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  • Nathaniel Mackey and the Unity of All Rites
  • Norman Finkelstein (bio)

Shamanism is like a theatrical performance in which one actor plays all the roles at once.

René Girard, Violence and the Sacred

Tricks played with letters,                                      littleelse . . .

Nathaniel Mackey, Whatsaid Serif

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Casual readers perusing the 2006 winner of the National Book Award for poetry probably got quite a surprise when they opened Nathaniel Mackey's Splay Anthem. Their first shock would have come from the eight-page preface, an unapologetic declaration and exposition of the obsessive seriality that has possessed Mackey's poetry since he began publishing it more than twenty years ago. Bristling with neologisms and arcane references, the preface presents Mackey's entwin(n)ed sequences as a practice akin to the poetics of the Kaluli of New Guinea, a poetics that "posits poetry and music as quintessentially elegiac but also restorative, not only lamenting violated connection but aiming to reestablish connection, as if the entropy that gives rise to them is never to be given the last word" (Splay Anthem xvi). Violation and restoration, entropy and connection are precisely what readers would next encounter in the opening of Splay Anthem's first poem, "Andoumboulouous Brush—'mu' fifteenth part —": [End Page 24]

    He turned his head,spoke to my clavicle,    whispered more than spoke. Sprung bone               the    obtuse flute he'dlong wanted, blew    across the end of it                stickingup . . .


The eccentric lineation and spacing, the enjambment making for a continuous but still unsettling syncopation, the free-floating pronouns, and above all, the disquieting physical intimacy that seems to be part of some strange act, part performance, part ritual—this "croaking / song / to end all song" (3) might be more than enough to dissuade our hypothetical poetry-shelf browsers from turning the page, National Book Award or no. For despite divisions into individually numbered poems (some enigmatically composed beneath lines across the page) and sections, the book proceeds relentlessly through such strange enactments for the next 125 pages. In short, Mackey's poems cannot be read casually; they may not be readable as individual poems at all.

Furthermore, to begin reading the work at any point is to encounter a proliferation, a surplus of spirit, a comprehensive process of sacralization that is simply unprecendented in contemporary poetry. This pervasive tendency to sacralize and mythologize poetic utterance does not, however, produce a "religious" or "devotional" poetry in any normative sense. Mackey's work teems with spirit—and spirits. Few poets today approach Mackey's status as a "technician of the sacred" (Mircea Eliade's term, popularized by Jerome Rothenberg), and few volumes of contemporary poetry seem quite so much like gatherings of rituals, catalogues of sacred acts, and books of spells as do Eroding Witness (1985), School of Udhra (1993), Whatsaid Serif (1998), and Splay Anthem.

Notwithstanding my surprised National Book Award browsers, the truth is that Mackey has been unusually fortunate in regard to his closest readers: with an attention and care bordering on religious devotion, critics, scholars, and (most revealingly) fellow poets have [End Page 25] researched and interpreted the immense range of cross-cultural myths, texts, historical events, and schools of thought and belief that rhythmically pulse through and punctuate the open, recursive, and frequently obsessive turns of his work. Mackey himself has led the way in this enterprise: a brilliant critic in his own right, his essays, gathered in Discrepant Engagement (1993) and Paracritical Hinge (2005), provide a clear path through the often recondite and unfamiliar cultural materials that so inspire him. His lengthy interviews further indicate the degree to which he wishes his work to be illuminated through explanation and conversation with reader-initiates. Yet Mackey's academic training and scholarly concerns take on a certain uncanny quality in light of his poetry and fiction. With his degrees from Princeton and Stanford and his longtime position as a professor of literature at the University of California–Santa Cruz, Mackey may appear rather remote from the adepts and magi, the gnostic seekers, wandering mystics, tribal elders, and cultic devotees who appear in his work. Even the careers of many of the modern poets and musicians whom he regards as his...


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