This week Yale University awarded Nathaniel Mackey its prestigious Bollingen Prize in American Poetry in recognition of both his most recent volume, Outer Pradesh (Anomalous Press, 2014), and an ongoing body of work that Mackey has been developing for nearly forty years. Raised in Southern California, Mackey began reading William Carlos Williams as a teenager. Later in college in the 1970s, he began to combine his interest in the American avant-garde with admiration for Amiri Baraka and other poets of the Black Arts Movement, as well as poets like Clarence Major and Ishmael Reed who articulated a more ambiguous response to that movement. Mackey’s essays on these writers are collected in Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (Cambridge University Press, 1993; 2009), where he examines the ways in which the experimental poetics of American modernism and the Black Mountain School converge with a small group of black writers whose work reveals gaps between received social norms and a rich experience of reality that refuses to accommodate convention. Such discrepancies provide an organizing principle for Mackey’s poetry as well.
Several of Mackey’s titles have been published by City Lights and remain in print, so check out the following if you’re looking for a better grasp on an artist whose work the Bollingen Prize committee described as “… one of the most important poetic achievements of our time … jazz-inflected, outward-riding, passionately smart, open, and wise.” Mackey’s serial poems are written across his entire oeuvre, so a full chronology is necessary to grasp the full scope of some of these works.
1. School of Udhra (1993)
Serial work, written and published periodically over a number of decades, has been a hallmark of Mackey’s poetics, most famously in the case of his “Song of the Andoumboulou,” the second installment of which is included in School of Udhra. The concept of the Andoumboulou, a race of imperfect Gods who uncannily resemble what we would recognize as humanity, is borrowed from the mythology of Central Mali’s Dogon people. In irregular stanzas that hinge visually on a single word or phrase, Mackey develops the poetic persona of one of these defective gods, its damaged psyche crowded with fears, sins, joys, and the atavistic pressure of memories real or imagined:
Back down the steps I go out
careful not to cross my legs
turning left up Monmouth,
my feet to an otherwise all
unbearable stretch as to a lizard’s back.
In the scorched upper lefthand
heavens my sister sits weeping,
robed in kerosene light.
gone Panamanian grin’s pathetic air,
thru which its teeth now push their deeprooting
rotted stumps, unruly gunmetal
ram’s head with Amon’s gourd stuck
between its horns…
windowless room I dance a
clubfoot’s waltz, my legs driven by horsemen,
bones hounded by lusts.
2. Whatsaid Serif (1998)
Mackey’s third full-length volume of poetry consists solely of twenty further installments in the “Song of the Andoumboulou” series, which includes a memorable bar scene that doubles as a seance, dissolving the threshold of life and death through drink and music:
In Wrack Tavern we raised our glasses,
drank to how far they’d come. Distant
kin long dead brought to life by the
wine we sipped, revenant dead said
died or been dying of thirst…
Clink of glass, clink of chains
transmuted. Andoumboulouous trauma,
andoumboulouous launch. Boat of years,
black-orphic lament, boat of
The nay-player’s dilated nostril,
adventitious odor only music
addressed … So that hoarseness
Ahtt we were after, Ttha the most abstract
we’d ever inhabit, tossed, low-throated
3. Atet A.D. (2001)
Atet A.D. is the third volume in Mackey’s serial novel, told through letters written to a figure called the “Angel of Dust” from someone named “N,” who plays with an experimental music collective called the Mystic Horn Society. All the volumes (of which four have now been published) share the collective title From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. From a Broken Bottle ranks with Geoff Dyer‘s But Beautiful and Michael Ondatjee‘s Coming through Slaughter as some of the best fiction out there that takes jazz as its subject. Atet A.D. takes place during the months following Thelonious Monk‘s death in 1982, leading up to the Mystic Horn Society recording its first album. The wild tales related by Mackey’s narrator detail all the excitement as well as the attendant struggles of trying to keep an eccentric group of artists together on the road and in working spirits during studio sessions.
Nathaniel Mackey won the National Book Award for his book Splay Anthem in 2006 and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation in 2014, making the Bollingen just one of his many accolades in the 21st Century. Mackey taught for many years at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is currently the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University.