By Nathaniel Mackey
Original and Current Publisher: New Directions
Megan Snyder-Camp writes:
Merging two ongoing serial poems, Splay Anthem engages a vast historical and geographical sampling of voices. Splay Anthem is foremost about motion and transition, and Mackey is as precise and curious as a jazz musician in his attention to a range of movements including migration, alliteration, limbo, battery, crab-scuttle, planetary circling, highway driving, and lovemaking. Even his lines sway against the left margin, hinging down from the right every so often like a sprung jaw.
As he traces the nuances of these forms of movement, Mackey’s cast of characters and scenes shifts in and out of focus. Heavy with musical references, mythical gods and places, political and cultural turning points (from fraught elections to O.J. Simpson), and wry hybrids like “Chuck E. Jesus,” Splay Anthem transcribes their singing rather than narrates their story.
The book is divided into three sections, “Braid,” “Fray,” and “Nub,” and alternates between numbered installments of two ongoing serial poems, “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “mu.” While Mackey gives referents for the two series in his preface, story is so subsumed to sound in this captivating book that I was reluctant to turn myself over to his liner notes.
In “Braid” we meet lovers and travelers, peer over their shoulder and under their feet. Part book of the dead, part pillow book, these opening poems linger where one thing folds into another, as in “Lag Anthem—‘mu’ eighteenth part”:
Lifted our legs, an arrested
run we made look like
and soon after in “Song of the Andoumboulou: 40:”
afloat. What we read said
there’d been a shipwreck. We
survived it, adrift at sea…
These are expansive, bold poems of creation and destruction: the violence of a drum beat to the head, cloth stretched across a lover’s body, liturgy on a page. They are located at points of departure—tavern, train, shore—and from there they alight in Peru, Egypt, Jamaica, as well as in the layered nodes of meaning—as here in “Glenn on Monk’s Mountain—‘mu’ twenty-fourth part,” tightening the gap between the noun and verb meanings of “rung”:
Pads and keys cried out for
climb, clamor, something yet
we called rung. Rickety wood, split
reed, sprung ladder.
Lifting and lowering are recurring movements in the book, often in connection with images of boats. Mackey’s ships are far from pleasure boats—they are more likely to carry slaves, explorers, or exiles, and in “Song of the Andoumboulou: 52” in the book’s second section, “Fray,” our lovers, in alluding to the shipping locks whose varying water levels allow the passage of boats across a canal, enact a lock’s movement across several levels at once:
he announced, lifting his hand, touched
hair, braids he saw lifting the boat he
lay down in, course he’d have run, boat
being soul. Twisting a braid with one
hand, she answered, “Hair,” as if correcting
him, locks’ lifted boat rescinded […]
Splay Anthem’s final section, “Nub,” engages, among other things, an apocalyptic landscape and the drive of humans to settle and build. These are poems at once political and, as the nub of a half-gone limb, vulnerable and bare. In the untitled second part of “Song of the Andoumboulou: 58,” Mackey writes:
[…] Unsay said what there was of
to say. Nub’s low skyline lay to our
Nub lay close to the earth… Nub cut us
off. We were never all there. Raw knuckles
pounding the earth bled rivers. Bloodrun
This tension between table-clearing and table-setting, or rather, this vibration between the two gestures, carries Mackey’s love of language. Spilling beyond the content of his work, he draws a compelling connection between the sentences we build and the life we make. He finds syntax-patterns (like “It wasn’t…”) and riffs off of them, finds the connection between that sentence’s habit and its original fruit. Then, where the words were, he sets our bodies. In this way a wavering sentence shimmers into a dancing body, an interrupted fragment becomes a caught wrist. This is jazz.
For all the social relevance and urgency his work contains, the best way to read Mackey is to take it in the way you would listen to one of the eclectic radio shows he DJs from his home in Santa Cruz—sit back and let the sounds carry you. Feel the movement of the words around you, their tug and wash. Let them thrum on the top of your head. Let your head sing. Be moved and carry this movement forth into the world.
Megan Snyder-Camp's first book of poems, The Forest of Sure Things, is a deconstructed domestic narrative set in a small, historically preserved village on the Pacific Northwest coast. Her poems have appeared in Field, the Antioch Review, Smartish Pace, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. She recently received an Individual Artist grant from Washington's 4Culture Foundation to support her current work. (Photo credit: Laura M. Hoffmann)
- Louise Glück for Averno
- H.L. Hix for Chromatic
- Ben Lerner for Angle of Yaw
- James McMichael for Capacity
Poetry Judges that Year: James Longenbach, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Li-Young Lee,
Claudia Rankine, C.D. Wright
The Year in Literature:
- Late Wife by Claudia Emerson won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
- Donald Hall was named Poet Laureate of the United States.
- Nathaniel Mackey (1947- ) was born in Miami, FL.
- Since 1982, Mackey has been editor and publisher of Hambone, a literary magazine that has published an eclectic group of poets ranging from Sun Ra to Robert Duncan.
- In 2010 Mackey received a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Mackey reads from his new book of poetry and talks about his writing to an audience at UC Santa Cruz where he is a professor of literature.
- Nathaniel Mackey's 2006 National Book Awards Acceptance Speech for Splay Anthem
- Mackey's 2006 National Book Awards page
- Mackey's profile page at Poets.org
Buy the Book: