Contacts: Writing by and about Nathaniel Mackey
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Callaloo 23.2 (2000) 807-812

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Writing by and about Nathaniel Mackey

James C. Hall

It is perhaps not so surprising that a writer such as Nathaniel Mackey, who has directed so much attention to the viability of traditional literary taxonomies, would himself be betwixt and between critical enthusiasms. While there is little question that Mackey is "recognized," his rich body of literary work has not been engaged (that is to say written about) with the energy that one might expect. Mackey's valorization of the "risk of obscurity" in writers as diverse as Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Wilson Harris, and Kamau Brathwaite has become somewhat prophetic. An odd dialectic of presence and absence might accurately characterize Mackey's current situation. In compiling this bibliography and conversing with colleagues near and far, I note that Nathaniel Mackey is certainly known, but awaits the fellowship of close readers and writers he richly deserves.

As Mackey's work did not appear in book form until the mid-1980s, some readers might insist that he is a relatively "new" writer and that a substantial critical literature will surely appear in time. I would note, rather, that Mackey has been an active writer for about twenty-five years, part of a generation of African-American writers who attended college at the height of the Black Arts Movement. (This cohort would include Xam Cartier, Wanda Coleman, Charles Johnson, Gayl Jones, Yusef Komunyakaa, John McCluskey, and Alice Walker.) What remains more problematic, I would argue, is the pedagogical (and to a certain extent critical) bugaboo of "difficulty." Mackey's work is demanding, although certainly no more so than the (white) high moderns within the American "tradition" whom students are required to read with regularity. Mackey's critical and pedagogical absence becomes an institutional chimera of sorts: without undergraduate classroom exposure, no group of graduate student writers and critics, no group of informed readers to produce a base (or bass or "bottom") of criticisms to allow for the more informed presentation of his work in the classroom.

Some readers might also insist that the full canonization of Nathaniel Mackey's work is not something that is desirable. Arguing from a position related to that which Mackey has himself articulated, it might be implied that a Mackey as "other," rather than "othering," is worth resisting. There is certainly some truth to this line of thought, and the dullness of a John Coltrane made into pop-spiritual icon suggests some of the danger. Of course this is only a real danger if we misapprehend the critical task as writing toward mastery. If, instead, the critical task in the "writing about" is to create an edifying "mixtery," to "make some noise" as Mackey puts it, the likelihood of stagnancy or commodification seems distant. [End Page 807]

What might this writing look like/sound like? There is certainly a need, I would argue, for an accounting of the variety of musics (black and otherwise) that are engaged, "used," and interrogated in his work. The relationship of Mackey's work to post-Bop jazz has been fairly carefully sketched, but there remain many more "soundings" to be described and acknowledged. The focus upon post-Bop jazz makes perfect sense of course--Mackey has made this connection explicit. But insofar as writers and critics continue to primarily follow revealed connections, we may be missing one of the primary insights encouraged by the "work itself." Mackey's work celebrates coincidence, affinity, synchronicity, the unexpected moment/experience of recognition outside of instruction. Part of the critical task, it seems to me, must be to begin to delineate contacts/context, beyond our obvious vision (post-World War II American poetries, Caribbean literature and culture, and African-American [post] modernism) and to experience the novels and poetry in such a way that we imagine and invent new relationships, hear the untold spoken. At the same time, while one of the most important accomplishments of Discrepant Engagement was to break a ghettoizing and parochial pattern of only examining the accomplishments of black writers in relation to other black writers, the...