“Root Work”: On Nathaniel Mackey’s Blue Fasa
My review-essay “Root Work,” which meditates on Nathaniel Mackey’s remarkable use of syntax in his latest book Blue Fasa, is now up on the Boston Review website. Thanks to the BR staff for the sharp editing.
Here are two paragraphs from an earlier draft of the piece:
“Sometimes I will feel a line or phrase as a pulse before I have the words for it, and later I find the words,” Mackey recently said. Along with being an expert practitioner of the line as a prosodic unit, Mackey is surely one of our most accomplished artisans of the phrase. In place of “phrase,” linguists opt for the more precise term “constituent,” which can speak to the political stakes of Mackey’s epic project. “Constituent” is also a word that Mackey employs in his writing, which insistently meditates on relationships of part/whole (in “Song of the Andoumboulou: 60,” a poem from Splay Anthem, he says, “Abstract he / at the back of her mind, she at the / back of his, each the other’s Nub / constituent, ghost of an alternative / life…”). In linguistics, a constituent functions as a single unit within a larger structure (such as the noun phrase “wasn’t’s grudge against was.”) “Constituent,” of course, is also more recognizable in the context of political representation as a term for one who elects another to public office. In “Song of the Andoumboulou: 142,” a recent poem yet to be collected in a full-length volume, Mackey writes, “Abandoned boys and girls again, the band / of us. We threw our votes toward the polling place, / too far away to reach.” And later, another pseudo-cleft sentence: “What it was was we did take offense, ballot-box / ab- / scondity afoot.”
However abandoned and angry, however caught in “Nub’s pleo- / nastic rut” (the fictive place of Nub is associated with both political and ecological disaster, being related to “the imperial, flailing republic of Nub the United States has become [and] the shrunken place the earth has become, planet Nub”), Mackey’s lost tribe, in Beckettian fashion, can’t go on but goes on. The sense of indefatigable continuance on the level of content is intimately linked to the continuance of Mackey’s serial form. Jack Spicer (via Robin Blaser) famously described the serial poem as going through a series of dark rooms: “the light is turned on for a minute, then it’s turned off again, and then you go into a different room where a light is turned on and turned off.” I’d like to qualify Spicer’s comment with one by French writer and scientist François Le Lionnais: “I have never turned on a light switch in a darkened room without the sudden flood of light releasing in me an undeniable emotion, the impression almost of having witnessed a miracle.” The experience of reading Mackey’s long, serial song is akin to encountering the miraculous. At the end of each section, it seems utterly impossible that his collective voice can continue singing given such conditions of constraint and difficulty. But then it always does. And the emotional effect is undeniable.