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Reviewed by:
  • Bass Cathedral
  • Aldon Lynn Nielsen
Nathaniel Mackey . Bass Cathedral. New York: New Directions, 2008. 196 pp. $16.95.

Early in this latest installment of Nathaniel Mackey's serial fiction, one of its recurring characters, Lambert, does a dance that is described as endlessly bordering on imbalance. Our epistolary narrator, one N., tells us that Lambert's dance "found an awkward beauty in finding itself on the verge of coming apart, a sustained and concrete play in being taken aback" (14). Those of Mackey's readers old enough to have seen Bob Marley in performance know exactly what Lambert looks like in his dance through this passage. Marley, when not playing his guitar, would literally fall away from his microphone. Arms wheeling, he would, [End Page 533] from his running start, seem to lean so far back out of his center of gravity that he would look to be on the verge of collapsing backwards into his own lyrics. Then, feet perpetually pushing the song back toward its limits, feet perpetually not failing him, Marley and his song would achieve again an even keel and the loping rhythms of the composition would continue on their appointed rounds. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this performance was that the other members of Marley's Wailers, from the singing I Three to the double-teaming bass and drums, gave no sign of noticing their leader's seeming struggles with gravity. They, one sensed, had lived long enough in the imbalance, perpetually making Reggae from scratch, that they remained themselves rock steady. Marley might well have said, as Mackey's narrator does, "a bit of melody held me up" (1) meaning, as N. does, that a tad of tunefulness delayed him and that the melody, and its sustaining chords, held him from falling finally to the stage.

And that is exactly the sense of reading Mackey's fiction. This is the fourth volume in a series appearing under the collective title From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. Nate Mackey has, of course, signed his own nickname in the nick of time here, as it were, calling readers out from the last syllable of his own long-running, running title. Then again, our serial correspondent signs himself "N." This does not make the reader necessarily the "Angel of Dust" to whom all the letters are addressed so much as it makes of us the ghosts of reading and writing, the echoes of an address, or, yet again borrowing from the work itself, the after-the-fact audience for an unheard-of opera.

Let me underscore the "unheard-of." I cannot recall another work, serial or otherwise, in which an author has addressed himself so assiduously to the detailed description of nonexistent music. Though N. is a composer as well as a multi-instrumentalist, he does not exist in the same way that Anthony Braxton does or that Miles Davis did. He exists as the signatory of our readings, as our host, as the only partly imagined vehicle by means of which the music of Mackey's imaginings comes through to us. We do get some help along the way. N. invokes a growing chorus of predecessor artists in his descriptions of the music made by his band, formerly, among other namings, the Mystic Horn Society; now the Molimo m'Atet. We gather that the sound they make is something like Beaver Harris's 360-Degree Music Experience, Sun Ra's varied extraterrestrial assemblages, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Uptown String Quartet, Max Roach's M'boom, the Brotherhood of Breath and the Women of the Calabash all inextricably intertwined with modes from Dakar, vocal stylings from Egypt and a strong dose of the blues.

Mackey's correspondent has been slowly working his way through time to us, and has with this volume reached the Autumn of '82. By now familiar characters such as Lambert, Aunt Nancy, Djamilaa, Drennette and Penguin reappear, this time joined by a ghostly albeit familiar figure from the earlier volumes. For some time the members of Mackey's band have been puzzling over the emanation from their instruments of curious text-filled balloons. In the...


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pp. 533-535
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