Poetry prizes are notoriously unreliable indicators of literary endurance. Committees tend not to reward the sort of innovative work that appeals to later generations. Exceptions to this rule tend to take readers of adventurous poetry by surprise, even when they are confident of their most accomplished poets’ deserving talent. Such has been the case with Nathaniel Mackey’s most recent collection, which encountered the unusual fate of being given the National Book Award in 2006. His work fits Ron Silliman’s category of “post-avant”—the disparate array of experimental poetries broken off from the Romantic [End Page 1378] idea of artistic progress at the turn of the twentieth century. Such poetry rarely receives the kind of recognition Mackey’s has over the last few years. The vibrantly skewed relation to time in his writing should be the stuff of some debate, if they have poetic justice in the future.
This watershed volume brings together two long poetic cycles begun in his earliest publications in the 1970s: Song of Andoumboulou and “Mu.” Each of the ongoing serial poems is numbered (though Mackey skips a few numbers along the way). In Splay Anthem, “Mu” goes from its fifteenth to the thirty-eighth parts, while Song goes from number 40 to number 60. They are interwoven, or braided together, rather than placed in sections, to emphasize their shared ambience.
Mackey explains the overlap of the two projects in a preface—itself a virtuosic work of self-criticism. The Andoumboulou are, in the Dogon cosmology, “not simply a failed, or flawed, earlier form of human being, but a rough draft of human being, the work-inprogress we continue to be” (xi). Likewise, “Mu” refers to, among other things, the lost continent. So the meeting of these two works constitutes what Robert Duncan has called in grand seriousness, a “world-poem,” but a specifically utopic and prehistoric world. Splay Anthem is a “blue gnostic / loop,” a choral return to creative origins that echoes back to the future (40). Its sources have an improvised philological quality. Mackey’s exuberant cultural appetite runs from experimental American poetry to history, linguistics, anthropology, and ethnomusicology. Never with the blowhard attitudinizing of Poe, Pound, or Olson, all of whom have nevertheless left their mark here, Mackey’s learning slants with the impossibility of his subject.
The poems ring with the kind of extra-historical consumption of history that characterizes Flaubert’s North African epic Salammbo, with its crucified lions and perfumed earrings. Mackey offers a latter day cornucopia of literary pleasures—”fig liquor” (64) and an “armadillo-back / mandolin” (32). The distance of his imaginary world frames a critique of “the flailing imperial republic of Nub the United States has become” (xv). For the bombast of this statement, the social critique in the poetry itself remains largely implicit. The historical estrangement staged by the premise allows for moments of echoing reportage:
Bullets flew, bombs fell outside, century’s end as andoumboulouous as ever.(17)
Here one of the poem’s keywords is redeployed as an adjective at “century’s end,” suggesting that, despite or perhaps because of the temporal obliquities of the poetry, we might think of our own moment within its terms.
Likewise in the poem’s geography, the displacement of “Mu” opens up the possibility for strange new views of the contemporary. For instance, many of Mackey’s impossible juxtapositions reconstruct a ghostly solidarity between African American and Arabic cultures. Where else but “Mu” could it be said that “Abbey Lincoln sang a Sufi lament,” or “jooked oud everywhere” (119, 88)? The post-avant politics of what he calls, following Duke Ellington, his “blutopia,” are fundamentally wandering, as much projection as [End Page 1379] protest. The ethnic determinants of his writing are much less explicit than will be familiar to readers accustomed to thinking around Langston Hughes’s “racial mountain.” Mackey heads toward theorizing a sort of post-racial aesthetic, and his work travels: “It was Egypt or Tennessee / we / were in” (55). Splay Anthem is never facile though, always in touch with violence and poverty for all its achieved avant-gardism and...