by Nathaniel Mackey
New Directions 2006
Reviewed by Mike McDonough
Title sound familiar? More than vaguely P-Funk? It should. What’s new about Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem is that it’s P-Funk for Academe. What I see is an historic opportunity to heal the breach that has festered since 1967, when Le Roi Jones was arrested during the Newark riots on trumped-up weapons charges, and quickly sentenced after one of his poems was read as evidence. After that, it’s not hard to understand that Jones might ditch his white friends, change his name and go home to the black nationalist ghetto, never to return: how a remedial action might become a long-term breach.
Part of what I think should be remembered about Jones is a book called Black Music, a collection of insistent, urgently vernacular reviews of Free-Jazzers. His brilliant folk wisdom is marred by a despair that whites can’t understand this music, that white thinking is crabbed, top-down reasoning, while black thinking is body-wise and never the twain shall meet: all this even as Jones is exercising his own prodigious powers of logic and reason to build the wall. I read such divisions with pain at the loss: even Olson was saying, Hey! Universities! You might be able to USE ‘em.
Nicole Terez, who came up through Cave Canem, a program for African-American writers, led me back to Baraka’s book. She sees this musical tradition as speaking to America as a whole: no reason to dis Louis Armstrong as a sellout: it’s all good. It’s not that she is blind to Baraka’s nationalism, but that she won’t throw out the good stuff, of which much remains. She trusts the reader: and as noted by others, the threads, though braided, stand out as visibly wrong—a nod to the 9/11 poem he’d write suggesting the Jews were all conveniently evacuated, and that the attack was an inside job. It’s tragic. Baraka tends to bring down with him a tradition of amazing variety and life, the relevance of African tradition to America as a whole.
Nathaniel Mackey’s intro to Splay Anthem is a masterful naming and reclaiming: a jazz critic and poet healing the breach heralded in Black Music. Other disciples of Olson address rifts in academia, but not the hyphen in African-American. This is what Ralph Ellison was talking about for all those years, and getting called Uncle Tom and worse for his pains. Reread Mackey’s introduction: it’s a pretzel, but keep at it: every one of the artists he mentions takes us right back to the mid-60’s moment when Le Roi was letting us in on some heavy shit, still on the same train with Olson and Creeley, Duncan Bending the Bow, and Ayler, Coltrane and Coleman blowing their hearts out (and minds) to tell us what was going down. And the poems—a weaving of two series that mark another chapter in a project that’s marked his career—are equally smart, rhythmic, and rewarding:
Lake also there… Where we were rubbed
earth in our faces, a feeling we had
for debris. Nub, no longer standing,
filled the air, an exact powder, fell
we ran through it, earth-sway swaddling
Up till now, the roadblock to reclaiming this tradition was partly a sense that avant-jazzers had left mind for moan, that tweeds couldn’t in good conscience cotton to tribal neoprimitivism: look at the sulfurous rifts widening beneath their feet. Just as I can’t blame Baraka for taking his ball and going home, I can’t blame the tweeds for not committing suicide. See how Mackey reclaims the vernacular bite for the brain: “the imperial flailing republic of the Nub the United States has become, the shrunken place the earth has become, planet Nub. In a match that seems to have been made in hell, hijacked airliners echo and further entrench a hijacked election, cycles of recriminatory assault further confirming a regime of echo the recourse to echo would cure homeopathically if it could.”
See if you don’t agree that since the midterm elections, that statement is now much more mainstream. Baraka has been saying that for 40 years, but without the nod to ecology linking American crabbiness with planetary crabbiness. The vicious circle of isms has been stretched by history into a spiral, a spring. We are ready to reclaim and leap. Tweeds can vote for Mackey, welcoming the cool music and deep cultural critique without fear, with a real need for common cause. This is just the time to hear Mackey’s voice. The healing he offers is real and relevant: which is why I think Splay Anthem is a contender. Don’t miss Nathaniel Mackey’s anthology of jazz writing, either.