by Nathaniel Mackey
New Directions, 160 pp.
Blue Fasa, the latest book by Duke University Creative Writing Professor Nathaniel Mackey, is a lyrical voyage through an epic love story. Yet this epic is but a fragment of an even vaster one, “Song of the Andoumboulou,” a multi-volume poem that began with the National Book Award-winning Splay Anthem.
In the cosmology of the West African Dogon people, the Andoumboulou is a failed pre-human race that lives in holes underground. This is the mythic foundation upon which Mackey’s ongoing work is built. The interlocking poems chronicle the journey of nomadic jazz musicians through landscapes that are quotidian and cosmic, often both at once. Though Mackey’s stacked three- and four-line stanzas are difficult to represent in prose, this gives the lay of the land: “Death omni- / vorous, life the anomaly, Night // Choir // sang Saturn’s rings wet, galactic / heat the high note they struck …”
Blue Fasa brings a new intimacy and carnality to the mellifluous weave of “Song of the Andoumboulou.” The star-crossed affair of protagonists Stella and Itamar, members of the jazz tribe, is a conduit to push questions of sex and relation to their philosophical limit. Of course, this limit is reached in Mackey’s gentle, suggestive way.
Itamar and Stella’s meeting and eventual parting generates an ecstatic music in Mackey’s narration. “Chant the names / of God we were told … Ita- / mar. Stella. Scrape, caress, / ca- // areen … Crab, sun, bell ad / infinitum …” Particularly poignant is how Mackey invokes the existential questions that romantic love brings to the fore: What is the substance of the self, and how does an other make us re-experience our own bodies?
In the poem “Door Peep Shall Not Enter,” Mackey writes, “Smoked intangible, / each the other’s no mo’, each / the // other’s used-to-be twin … To / want to’ve been otherwise, what / not be what, operatic itch and // ip- //seity.” The poem sets up the demise of Stella and Itamar’s relationship, hitting on the dual desire and threat of love: how it erodes individuality (or “ipseity”).
Blue Fasa is as oblique as it is melodious, seeming to drift between past and present. The twinning and eventual rupture of Stella and Itamar is enacted in tiny, precise fragments. However sweeping Mackey’s long poems are, he achieves incredible music and philosophical depth through the sonic loops of simple repetition. His hallmarks are all hererecursive jazz rhythms and variations, and a semantic richness that never allows the poem to settle into less than three meanings at a time.
Mackey’s introductory essay argues for a necessary linkage between poetry and music, reminding us of the ancient relationship between the lyric and the lyre. Now, he says, the lyric is associated with the “phanopoetic snapshot,” or, put more simply, the image. This movement in poetry, away from sound and toward image, is consistent with our media-saturated culture’s reliance on the icon.
Blue Fasa asks what the lyric can still give us, and answers in an immense and generous manner. In Mackey’s music, we viscerally feel the physicality of language as well as the history and feeling encoded in it. It would be a loss for contemporary poetry to forget that sensuous shuttle of syllables from tongue to sound wave.
Laura Jaramillo is a poet from Queens and Ph.D. candidate at Duke University. She is the author of Material Girl (subpress) and 29 Waters (Make Now).