Mackey, Nathaniel. Splay Anthem. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing Co., 2006.
Mackey’s Splay Anthem continues two, career-spanning serialized poems: “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “Mu.” Although the two poems appear to, at times, be separate entities, their aesthetic concerns and sonic capacities obscure their differences to the point of one being indecipherable from the other. Each poem is inspired by, and attempts to mimic, specific songs; the former a is Dogon funeral dirge, and the latter is a jazz piece of the same name by saxophonist Don Cherry. As one would expect, then, the collection as a whole evinces a poetic that corresponds rather closely to both tribal music, in the form of the chant, as well as the improvisational techniques of jazz. For starters, repetition is a key component of these pieces. At the most basic level, one finds musicality in the poems’ alliterative qualities. For example; “So spoke the/ singer,/ so ran the song,/ long sought/ circle” (8). But more than just sounds, words reoccur throughout the entirety of the book, as well as within individual sections. “Andoumboulou Brush” explores the sonic possibilities of the word “clavicle,” while the poem “Song of the Andoumboulou: 60” serves a similar function for the word “Nub.” But through the repetition inherent to extended and serialized poems, the meaning of the words alters when placed into new contexts, and as in jazz, the words themselves begin to alter through improvisation. Such improvisational techniques evidence themselves during the following passage: “‘Stra, short for Stranger.’/…/ ‘Stronjer?’ I asked…/…/…Stronger,’ he/ whatsaid back” (21). This verbal, mutatitve play finds its zenith in the scatting that occurs throughout the collection, such as when Mackey writes: “zuhless,/ web,/ no zuh, no buzz” (95). Additional aesthetic maneuvers the poet employs are the fragmented narrative, or an “elision/ we embrace” (120) that is “so elliptical it seemed, unsay said it/ best” (112), and the exaggerated use of proper names. With regard to this last trait, we find names such as “Dread Lakes” and “Lone Coast” proliferating throughout the text. What Splay Anthem attempts to accomplish as a whole is the fusion of content and sound so as to generate an affective response within the reader. The text develops this concept within the content by continually presenting images of the word/sound melding with images of the body. At varying moments during the book, we find a “head of echoic welter. Head I/ hit upside. Curlicue accosting my/ neck, ears bitten by flutes” (58) or “I wanted/ trickle turned into flow, flood,/ two made one by music, bodied” (65). Music, then, has the capacity to join two bodies, or hit a listener “upside” the head. These sounds and words embody a force that functions outside semiotic systems that most Language poets find so fascinating. In fact, the speaker of the poems states this explicitly: “It wasn’t sings/ we were after, we sought what signs/ replaced” (84). And this search for the pre-linguistic is, in the end, admirable, because it offers “a/ healing song…/…/ a soothing song” (84).