Book of the Mouth

Our Hermitage: On Nathaniel Mackey’s “From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate” and “Bass Cathedral”

by Christopher Byrd

Professional novelists have lots of incentives to fashion lucid prose. There is no swifter way to incur charges of indulgence and pretentiousness than by opting for a style that keeps readers on the same page for minutes. If this is not a concern, chances are one is banking on the social prestige afforded within niche cultures. That said, anyone who sets forth to be a part of the “avant-garde,” let alone consciously interested in it, probably wonders if their work is really needed, or if their interest is a pose; assuming they aren’t altogether monomaniacal. For unlike other genres, the “avant-garde” tag submits its creators, proponents, and audience to an ongoing test insofar as the term is as much an adjective as it is an intellectual proposition.

If one isn’t simply conveying opinion, to say something is “avant-garde” is to stake a claim on one’s ability to discern facets that are left out of the broader cultural conversation. To work in such a vein is to embrace a quasi-messianic belief in extending the parameters of what’s possible. Inevitably, questions of judgment and sensibility arise, as does the matter of descriptive durability. To illustrate, consider the legacy of Arthur Rimbaud—once the bête noire of French letters, now a beloved icon of rock stars and Hollywood actors. The British historian Graham Robb in his compelling biography, Rimbaud (Norton), raises issues that are germane to the probing of contemporary avant-garde writing:

Rimbaud’s interest in his own work had survived the realization that the world would not be changed by verbal innovation. It did not survive the failure of his adult relationships. He had always treated his poems as a form of private communication… Without a constant companion, he was writing in a void. This is what it meant to be ‘ahead of his time.’ In 1876, most of Rimbaud’s admirers either were still in the nursery or had yet to be conceived.  

When Rimbaud wrote the last Illuminations, he might have felt in any case that his poetry had crossed the limits of communicability and turned into a simple waste of energy. He was one of the first French poets to reach the logical end of Romanticism. Purged of clichés and common understandings, poems that were based on individual sensibility rather than on convention were in danger of becoming irredeemably private—at least until they created a readership of their own. (p.288)  

Plus ça change… one might think after reading this passage. And herein lays the paradox: if the criteria for identifying an avant-gardist hasn’t changed much since the nineteenth century, is today’s “experimental” writer an aesthete donning a frayed cowl, or the conduit of a productive difficulty?     

If there is any American writer whose work deserves to be set upon by a legion of grad students, and raptured onto bookshelves hospitable to Pynchon, McElroy, and Foster Wallace, it’s Nathaniel Mackey. As a novelist, poet, and professor of literature at University of California, Santa Cruz, Mackey is devoted to creating and critiquing ahead-of-the-curve literature. There is a palimpsestic quality to his output. Jazz is a tributary that irrigates nearly all of his work; other recurring interests include: philosophy, Dogon cosmogony, gnosticism, mysticism, and occult traditions like Hoodoo. As for influences, he cites William Carlos Williams, Amiri Baraka, the Black Mountain poets, Edward Kamu Braithwaite, Wilson Harris, the nouveau roman writers, and others.

Born in 1947, Mackey spent his first four years in Miami before moving to California after his parents separated. Until he was ten, he lived with his mother in the small town of Rodeo, located along the San Pablo Bay, in the Bayo Vista housing project. They later moved to Santa Ana, in southern California. From a young age, he displayed an interest in mathematics and literature. In high school, he read the existentialists and listened to music along the spectrum of Ornette Coleman. He obtained a B.A. from Princeton (where, in retrospect, it seems telling he took to pole-vaulting) and a Ph.D. from Stanford. His first poetry chapbook,

Four for Trane, was published in 1978. In 2006, his fourth full-length collection of poetry, Splay Anthem, won the National Book Award. (He is the first African-American male poet to have obtained the award.)

In Eroding Witness (1985; University of Illinois Press. National Poetry Series), his first poetry book, there are two letters signed by N., the narrator, addressed to one Angel of Dust. The letters are embedded in a serial poem, Song of the Andoumboulou, whose title refers to the funeral song of the Dogon tribe of Mali, which tells of an extinct people—humanity’s forerunners. The first letter was born out of an actual correspondence, in the late 1970s, between Mackey and a friend who was looking for insight into his poetry. His response took the form of an ars poetica, a copy of which he mailed to his friend with its celestial salutation intact, the purpose of which was to give the recipient an impression of eavesdropping on a conversation with a spectral audience. That Mackey would seize upon the format of the letter as a device for commenting on and furthering his own linguistically challenging work calls to mind what Robb noted about Rimbaud. Namely, that he “treated his poems as a form of private communication” and, by extension, courted the danger of them becoming “irredeemably private.”

A year after Eroding Witness, Mackey published Bedouin Hornbook the first novel in his epistolary series, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. An omnibus edition composed of the first three books is available, as is the fourth volume, Bass Cathedral (2008). Excluding the more abstract sections of the novels, which abandon the “Dear Angel of Dust” opening, it’s easy to sketch out their plotlines. In Bedouin Hornbook, N. and four friends, all of whom live in the L.A. area, form a jazz band. They rehearse, write songs and gig around the West Coast. Near the end of the book, Lambert, one of the more fiery members of the group, makes the case that they should hire a drummer. Djbot’s Baghostus’s Run opens with the three male members of the band gathered together to audition a drummer named Sun Stick; however, before he can lay down a groove, the two female members of the group show up. Without saying a word, the women take up their instruments and—like Lambert in the previous novel—use music to assert their point. In the interest of gender equality, they argue that the band should look for a female drummer. The rest of the novel is largely given over to this search and the preparations for the band’s first show in New York, where they happen upon a drummer who is also a California resident. The third novel, Atet A.D., sees the band up through the recording of their first studio album. Finally, Bass Cathedral finds them contending with a postpartum funk brought on by the vinyl release of Orphic Bend.  

Assuredly, no one reads these books for their plot. Indeed, unless one is acquainted with the more cerebral districts of poetry (such as the Objectivists and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets) or at ease with the more cumbersome syntax of literary theory, the intellectual challenges posed by these novels are formidable, sometimes prodigal, but, generally speaking, deeply considered. Over the course of the series the author, among other things, subjects the concept of the avant-garde to a cost-benefit analysis. One can find a succinct, supplementary version of his position in the short manifesto, “Destination Out,” which is included in Paracritical Hinge: Essays Talks, Notes, Interviews (The University of Wisconsin Press):   

Centrifugal work begins with good-bye, wants to bid all givens good-bye. It begins with what words will not do, paint will not do, whatever medium we find ourselves working in will not do. Amenities and consolation accrue to a horizon it wants to get beyond, abandoning amenities and consolation or seeking new ones. It will, of course, suffer marginalization, temporary in some cases, unremitting in most.

Black centrifugal writing has been and continues to be multiply marginalized. Why would it be otherwise? At a time when academic and critical discourse battens on identity obsession (even as it “problematizes” identity), black centrifugal writing reorients identity in ways that defy prevailing divisions of labor. In the face of a widespread fetishization of collectivity, it dislocates collectivity, flies from collectivity, wants to make flight a condition of collectivity. (p.239)

One can envision Deleuze and Guattari beaming over those last two sentences, which call to mind the lines of flight articulated in A Thousand and One Plateaus. Putting a more literal spin on that notion, a friend of mine, who recently hopped off the tenure track, vented his disgruntlement to me about the overall privileging, by journals and senior faculty, of black social-realist and magical-realist traditions over the kinds of writing of which Mackey is an exponent.

The desire for community is a motif that breezes through the entirety of From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. From the beginning, N. is adamant that, “The last thing I want our group to become is a lonely hearts band.” (p.67) The avant-garde stratagems employed by these books are volunteered on the behalf of aesthetic and political goals that have yet to be neutered.

Book of the Mouth