Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 62.1 (2006) 113-140
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A Poetics of Radical Musicality:
Nathaniel Mackey's "-mu" Series
Robert L. Zamsky
I'm post bebop
Secrets are locked up everywhere in procedure. Tell me the time and I'll tell you an unkempt joke. The hours are like clouds, their coming and going directions obvious. But, as far as I can tell, writing, like its poor cousin speech, has no beginning.
As any reader of Nathaniel Mackey's work knows, it is probably impossible to overstate the significance of music in his work. As a poet, novelist, critic, and editor (and, as disc-jockey), Mackey consistently engages with music, musicians, and the musical imagination. And, yet, while many of Mackey's best critics have explored the role of musicality in his work, such discussions most often take place through larger, metaphysical lenses. These approaches are, of course, consistent with Mackey's own conceptualization of music as deeply connected to myth, religion, belief, belonging, and loss. After all, in the very series that interests me here, the "-mu" series, Mackey presents us with lines such as, "anagrammatic / ythm, anagrammatic myth," where the absent but implied "rh" sounds the relation between rhythm and myth, those procedures that keep the time of human lives. My interest, here, is simply that we pay attention to the "ythm" as much as we do the "myth." That is, I would like to consider how Mackey's "post bebop" poetics articulates the sense of proceduralism and temporality to which Coolidge points.1 By exploring the acoustic qualities of Mackey's work in relation to his structural and thematic preoccupations, we can see, or, [End Page 113] better, hear musicality as the overarching feature of Mackey's poetics, and perhaps learn something about the role of musicality in post-war lyric in the process. From his use of sound to his concept of seriality and his relation to theme, Mackey posits a poetics of radical musicality in which the poem is perhaps best described as an irresolvable process of "root-work," to invoke Mackey's description of his own invocation of opera in his novel Dbjot Baghostus's Run. That is, as Mackey's open-form poetics interrogates gestures of demarcation and origination, from the level of the word to that of the work, and on to that of the liminal space where music and poetry meet, his work demonstrates the experience of poetry as being a fundamentally and thoroughgoingly musical one.
My analysis of musicality in Mackey's poetics is deeply indebted to those who have previously discussed his intense interest in music. Brent Hayes Edwards's analysis of Mackey's "poetics of reprise" (586), often lurks behind my argument, and I will return to his discussion in detail with respect to Mackey's use of under-the-line poems. For now, suffice to say that Edwards's argument is exemplary both for its attention to the conceptual relationships between the poetry and the music, and for its self-conscious reticence about being too focused on musicality. Beyond Edwards's discussion of Mackey's poetics, the current discussion is seen as complementary to the treatments of Mackey's compact disc, Strick, by Jeffrey Gray and Richard Quinn. Gray and Quinn both treat the complex "matrices" to borrow Quinn's phrase, between Mackey's written text, his oral performance of it, and the accompanying music by Royal Hartigan and Hafez Modirzadeh. Gray and Quinn argue that Mackey's poetics is one in which formal innovation is intimately tied to cultural critique. Arguing that Mackey's work is "identarian" and "multicultural," respectively, Gray and Quinn both compellingly explore larger implications of the text-music interaction on Strick. Thus commenting that "Mackey's raspiness is in his prosody" (631), Gray argues that Strick operates as a site of contestation between the aural and the textual, "the heard and the...