Triple Double

Double Trio: Tej Bet, So's Notice, Nerve Church by Nathaniel mackey. new york: new directions. 976 pages. $65.

The cover of Double Trio: Tej Bet, So's Notice, Nerve Church

POETRY AND MUSIC SHARE A LITTLE, mechanically, but are united by a common enemy: aboutness. What in the world is John Coltrane’s 1966 album, Meditations, about? As many times as I’ve listened to it, I wouldn’t dare claim that the music addresses a subject or expresses something as flimsy as an idea. But Meditations does not, in any way, duplicate the work of another album, and it has a function as particular as lemon pepper chicken or the quadratic equation. It does something in a deliberate way, embodying spiritual energy in a manner that no written brief can approach.

It’s apt, then, that the individual volumes of Double Trio, Nathaniel Mackey’s new 976-page box set, are keyed to the tracks on the second side of Meditations: Tej Bet goes with “Love,” So’s Notice with “Consequences,” and Nerve Church with “Serenity.” The poems set you up in a world of quick sensation and slow cathexis but they do not assign you a topic. Mackey himself did a good job of describing how Double Trio approaches aboutness in a 1978 essay about Wilson Harris and his novel The Eye of the Scarecrow: “The novel’s plotlessness, its inability or refusal to represent experience in an acceptably reductive, realist manner, proceeds from a gnostic estrangement from the world that realism wants to portray.”

Mackey is being very realistic when he uses the word “ongoing” to describe his work. Double Trio blends together two poems—“Mu” and Song of the Andoumboulou—that Mackey has been publishing, and blending, for most of his career. The first Andoumboulou poem was published in the first issue of Hambone, in 1974, the year Mackey helped start the magazine. Since then, Mackey has combined these two poems in three other books: Nod House, Splay Anthem (which won him the National Book Award in 2006), and Blue Fasa.

Mackey started writing Song of the Andoumboulou after hearing a recording of Dogon funeral music. He has called the Dogon conception of the Andoumboulou “an earlier, failed form of human being.” I don’t know what recordings Mackey found, but I have a relationship with an album called Dogon A.D., by Julius Hemphill, recorded and released in 1972. Because of the title, its proximity in genesis to Mackey’s poem, and its extended, mournful performances, Hemphill’s album feels like the soundtrack for Mackey’s omnium-gatherum.

A passage in So’s Notice suggests that Mackey is aware of how intense his poetic process is: “From Dogon to / doggone so quick our knees gave out, / the word a kind of death but a claim / against it.” The person who has not fully materialized, in the sense of the Dogon legend, is our narrator, named Insofar-I. (This could be a pun on both Prince Far I, the musician, and the religion of Rastafari.) The typographic presentation of the poetry depends largely on clumps of three to five lines, no more, each between six and twelve syllables, completed by a single syllable hanging by itself in the right margin like a toe.

Here is an excerpt:

Again the Insofar-I stood apart,

Remnant of a remnant, singled out.

One heard a horn parse harmonics,


lessly take its time, world up in

flames as it quibbled, a beginner

again it seemed. . . . Praised option

notwithstanding something sad held


wondered why get excited, why upset . . .

Double Trio moves in the recursive, spiraling way of an improviser juggling a theme. Insofar-I and his travelers move across a quickly shifting landscape of cities and countries, with death keeping time. “They set a / place for knowing knowing stayed away from, / rocks piled up at their door. They heard one / dead / man mourn another, a choked, broken lowing / it was.” All three books move in the time of Mackey’s scansion, hitting the hi-hat of that hanging syllable.

Nathaniel Mackey, ca. 2007.
Nathaniel Mackey, ca. 2007. Nina Subin

IT MAKES SENSE that in the forty-odd years Nathaniel Mackey has been writing poems and novels and criticism, he has been called on several times to clarify whether or not he’s a musician. His primary characters are musicians and even those who aren’t still use jazz and improvising musicians as reference points. In 1991, Mackey cleared this up (slightly) when he told Christopher Funkhouser, “I consider myself not a terribly visual person. I’m just really not. I don’t seek out the visual arts in the way I seek out music.” Later in this interview, Mackey illuminates his poetics by describing how music reorganized his experience in high school.

I remember buying an Ornette Coleman album and it just sounded very strange and weird. I couldn’t figure it out but I kept listening to it and after a while it not only made sense to me, there was a beauty to it. It was unlike the beauty that I heard in Miles Davis or John Coltrane, but it was beauty. The ability to get into something that initially is forbidding or intimidating or just doesn’t speak to you at all is one that is tested and proven. I tend to stay with things which may, on first or second or third hearing or reading, present me with difficulties that make it seem like it isn’t going to go anywhere. You’re right. What any experimental art is trying to get you to do is move beyond your preconceptions and your expectations regarding what should be happening, what’s going to happen, what kinds of effects it should have, and enter a liminal state in which those things can be re-defined in the way that the particular artist or piece of art is proposing.

Mackey’s writing is rooted in a soil of rich difficulties and what he calls, in his 1999 essay “Paracritical Hinge,” “the cacophonous of the avant-garde jazz of the 1960s.” His writing can easily take you to the liminal state he speaks of, an experience familiar to anyone who’s played in a band and felt that click of knowing, an announcement within the music that the proposed piece of art has established a new way of seeing that will last as long as the music does. Mackey’s writing achieves the same.

Mackey addresses these proposals in a 1992 essay about Robert Duncan’s Vietnam War poems. He quotes Austrian musicologist Victor Zuckerkandl, who spoke of “a critique of our concept of reality from the point of view of music.” Mackey then adds: “The world, music reminds us, inhabits while extending beyond what meets the eye, resides in but rises above what is apprehensible to the senses.” Musicality is both a mode of writing and a way of perception here. Mackey’s writing doesn’t necessarily feel—or sound—like music but operates in a musical way because it holds disparate realities in a single space, just as several musicians occupy one moment in time, not necessarily meaning one thing or the other but staying true to the logic of that moment. Exactly as Ornette opened up for Mackey over time, the difficult beauty of Double Trio yielded after I sat with it.

I got to know Mackey’s work because of his two remarkable books of criticism, Discrepant Engagement (1993) and Paracritical Hinge (2005). If he is under-read as a critic, it almost certainly because of his commitment “to be at odds with taxonomies and categorizations that obscure the fact of heterogeneity and mix.” These works of criticism are not strictly about poets or musicians, but about what Mackey calls the “interplay” between the two. As he defines it in the book of the same name: “Discrepant engagement, rather than suppressing resonance, dissonance, noise, seeks to remain open to them. . . . To see being as verb rather than noun is to be at odds with hypostasis, the reification of fixed identities that has been the bane of socially marginalized groups.” In Discrepant Engagement, the main topic is the Black Mountain poets Mackey engaged with like Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, as well as Afro-Caribbean poets like Wilson Harris. The essays in Paracritical Hinge range wide, across flamenco and H.D. and other experimental writers. “Blue in Green: Black Interiority” (1996) is one of the most efficient essays ever written about Miles Davis, focusing on his use of timbre and empty space as a formal and social strategy. “The reflective space that he made a place for in the music is not unrelated to the demands he made for more pay, fewer sets, and the like.” Here, the music is the life is the writing is the practice.

Pianist Cecil Taylor is also in Mackey’s house band of referents, coming up often in interviews and the work itself. In Val Wilmer’s 1977 book As Serious as Your Life, Taylor told the author that “the thing that makes jazz so interesting is that each man is his own academy.” That one-man institution is common to the Black American avant-garde, a loose organization of academies that includes Taylor and dozens of other musicians, Mackey, and his friend the poet and critic Fred Moten. In Double Trio, Mackey instantiates a different version of the independent and synthetic concert Moten proposed in his 2008 essay The Case of Blackness. Here, Moten imagines a band in order to answer a question. “I’d like to bring the set of questions that is black social life into relief by way of, and by passing through, the notion of chromatic saturation and the illicit commerce it bears between the language of music and the language of vision. I’ll do so by turning to an audiovisual ensemble comprising Ad Reinhardt and Cecil Taylor, Albert Ammons and Piet Mondrian.” Establishing cohorts is as important in Mackey’s work as any specific story he tells, and very few of those stories involve a single person working without a band. Mackey’s body of writing is a songbook, pieces that his groups—both imagined and real—have been rearranging over the course of an endless tour. That modular mobility is something Mackey borrows from jazz and dub, the practice of moving blocks of composition around over time, never settling on a definitive version.

Mackey’s novels, another ongoing and unchanging project, live as a companion to his poems. They more or less form one epistolary novel spread out over many volumes. The first three books are compiled in From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, and were followed by Bass Cathedral and Late Arcade, the lattermost in 2017. Musical groups dominate in these novels, just as they do in the poems. Through the Broken Bottle books (as Mackey calls these), a horn player named “N.” writes letters to the “Angel of Dust.” (Mackey says the name simply came to him, without any specific referent.) N. is part of a jazz sextet called Molimo m’Atet, and the letters detail all the various mundane and exquisite moments a band goes through. The band is, in essence, a unit of measure for Mackey, and also a thinking process itself, in that Mackey sends information through the collective brain of the band and then reports on the findings.

In one passage from Late Arcade, N. speaks about “a musical motif,” which is also “a lick-driven theorem.” The beingness of dissonance is a theorem driven by music. N. goes on to write that he “heard a symphonette of sorts, a micro-symphonette wound up in a four-bar motif whose unwinding one would never complete, return to the tonic no matter, the one, the two and the many each only more active the more apparently moot.”

THE INCOMPLETE WINDING, THE ONE, THE TWO, AND THE MANY—these are good mirrors for Mackey and the function of Double Trio. The patient, expansive voice of the criticism and fiction isn’t here. The voice of Double Trio is a fierce, clattering thing, hitting breaks like pads. As our ruminating clan moves on, the sense of sound and travel gets bound up: “We trudged on, crossing the / clearing as rain began to fall. The music the / lo- / cale transmitted was other than the song / we heard, rain-drenched intaglio a matte / piano played, in the mind or all mind at / that / point.”

“Song of the Andoumboulou: 217” feels like a pause in the ongoingness, a restatement of the key: “The true annals of our would-be we continued / unfolding, tonal forage paralleling life on plan- / et Nub. Everything not being alright would be / al- / right we’d left off knowing, gnostic remit we / so opted for.” The gnostic remit seems to be this poetic movement, when Mackey is able to stretch out language hitches—“weave and a wavering the book itself said, all preface or prolegomenon”—and deep tones when things align.

“Part plaint, part plea, the Cape Verdean pi- / ano was at our backs, an aspect of gallop / threaded in we heard as orishas, an aspect that / would / once have been all clack.” When Double Trio is this good, Mackey puts us in a physical place with a spiritual mandate, working within the idea of ascension as both Coltrane and the Methodists see it—a movement through noise into light.

Mackey has spoken in several places of the Double Trio poems moving into the work of prayer, though it seems more helpful to shift that slightly and think of this all as a hymnal. The saints and elders stand for our better selves, our seeking parts, in memory establishing ourselves and moving through our pain. “We might as well have / been on our way from La Honda, George Harrison on the / box, / 1970, all things having to pass.”

Mackey, like Moten, uses the formation of a hypothetical band to convert reality into new math. “We stood imagining we were leading a new / band, the Onshore Reed Optet, imagining what / one saw was what one got. The day, back to / being / day, called up song number five to the third / times two, song number ten to the third divided / by five.” I don’t know if “what one got” was the band’s fee and if “what one saw” was a broken promise, but I do know that the exponential math at the end of the stanza eluded me on first reading. In the next performance, those lines might be what it’s all about.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in the East Village.