Nathaniel Mackey Mackey, Nathaniel - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Nathaniel Mackey 1947-

(Full name Nathaniel Ernest Mackey.) American poet and novelist

The following entry provides information on Mackey's career from 1987 through 2002.

Mackey is best known for poetry and prose that encompasses themes and rhythms from multiple cultures, most notably incorporating the musicality and spontaneity of improvisational American jazz. One of his best known works, “The Song of the Andoumboulou,” is a serial poem that began in his 1985 volume, Eroding Witness, and has been published in subsequent units since then. In his role as long-time editor of the literary journal Hambone, Mackey nurtures innovation and cross-culturality in the creative arts by publishing the work of both young and established writers, visual artists, and musicians, spanning a wide spectrum of ethnic traditions. Mackey further develops the relationship between world music and poetry by sharing his knowledge of African American and Third World musical movements through radio broadcasts, lectures, readings, and workshops.

Biographical Information

Mackey was born in Miami, Florida, and raised in California. He developed a love for music as a child, around age eight or nine. His earliest childhood experiences with music and religion came from his family's involvement in a Baptist church, where he noticed that people responded to music in a spiritual setting differently than the way they responded in a more formal concert setting. The “states of trance and possession” he says he observed then were later recalled when he became familiar with the religious practices of Haitian vodun and Cuban Santería. His subsequent perception of the kinship of music, spirituality, and the search for cultural identity became an abiding theme in his poetry and fiction.

Mackey began to develop an interest in improvisational jazz during adolescence. The music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, among others, would become particularly influential in Mackey's approach to writing. As a student at Princeton University, Mackey studied mathematics, but also began to explore contemporary literature and his own writing. Following graduation, Mackey taught public school mathematics for one year and then began to pursue a Ph.D. in English and American literature at Stanford University. He taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Southern California before joining the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1979, where he has taught courses in creative writing, twentieth-century fiction and poetry, African American literature, culture, and music, and Caribbean literature. In 1993, Mackey won the Whiting Writer's Award.

Major Works

Mackey's first poetry collections were the chapbooks Four for Trane, published in 1978, and Septet for the End of Time, which appeared in 1983. The title of the first volume honored legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, signaling the aesthetics of jazz as a key influence in the poet's work. The second volume drew on a wide spectrum of cultural influences including the Koran and the society of West Africa, introducing themes of cross-culturality that are also characteristic throughout Mackey's poetry.

Eroding Witness was Mackey's first major collection of poetry. It earned a National Poetry Series selection the year it was published. The serial poems “mu” and “Song of the Andoumboulou,” for which Mackey has become well known, each began in this volume, which also includes the poet's earliest chapbook works. The “mu” series continues in Outlantish (1992) and School of Udhra (1993). “Song of the Andoumboulou” continues in the latter, as well as in Song of the Andoumboulou: 18-20 (1994) and Whatsaid Serif: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-35 (1998).

Mackey has also published three books of experimental fiction, Bedouin Hornbook (1986), Djbot Baghostus's Run (1993), and Atet, A.D. (2001), and a volume of literary criticism, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (1993).

Mackey's poetry is absent of a consistent voice or textual style. Instead fragmented, fleeting voices, not unlike instruments heard in improvisational jazz, are used experimentally to produce an effect of complex spontaneity and intertextuality. Throughout Mackey's writings the search for cultural foundations and identity is a recurring theme. Mackey scholar Mark Scroggins notes that “such a quest is especially important for an African American poet who writes innovative poetry.”

Critical Reception

Influenced by the various aesthetics of jazz, world music, and the works of twentieth-century writers including Henry Dumas, Robert Duncan, Langston Hughes, and William Carlos Williams, Mackey's works are accepted by the poet's contemporaries as a unique contribution to the tradition of American modernist and postmodernist innovative poetry. Mackey's reputation among his peers as a significant contemporary poet in America may be assessed by the publication in 2000 of an issue of the quarterly literary journal Callaloo that was devoted entirely to essays about Mackey and his work. According to Ginger Thornton, managing editor of Callaloo, contributors were “very enthusiastic about the idea, and many even wrote specifically for or about Nate.” She further commented, “You don't usually, in the case of a living poet, have contributors who write specifically in honor of that person.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Four for Trane 1978

Septet for the End of Time 1983

Eroding Witness 1985

Outlantish 1992

School of Udhra 1993

Song of the Andoumboulou: 18-20 1994

Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25, (recording) 1995

Whatsaid Serif: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-35 1998

*Bedouin Hornbook (novel) 1986

Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality and Experimental Writing (criticism) 1993

*Djbot Baghostus's Run (novel) 1993

Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose [co-editor with Art Lange] (poetry and prose) 1993

*Atet, A.D. (novel) 2001

*These three novels constitute volumes 1-3 of Mackey's fictional epistolary series entitled From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate.

Roberto Tejada (review date fall 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Tejada, Roberto. Review of Eroding Witness, by Nathaniel Mackey.Sulfur: A Literary Tri-Quarterly of the Whole Art 10 (fall 1987): 177-83.

[In the following review, Tejada reviews Mackey's Eroding Witness.]

While most of his contemporaries enjoy the poetic climate which sanctions a writing immersed in the disorders of its own medium, Eroding Witness, Nathaniel Mackey's first sizable collection of poetry, asserts the distinct work of a poet free from the dominant strategies of current avant-garde practice. As a result—perhaps also because it was published as part of the National Poetry Series over two years ago?—I suspect this book has slipped by readers whom it would otherwise interest.

You might expect this from a tame collection of single poems but Eroding Witness is spoken in both an immediate & sustained voice and the assembly bares Mackey's sensibility to the notion of a book as both a congruent and overlapping network. It is divided into four sections: the first and third of these are made up of individual pieces while the second and fourth are devoted to the serial poems, “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “Septet for the End of Time,” which have the sort of body and pulse which recall Spicer's sense of the series as a poem of multidirectional continuity.

1. These are difficult poems but they are not adverse. Most often they are constructed of a private language mindful, for example, of Celan: an environment that is hermetic but far from hostile. Like the best writing, it defines its own enclosures and marks its own frontier: imagining the world's space each poem occupies. A world that contains, to begin with, a revised mythology.

Mackey's particular pantheon covers a mythical terrain including the denizen of the Egyptian Heliopolis, the sacred canon of Cuban santería, the Haitian loa-deity, Erzulie, and the cosmology of the Dogon sage, Ogotemmêli, whose conversations with anthropologist Marcel Griaule are the axis around which more than several of the poems turn.

It is an enclosure which allows many voices in turn to participate in the poems as is immediately evident, for example, in “Black Snake Visitation,” “Ghede Poem” and “The Shower of Secret Things: 3.” Mackey assumes in “Ghede Poem” a mode that mythifies the self through the persona of the poem's title:

                                                                                Yes, they call me
                                        Ghede of the Many-Colored Cap, the
                                                            Rising Sun. I make the hanged
                                        supply his own rope, I gargle rum,
                                                            the points of knives grow more
                              and more sharp underneath your skin.
                                                                                                                                            My name is
Ghede-Who-Gets-Under-Your-Skin, my medicinal dick
                                                                      so erect it shines, the slow
                                        cresting of the stars astride a bed
                                                            of unrest gives my foreskin the
                                                            sheen of a raven's wings,
          untranslatable shouts of a previous church my
                              school of ointments, my attendants
keep a logbook of signs.

Mackey's epithets for Ghede and his use of paralleled repetitions broaden the poem without surrendering to gesture, achieving a powerful litany on “the edge / of love's disappearance” and whose outcast speech is prompted, in a Rilkean twist, by “the soiled asses of ‘angels’” which anoint the poet's lips.

There is an absence which is inherent to any method that is fragmentary, and it is one which Mackey begins to assume with “The Shower of Secret Things: 3,” a poem that teeters on the fringe of a near-fatal accident in Vietnam, the hallucinatory voices of that past, and a woman only in memory retraced. But if it is fragmented, it is because Mackey's drive is to shed the dressings of the exterior world to expose what Amiri Baraka in one of his essays on jazz has termed “the final sum of what we call being,” that “internal and elemental volition.” It is in this light, then, that the series “Song of the Andoumboulou” should be read.

2. In the liner notes to the album Les Dogon [Disques Ocora], a section of which prefaces the series, François Di Dio writes:

The song of the Andoumboulou is addressed to the spirits. For this reason the initiates, crouching in a circle, sing it in a whisper in the deserted village, and only the howling of dogs and the wind disturb the silence of the night.

The first of these “Songs” begins as a dialogue with the dead by a people who in turn demand to be evidenced: an ancestry of souls whose...

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Mark Scroggins (essay date fall 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Scroggins, Mark. “The Master of Speech and Speech Itself: Nathaniel Mackey's ‘Septet for the End of Time.’” Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, no. 9 (fall 1992): 44-7.

[In the following essay, Scroggins discusses Mackey's chapbook, Septet for the End of Time, and draws comparisons between this work and the music of French composer Olivier Messaien's “Quatour pour la fin du Temps” (1941).]

Nathaniel Mackey's Septet for the End of Time immediately confronts its reader with the order of numerology, and beyond that, the order of speech itself, the saying that incarnates the numbers. Its three epigraphs provide three...

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Nathaniel Mackey and Edward Foster (interview date fall 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mackey, Nathaniel, and Edward Foster. “An Interview with Nathaniel Mackey.” Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, no. 9 (fall 1992): 48-61.

[In the following interview, which was conducted in August 1991, Foster and Mackey discuss cultural, political, and literary aspects of Mackey's work.]

[This interview was conducted in August 1991 and edited the following spring.]

[Foster]: In a recent review of Eroding Witness, Leonard Schwartz defines what he calls the “transcendental lyric,” saying that in your poems you explore “subjective access to modes of being prior to personal experience.” Could you...

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Joseph Donahue (essay date fall 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Donahue, Joseph. “Sprung Polity: On Nathaniel Mackey's Recent Work.” Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, no. 9 (fall 1992): 62-5.

[In the following essay, Donahue offers general commentary on Mackey's first volumes of poetry.]

                                                  the initiation
of another kind of nation

—Charles Olson

Nathaniel Mackey's first book of poems, Eroding Witness, set before us a range of ritual roles and described the occasional players who filled them. In doing so the poet demonstrated his commitment to the liberating power of ecstatic song. Shaman, musician, gris-gris...

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Nathaniel Mackey and Christopher Funkhouser (interview date spring 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mackey, Nathaniel, and Christopher Funkhouser. “An Interview with Nathaniel Mackey.” Callaloo 18, no. 2 (spring 1995): 321-34.

[In the following interview, which was conducted on September 3, 1991, Mackey discusses teaching, writing, and the cultural foundations of his poetry.]

A few brief and informal conversations, occurring after we met for the first time in 1991, led me to ask Nathaniel Mackey if we could speak more formally about his writing and teaching. He agreed, welcoming the presence of a tape recorder.

The following conversation took place at Nathaniel Mackey's home in Santa Cruz on September 3, 1991. An edited version...

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Nathaniel Mackey, Peter O'Leary, and Devin Johnston (interview date winter 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mackey, Nathaniel, Peter O'Leary, and Devin Johnston. “An Interview with Nathaniel Mackey.” Chicago Review 43, no. 1 (winter 1997): 30-46.

[In the following interview, which was conducted on Saturday, May 18, 1996, Mackey speaks with O'Leary and Johnston about his work.]

Born in Miami in 1947, Nathaniel Mackey grew up in Southern California. He attended Princeton and then Stanford, where he earned a Ph.D. in literature. In the late 1970s, after having taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and USC, Mackey joined the faculty of UC-Santa Cruz, where he works today. His first poetry publications were chapbooks, all of which were eventually collected...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 29 June 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Whatsaid Serif, by Nathaniel MackeyPublishers Weekly 245, no. 26 (29 June 1998): 54-5.

[In the following review, the critic reviews Whatsaid Serif.]

Mackey's third book of poems continues the exquisite “Song of the Andouboulou” cycle inaugurated in his first book, Eroding Witness, and continued through his second, 1993's School of Udhra, also published by City Lights. With a poetic line that is syncopated and improvisational, yet balanced in an elegant, nearly classical style, Mackey sets out on a terrifying, inspiring spiritual quest, taking on cultural displacement and the ruins of communal identity. Like Eliot, Mackey is an...

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Paul Naylor (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Naylor, Paul. “Nathaniel Mackey: The ‘Mired Sublime.’” In Poetic Investigations: Singing the Holes in History, pp. 71-105. Evanston Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Naylor analyzes the cross-cultural nature of Mackey's works.]

We are aware of the fact that the changes of our present history are the unseen moments of a massive transformation in civilization, which is the passage from the all-encompassing world of cultural Sameness, effectively imposed by the West, to a pattern of fragmented Diversity, achieved in a no less creative way by the peoples who have today seized their rightful place in the...

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Paul Naylor (essay date spring 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Naylor, Paul. “‘Some Ecstatic Elsewhere’”: Nathaniel Mackey's Whatsaid Serif.Callaloo 23, no. 2 (spring 2000): 592-605.

[In the following essay, Naylor offers a critical overview of Mackey's Whatsaid Serif.]

Nathaniel Mackey's third full-length book of poetry, Whatsaid Serif: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-35 (City Lights, 1998), is a remarkable extension of the serial poem he began in his first book, Eroding Witness (University of Illinois, 1985), and continued in his second, School of Udhra (City Lights, 1993). The growth of Mackey's serial poem in Whatsaid Serif is not merely quantitative, although it is that,...

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Mark Scroggins (review date fall 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Scroggins, Mark. Review of Whatsaid Serif, by Nathaniel Mackey.African American Review 34, no. 3 (fall 2000): 555-58.

[In the following review, Scroggins praises the cross-culturality of Mackey's Whatsaid Serif.]

Whatsaid Serif, Nathaniel Mackey's third full-length volume of poetry, presents us with twenty-one new installments of the innovative, ongoing serial poem Song of the Andoumboulou, a work whose earlier movements appeared in Mackey's first two books of poetry Eroding Witness (U of Illinois P, 1985) and School of Udhra (City Lights, 1993). The Andoumboulou are a somewhat shadowy people alluded to in the cosmology of the...

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Peter O'Leary (essay date 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Leary, Peter. “Deep Trouble/Deep Treble: Nathaniel Mackey's Gnostic Rasp.” In Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness, pp. 171-216. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, O'Leary offers a critical analysis of the influence of American poet Robert Duncan on the works of Nathaniel Mackey.]

Were all in harmony to our ears, we would dwell in the dreadful smugness in which our mere human rationality relegates what it cannot cope with to the “irrational” as if the totality of creation were without ratios. Praise then the interruption of our composure, the image that comes to fit we...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Mossin, Andrew. “Unveiling Expectancy: Nathaniel Mackey, Robert Duncan, and the Formation of Discrepant Subjectivity.” Callaloo 23, no. 2 (spring 2000): 538-62.

A critical analysis of cross-culturality and other influences on the works of Mackey.

Additional coverage of Mackey's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 153; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 114; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 169; and Literature Resource Center.

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