ‘Nubia’, ‘Africa’, and ‘Watusa’, Mackey here locates his geographical terrain in Africa, and the instruments referred to are traditional African instruments, not jazz instruments. But the meta-thematic sentiments are the same, only geographically displaced. The centrality of music is emphasized through his repeated references to a ‘healing song’ that, ‘had it been sung’, would have been ‘straining’ and ‘grinding’ at the extremities of language, seeking ‘what signs replaced’. Mackey explains much of his thinking behind this writing in ‘Cante Moro’.


Referring to the Camerounian musicologist Francis Bebey’s observation of an ‘African predilection for a burred, “dirty” sound’, the aim is to bring this reverberate musical aesthetic to language, to craft poems that ‘buzz with meanings, implications and insulations that complicate, contaminate, “dirty” one another’.[20] The mbira, a Zimbabwean instrument consisting of a calabash gourd resonator with cowrie shells attached to the outside, typifies this ‘dirty’ aesthetic with its ‘raspy, buzzing sound’ made when the shells rub up against the gourd. It is Mackey’s timbre of choice as an analogy for his own buzzing, ‘straining’ song, his cultivation in language of a manifold, polysemous resonance.


Meanwhile the raffia, an African palm tree from which the leaves are used to weave baskets and mats, points to the role of language in vocalizing this song, given that Mackey has referred several times in his oeuvre to the sound of the Dogon people of West Africa using a shuttle and block to weave as the ‘creaking of the word’. For the Dogon, as described by Marcel Griaule in his book Conversations with Ogotemmêli, the creation of cloth and the creation of language are intimately connected; this web of language, as David Murray has noted, functions ‘not just as a figure of speech, or even a metaphor of speech, but an assertion of the unity of the material and the immaterial, cloth and word, textile and text’.[21]


Mackey’s choice of the word ‘creaking’, with its sonic rasp, refers to the acoustic and semantic limits of language, the gravelly edges of language struggling with the signifying system, the creaking friction between the material word and the spiritual realm. The ‘straining song’, encapsulated in the otherworldly overtones of the zeze, a bowed Wagogo string instrument from Tanzania, strives toward transcendence, but never quite achieves it; though it is spiritually aspirational, a creaking gap remains, a fissure of qualification where music flutters.


To provide a musical context for some of the technical devices Mackey seeks to appropriate from new thing jazz in Splay Anthem, it’s worth listening to the ‘Resolution’ track (especially around 8-10 minutes) from The John Coltrane Quartet’s album A Love Supreme: Deluxe Edition. A particularly guttural example of Coltrane’s music, it is useful in the way it conveys a similar sense of the artist striving to escape the signifying system in which he operates, a straining for ‘what signs replaced’. In ‘Cante Moro’, Mackey describes Coltrane’s use of multiphonics, overtones and controlled screeches and squawks as a ‘forking of the voice’, the upper and lower registers of his tenor saxophone in antiphonal call-and response ‘between lead singer and chorus, preacher and congregation’.[22]


Though Coltrane is gesturing towards chaos, or at least broadening the perimeters of what audiences can expect from musically arranged sound, these innovative techniques represented a new timbre, a previously frowned-upon timbre, and a raspy, highly resonant one. They betray a frustration with previous concepts of tonality, and with the capacities of the instrument to articulate suffering. It almost seems as if Coltrane is striving to take music to the very edge of its signifying capacity, to make his instrument ‘speak’ a more referential, emotive language of anger and suffering. He appears frustrated with music’s lack of specificity, his anger articulated by musical cries, shrieks and honks that Kimberly W. Benston has suitably described as ‘so bright and so piercing that the sounds seemed to be words, or cries deeper than words’.[23] Certainly the black-nationalist poets of the 1960s were impressed with Coltrane’s direct political protest, Baraka reverentially referring to him as ‘the heaviest spirit’.[24]


Rather than politicize Coltrane’s music, Mackey prefers to focus on his technical innovations – his use of overtones, undertones and multiphonics – and work out ways of applying them to language. Part of his solution, as Meta DuEwa Jones has observed, is to treat letters as akin to musical tones, with words functioning as chords. With a close eye (and ear) on the smallest particles of language, letters and syllables, Mackey reopens words, breaking them open, revealing what Edward Kamau Brathwaite calls ‘shadows of meaning’.[25] The word ‘splay’, for instance, carries an array of meanings (or ‘overtones’ or ‘undertones’), including its adjectival usage in which ‘splay’ means to spread out and expand, and equally to join or dislocate, and its nominal usage in which ‘splay’ means a surface that makes an oblique angle with another. Indeed, it is as a noun that Mackey cultivates the most resonance in ‘splay’.


For Mackey, Baraka’s pre-Marxist verse, such as that found in The Dead Lecturer, displays an imagistic obliquity – a splay angle, a splay impression – that he seeks for his own writing. Yet Splay Anthem also comprises installments 40-60 of the longstanding ‘Song of the Andoumboulou’ serial, and by simply dropping the ‘s’ from the title we are left with ‘play’, thereby uniting the first letter of ‘song’ and Mackey’s view of poetry as a particular way of playing with words, a ‘play of resonance and implication’ that correlates with Langston Hughes’ perceptive view of jazz as ‘a way of playing music even more than it is composed music. Almost any music can become jazz if it is played with the jazz treatment.’[26] Mackey might also be hearing ‘spray’ and ‘stray’, semantic echoes of ‘splay’ that occur simply by altering one or two letters – and certainly his own liner notes to his CD recording Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25 encourage readers to think in this way:


I hear the word stick, I hear the word strike, I hear the word struck, and I hear the word strict. I hear those words which are not really pronounced in that word, but there are overtones or undertones of those words, harmonics of those words. The word strick, then, is like a musical chord in which those words which are otherwise not present are present.[27]


By treating words as musical chords, Mackey is drawing attention to word-harmonics in the same way as Coltrane draws attention to the upper and lower partials of notes in ‘Resolution’. With subtle variations, adjustments and revoicings, an array of new semantic implications can be opened up to the reader or listener, just as a musician is able to alter harmony through suspensions, added notes, dissonances and the like.


Instrumental play, poetic play; consider the noun ‘Andoumboulou’, which are spirits invoked at funerals within Dogon cosmogony, and the neologism ‘Andoumboulouous’, which occurs throughout Splay Anthem: ‘Andoumboulouous Brush’ (p.3), ‘andoumboulouous /  advent’ (p.4), ‘andoumboulouous ambush’ (p.15), ‘andoumboulouous as / ever’ (p.17), ‘andoumboulouous / remit’ (p.29), ‘andoumboulouous birth-shirts’ (p.64), ‘andoumboulouous /we, andoumboulouous they. Wasn’t / andoumboulouous both’ (p.105). In the preface to Splay Anthem, the noun ‘Andoumboulou’ is defined by Mackey as ‘not simply a failed, or flawed, earlier form of human being but a rough draft of human being, the work-in-progress we continue to be’.[28] By simply adding ‘ous’ to the end of the noun, however, the adjective ‘andoumboulouous’ is created, a neologism which Mackey defines through the commonplace expression as ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. Like a pianist at a keyboard, playing with harmony, Mackey is playing with letters – the smallest substrata of words, Brathwaite’s ‘pebbles’ of language – in order to articulate a sentiment for which he felt no other word was quite adequate.[29]


Splay Anthem also showcases a radically new, motive-based conception of rhythm, not dissimilar to Cecil Taylor’s pulse-less use of rhythmic ‘energy’ showcased on albums such as Unit Structures (1966) and Conquistador! (1966). As Robert L. Zamsky writes, throughout Unit Structures, clear metrical identity is eschewed, Taylor’s music ‘achieving its rhythmic qualities both within and across these blocks by the rise and fall of “energy,” which Ekkehard Jost identifies as “the relative density of impulse series”, the frequency, not the regularity of accents in time’.[30] In establishing a sense of identifiable rhythm in his verse, without recourse to traditional rhythmic structures, Mackey is immensely dependent upon alliteration, sonic enjambment and familiar, retroactively traceable word-motifs as markers of repetition within the mind’s ear. An example is ‘Song of the Andoumboulou: 41’(Splay Anthem 58):


     Head of echoic welter. Head I was
hit upside. Curlicue accosting my
   neck, ears bitten by flues, fluted
       wind, Stra hest...       Head I was hit
     upside, a glancing blow. Whirligig
                                                              and woe
         more than any one head imagined. Not
  that I saw much but that a glance was
     enough, one glance all it took...

     Head I was hit upside. Curlicue wind
          filled with rasp and chatter, all
    unquiet, back and to the sides and
       front... I stood on the overpass
      gazing out as did the rest. A caravan
          cars, busses, trucks, went by below.


In the above excerpt the ‘h’ sound occurs seven times in the opening two lines (‘Head’, ‘Head’, ‘hit’, ‘hit’, ‘hest’, Head’, ‘hit’), like rim shots on a drum kit, to accentuate the thematic sense of violent impact. The repetition of the opening phrase ‘Head I was hit’ in the fourth line of the passage, and then again on the tenth, provides a poetry of acoustic patterns in which repeated phrases attract attention to themselves and amount to what Jeffrey Gray has called ‘a musical rather than chronological way of cohering’.[31]


The pitch of letters is also prioritized: a basic tonality, albeit fleeting, is established by the alliterative use of ‘h’ and ‘w’, upon which the respective vowel pitches ‘ead’, ‘it’, ‘est’, ‘ind’, ‘as’, ‘irl and oe’ alternate, like improvised notes sounded by a jazz soloist above a momentarily stationary bass line. ‘Whirligig’ and ‘curlicue’, meanwhile, are chosen as much for their ability to actuate a brief hint of a swung syllabic rhythm, within Mackey’s irregular line spacing, as for their semantic function; ‘whirligig’, a spinning toy or carousel, suggests disorientation, and ‘curlicue’ a fancy twist, but it is their shared three syllables (long/short/short), the first two emulating the long/short swung quaver pattern in jazz, that distinguish them. When followed by the jarring, single-syllabic words ‘and’ and ‘wind’, they enact an enjambed, paratactic rhythm not dissimilar to Cecil Taylor’s use of paratactic, additive cells of rhythmic energy at the opening of his tune ‘Conquistador’.


Furthermore, Mackey’s description of the curlicue wind filled with ‘rasp’ reminds the reader of the meta-thematic role timbre plays in his poetry. As he notes in the preface to Splay Anthem, the ‘Song of the Andoumboulou’ serial was actually born out of his memory of the Dogon funeral songs he heard on François Di Dio’s 1956 recording Les Dogon. Mackey is still troubled by the ‘gravelly, raspy, reluctant’ timbre of the lone Dogon voice that opens the song on Di Dio’s recording, recounting the creation of the world and human life, and the other ‘reticent, dry’ voices that join in, slowly producing a ‘scratchy, low-key chorus’.[32] Later in the preface he likens this Dogon vocal timbre to the raspy timbre of a flamenco singer’s voice, comparing the song of the Andoumboulou to Spanish cante jondo, in which rasp and aridity hold sway, ‘rasp our lone / resort’.[33]


What is it about this vocal timbre that is so troubling, so suggestive of past suffering, such a well-spring to creativity? Federico García Lorca has called this quality duende: a slippery word that literally means ‘spirit’, and on a technical level refers to the granularity of the flamenco singer’s voice, a timbre ‘torn like a medieval weeper’, as Lorca describes Pastora Pavón’s enraged singing in a Cádiz tavern.[34] In a thematic sense it is also a lament for lost origins, an ache for origins never to be recovered. But, above all, it is an abstract term: duende is what Mackey attempts to describe as a ‘reaching for another voice’, an eloquence of another order, a stretching to include that which exceeds mere technical skill, a striving toward a metaphysical yet emotively powerful beyond. All of this is expressed through timbre, through duende.


One of the constant challenges from Lorca’s essay ‘Theory and Function of the Duende’, as Mackey notes in ‘Cante Moro’, has been bringing duende into writing.[35] His solution, as is his tendency, is through music, particularly through recourse to timbre. In his poem ‘Sigh of the Moor’ (Splay Anthem 88), Mackey hears a quality of duende in the timbre of the oud, a short-necked, half pear-shaped Arabic string instrument which, according to Stanley Sadie in the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, is regarded as the principal instrument of the Arab world and of considerable importance in Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Greece, and Azerbaijan as well. It is also an instrument that John Coltrane asked Ahmed Abdul-Malik to play on his 1961 recordings at the Village Vanguard jazz club in Manhattan (though there is some conjecture as to whether the resulting nasal sound was in fact an oud or a tamboura; unfortunately Abdul-Malik died in 1993 without clarifying the matter).


Mackey often uses epigraphs to suggest the spiritual and historical angle through which to read his poems, and ‘Sigh of the Moor’ starts with an epigraph from the liner notes to the flamenco recording El Suspiro del Moro: Antes Antiguos de Andalucia. These words recall the suffering of the Moorish king Abu ‘Abdi-Lia (Boabdil to the Spanish), the last of the Banu Sarraj, as he gazed at Granada for the last time.


    Why oud music arrived in the room
neither he nor she knew. Why Granada
       glimpsed in retreat flashed before
their eyes neither one of them knew.
    tapped at the guitar, tapped as on the
        wood of a guitar, palm to palm
       clapped keeping time, let go of
This they nowhere near began to know.

   They sat up late holding hands at
the kitchen table, lights out, candles
     lit... Susurrous air notwithstanding,
they were only where they were, endlessly
   inflected sough notwithstanding,
       upon sigh upon sigh... Sat ever so
     unknowing, unaware they played host.
         the song knew, the song said, sang of
    itself, an exchanged “ah” choked on,
       swollen, welling sigh, sang of their
       unwitting relay... Southern Spain,
   California, by oud-light lately the same.


The synaesthetic figure of ‘oud-light’ here relays between the denotative and nondenotative realms, as well as between sigh (‘an exchanged “ah” choked on, / swollen, welling sigh’) and transitive light (‘flashed before their eyes’), with Mackey insisting on the nonultimacy of words, the partiality of words. Seeking a brief traverse into nondenotation, Mackey’s meta-thematic aim can be compared with what Brathwaite achieves in his line ‘bell that I will break and pour its sound in the vèvè’ (Mother Poem 8). But while Brathwaite’s breaking bell, wafting from side to side, marks a breaking away from language into ‘a silence of sorts, sound as incense’, Mackey is breaking away from language and alternatively entrusting song – crafted sound – with referential meaning (‘Only / the song knew’).[36]


As points of call in this relay, two different periods and locations are superimposed: Southern California, in a room lit by this ‘oud-light’ rather than electric lights, presumably (but not certainly) during the early 1960s when Coltrane was experimenting with Arabic music, and southern Spain in 1492, the time of the last Moorish king of Granada. The elusive song which ‘knew’, articulating a suffering beyond the capacities of direct reference, is a song of duende; the king is never to see his kingdom again, having been forcibly removed from his territory. Boabdil, tapping at the guitar and clapping time like a flamenco musician, is forced to ‘let go of time’, let go of the orderly clap of the Moorish musical aesthetic, and forsake his culture, subsumed within this broader social-historical context of forced migration.


Other ‘linguistic liberties’ evoke avant-garde jazz with their stumbling, stuttering effect.[37] Line displacements, part of Mackey’s ‘visual dance’ indicating the influence of Charles Olson’s projective verse and Duncan’s Olsonian open field composition, allow the words to run like a jazz riff down the page, and through the ear, with blank spaces accorded as much weight as words themselves. Punctuating these blanks, words such as ‘Boabdil’, ‘time’, sigh’ and ‘only’ operate like building-blocks or bricks, providing a correlation with the way notes create a tone, mood and affect/effect in a piece of music, punctuating silence. Sibilants, with their exaggerated auditory aspect, also point toward music: the ‘s’ consonant first occurs three times within the word ‘Susurrous’, its meaning suggesting a sighing, whistling or murmur that is commensurate with its acoustic hiss-like effect; shortly after three hammer-like iterations of ‘sigh’ are heard to enforce a sense of incessant, irrevocable loss, then in quick succession ‘Sat’, ‘so’, ‘song’, ‘song’, ‘said’, ‘sang’, ‘swollen’, ‘sigh’, ‘sang’, ‘Southern’, ‘Spain’ and ‘southern’ appear, acoustically evoking the helpless weeping of the Moorish king. These sibilants probe the limits of language by exposing its very materiality, just as a musician such as John Coltrane makes the audience acutely aware of the materiality of sound by stretching at the limits of register and timbre through his use of multiphonics, overtones and undertones. They blur the Western demarcation between sound and meaning in poetry, insisting upon sound as meaningful in itself, rather than just as a vehicle for meaning. They are words striving to become musical tones, and in doing so, become word-tones.


Upon hearing of Mackey’s success last November, Ron Silliman described Splay Anthem as ‘the first volume that is, at all moments, consciously destabilized, always restless, never still, ever to receive such an award’.[38] This restlessness harks back to the best traditions of Baraka’s recondite early verse, such as The Dead Lecturer; and with its use of sonic enjambment and alliteration, its conception of letters as akin to tones, and its additive, paratactic approach to rhythm, pushes language into entirely new terrain. But does Mackey’s gesturing towards new thing jazz amount to an attainment of the nondenotative, nonsyntactical meaning – what he calls a ‘telling inarticulacy’ – that he hears in instrumental music or songs sung in another language?[39]


On a metaphorical axis between direct, conversational language and the conceptual, rather artless semantically empty letters and syllables John Cage experimented with in section IV of his 1979 work Empty Words, Mackey’s word-tones are somewhere on the path to non-denotation, but not quite there.[40] Employing words ‘wanting not to be / words’ (Whatsaid Serif 16), Mackey blurs, undermines, ‘mischievously resists’ the process of signification, drawing attention to the gap between word and world while at the same time embracing the functionality of language as his tool for art.[41]Similarly, John Coltrane pursued a more directly referential, emotive language through his use of multiphonics, overtones and undertones without entirely crossing the ‘rickety bridge’ to direct denotation. But it is the gesture of escape, the testing of the limits of the art form, that is compelling. And so long as the oud’s complaint, the Dogon’s voice and the saxophone’s interrogative squeaks and squawks torment him, Mackey will continue his innovative search for the rasp of the curlicue wind, continue his elegiac straining for ‘what signs replaced’.

Works Cited

Anderson, T. J. Notes to Make the Sound Come Right: Four Innovators of Jazz Poetry. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2004

Baraka, Amiri/Jones, LeRoi. The Dead Lecturer. New York: Grove Press, 1964

———. Black Music. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1968

———. Somebody Blew Up America, & Other Poems. Philipsburg, St. Martin, Caribbean: House of Nehesi, 2003

Benston, Kimberly W. ‘Late Coltrane: A Re-Membering of Orpheus’, in A Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship (eds. Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto). Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979

Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy. London: Oxford University Press, 1973

———. Mother Poem. London: Oxford University Press, 1977

Cage, John. Empty Words, performance and radio interview, 8 August 1974

Coltrane, Alice. Ptah, the El Daoud. IMPD201

Coltrane, John. Coltrane Live at Birdland. IMPD198

———. The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions. IMPD2168

———. A Love Supreme: Deluxe Edition. IMP3145899452

Duncan, Robert. Caesar’s Gate: Poems 1949-50. Berkeley: Sand Dollar, 1972

Ferrara, Lawrence. Philosophy and the Analysis of Music: Bridges to Musical Sound, Form and Reference. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991

Gray, Jeffrey. ‘“Beyond the Letter”: Identity, Song, and Strick’, in Callaloo 23.2 (Spring 2000): 621-639

Griaule, Marcel. Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Studies. London: Oxford University Press, 1965

Harris, William J. ‘“How You Sound??” Amiri Baraka Writes Free Jazz’, in Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies (ed. Robert G. O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards and Farah Jasmine Griffin). New York: Columbia University Press, 2004

Hughes, Langston. The First Book of Jazz. Hopewell: The Echo Press, 1999

Jones, Meta DuEwa. ‘Jazz Prosodies: Orality and Textuality’, in Callaloo 25.1 (2002): 66-91

Jost, Ekkehard. Free Jazz. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994

Kivy, Peter. Sound and Semblance: Reflections on Musical Representation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984

Lorca, Federico García. Deep Song and Other Prose (trans. Christopher Maurer). New York: New Directions, 1980

———. Poet in New York (trans. Greg Simon and Steven F. White). New York: Noonday Press, 1988

Mackey, Nathaniel. Eroding Witness. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985

———. and Clark Coolidge, Robert Creeley, Steve Lacy (fellow panellists). ‘Poetry and Jazz’. Lecture at the Naropa Institute (12 July 1991),

———. Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993

———. School of Uhdra. San Francisco: City Lights, 1993

———. Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25 (CD). Spoken Engine: 1995

———. Whatsaid Serif. San Francisco: City Lights, 1998

———. Atet A.D.. San Francisco: City Lights, 2001

———. Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005

———. Splay Anthem. New York: New Directions, 2006

‘Mackey, Nathaniel: INTRODUCTION’, Poetry Criticism 49 (ed. David Galens). Thomson Gale, 2003., 2006. [Accessed 10.02.07]

Murray, David. ‘“Out of this World”: Music and Spirit in the Writings of Nathaniel Mackey and Amiri Baraka’ (unpublished: originally submitted as a paper for ‘Jazzthetics: A Criss Cross Colloquium’ at Nottingham University, 10 May 2003,

O’Leary, Peter. ‘Deep Trouble/Deep Treble: Nathaniel Mackey’s Gnostic Rasp’, in Callaloo 23.2 (Spring 2000): 516-537

Shepp, Archie. Four for Trane. Impulse! IMPD218

Silliman, Ron. Website blog:

Simpson, Megan. ‘Trickster Poetics: Multiculturalism and Collectivity in Nathaniel Mackey’s “Song of the Andoumboulou”’, in Melus 28.4 (Winter 2003): 35-54

Taylor, Cecil. Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come. Revenant RVN202

———. Conquistador! Blue Note 7243-5-76749-2-8

———. Unit Structures. Blue Note CDP 7-84237-2

Teicher, Craig Morgan. ‘A Conversation With Nathaniel Mackey’, PW Daily, 22/11/2006. Craig [Accessed 10.02.07]

Yaffe, David. Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006

Zamsky, Robert L. ‘A Poetics of Radical Musicality: Nathaniel Mackey’s “mu” Series’, in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 1 (Spring 2006): 113-40


[1] Craig Morgan Teicher, ‘A Conversation With Nathaniel Mackey’, PW Daily, 22/11/2006

[2] Ginger Thornton, quoted in ‘Mackey, Nathaniel: INTRODUCTION’, Poetry Criticism 49 (ed. David Galens). Thomson Gale, 2003., 2006. Thornton also comments (in relation to the Nathaniel Mackey special issue, Callaloo 23.2, Spring 2000): ‘You don’t usually, in the case of a living poet, have contributors who write specifically in honour of that person.’

[3] ‘Interview by Charles H. Rowell’ (21 February 1997), Paracritical Hinge. 314

[4] ibid.

[5] Meta DuEwa Jones briefly uses the term ‘word-tone’ to describe Mackey’s treatment of words as akin to musical chords in his CD recording Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou: 16-24 (‘Jazz Prosodies: Orality and Textuality’, 69)

[6] Mackey, Paracritical Hinge. 314

[7] ibid.

[8] As Lawrence Ferrara points out, the word ‘meaningful’ is an especially vexatious term for music theorists (and, indeed, literary scholars), many of who ‘wince at its loose usage when applied to musical syntax’ rather than referential meaning (see Philosophy and the Analysis of Music: Bridges to Musical Sound, Form and Reference. 24)

[9] Mackey, ‘Door Peep (Shall Not Enter)’, Paracritical Hinge. 5

[10] Robert Duncan, Caesar’s Gate: Poems 1949-50. Berkeley. xxii

[11] ‘Interview by Edward Foster’ (August 1991), Paracritical Hinge. 279

[12] Amiri Baraka, Black Music. 267

[13] Federico García Lorca, ‘Standards and Paradise of the Blacks’ (Poet in New York. 25)

[14] ‘Interview by Paul Naylor’, Paracritical Hinge. 345

[15] William J. Harris, ‘“How You Sound??” Amiri Baraka Writes Free Jazz’. 312

[16] ‘Interview by Edward Foster’, Paracritical Hinge. 282

[17] As quoted in Discrepant Engagement. 43. ‘Slide away from the proposed’ is a description originally used by LeRoi Jones in his liner notes to Archie Shepp’s album Four for Trane (1964). Jones writes: ‘John Tchicai’s solo on ‘Rufus’ comes back to me again and again. It slides away from the proposed.’

[18] Mackey, ‘Cante Moro’, Paracritical Hinge. 190

[19] Mackey, preface to Splay Anthem. xv

[20] ‘Cante Moro’. 197

[21] David Murray, ‘“Out of this World”: Music and Spirit in the Writings of Nathaniel Mackey and Amiri Baraka’. 19

[22] ‘Cante Moro’. 193

[23] Kimberley W. Benston, ‘Late Coltrane: A Re-Membering of Orpheus’ (npq)

[24] As quoted in Discrepant Engagement. 43

[25] Edward Kamau Brathwaite, The Arrivants. 165-66 (as quoted in Mackey, ‘Wringing the Word’, Paracritical Hinge. 48)

[26] Langston Hughes, The First Book of Jazz. 46

[27] As quoted in Paul Naylor, liner notes to Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25

[28] Mackey, preface to Splay Anthem. xi

[29] Brathwaite, as Mackey observes in ‘Wringing the Word’, actually names one of his poems ‘Pebbles’, and in ‘Eating the Dead’ writes: ‘I will return to the pebble’ (The Arrivants, 196, 219). Later in this essay Mackey describes the pebble as a ‘multivalent figure’ which ‘assaults the apparent solidity and integrity of words, destabilizing them (showing them to be intrinsically unstable) by emphasizing the points at which they break, disassembling them and reassembling them in alternate spellings and neologistic coinages’. (Paracritical Hinge. 45)

[30] Ekkehard Jost, Free Jazz. 79

[31] Jeffrey Gray, ‘“Beyond the Letter”: Identity, Song, and Strick’. 624

[32] Preface to Splay Anthem. ix

[33] ibid. xi

[34] As quoted in Christopher Maurer, Deep Song and Other Prose. 45-46

[35] ‘Cante Moro’.184

[36] Mackey, ‘Wringing the Word’, Paracritical Hinge. 58

[37] ibid.

[38] Ron Silliman. Website blog, 22 January 2007

[39] Discrepant Engagement. 253. In ‘To Define an Ultimate Dimness: The Poetry of Clarence Major’, Mackey writes of ‘the indefinability, the unwordedness of certain aspects of the world’. (Discrepant Engagement. 57)

[40] John Cage, Radio interview, 8 August 1974

[41] Megan Simpson, ‘Trickster Poetics: Multiculturalism and Collectivity in Nathaniel Mackey’s “Song of the Andoumboulou”’, Melus. 46