January 20, 2016KR OnlineReview

The Condition of Dream: Nathaniel Mackey’s Blue Fasa

New York, NY: New Directions, 2015. 155 Pages. $16.95.
(Click on cover images to purchase)

In the preface to his collection Splay Anthem, winner of the 2006 National Book Award for poetry, Nathaniel Mackey writes that “dream” is “as much the condition the poem aspires to as music.” He goes on:

Dreamtime, altjeringa, is a way of enduring reality, the fact that dream itself borders on dread notwithstanding, the fact that as nightmare, more than bordering, it crosses over notwithstanding. It is also a way of challenging reality, a sense in which to dream is not to dream but to replace waking with realization, an ongoing process of testing or contesting reality, subjecting it to change or a demand for change.

Dream too is a school of ancestors, one of the altered states in which the dead reappear, one of such states that we in these pages pursue.

Encountering Mackey’s work can feel, indeed, like entering a dream. As in a dream, conventional rules of waking life—rules that might include fixed pronouns, predictable arcs of time, clearly delineated beginnings and endings—seem to lose their power here. What, then, takes their place? “The long song, whether in music or poetry,” Mackey has remarked, “increasingly appeals to me. It creates what I call fugitive time—time that really is a flight away from the ordinary, from quotidian time, profane time.” [1]

Mackey’s Blue Fasa is one such long song, one such rendering of fugitive time, continuing the serial poems “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “Mu” that he has been writing for twenty years. As in Splay Anthem and the 2011 Nod House, Mackey interweaves the two poems so that they make a larger poem; what results, as he puts it in the preface to Blue Fasa, is both “one and more than one.”

The roots of the poems are multiple: “Song of the Andoumboulou” refers to a song addressed to the spirits, part of Dogon funeral rites in West Africa; the Andoumboulou are understood, in Dogon cosmogony, as a kind of progenitor of human beings, rough drafts of what we understand human beings to be now. (And, as Mackey has pointed out, aren’t we all rough drafts?) “Mu,” meanwhile, conjures the lost, Atlantis-like continent of Mu, even as it refers, as Mackey writes in Splay Anthem, to “any longingly imagined, mourned, or remembered place, time, state, or condition.” Blue Fasa also brings together what Mackey describes in the book’s preface as “two distantly related black musical traditions”—a West African griot epic, “The Dausi,” from the Fasa in ancient Ghana, and the jazz standard “Blue Bossa,” which was shaped by the influence of Brazilian bossa nova.

Through these braided threads, Blue Fasa creates its own music. It is music reminiscent, as Mackey has noted, of both jazz and the flamenco vocal style cante jondo, or deep song; the condition of loss, and heartbreak, is central to cante jondo, which Lorca described as containing “the ruins of history, the lyrical fragment eaten by sand.” Similarly, Blue Fasa begins with a condition of loss, of displacement: the book is populated by “I’s” and “we’s” from both long ago and today, as collective groups of travelers move across its pages—through West Africa, through northern Sudan, near a “Lone Coast” that calls to mind the Lost Coast of California—in a sustained searching.

The poems enact this searching in their repetition, twisting syntax, and imagery; phrases reappear, slightly changed. Within the context of the book, in which Mackey brings together the past and present, this combination of repetition and mutability suggest larger kinds of repetition and change: we relive the past and the past is lived through us, Mackey suggests, and our ancestors are more present than we think, even as our own moment is also particular, distinct. In “Song of the Andoumboulou: 91,” Mackey writes:

   No such awakening availed . . . All such
advance, could it be said to’ve been, fell
   by the wayside. Moving was moving
on, not moving somewhere, the ostensible
   we’d arrive at forever beyond the bend,
bend we took pressed against windows
   and walls and would walk, when we
  embarked, with a bentlegged hop . . . No
such when arrived, pilgrim’s transit some-
   thing else than we expected, latter-day

It is what repeats here (“moving,” “bend”) that paradoxically creates the poem’s forward momentum. The repeating words serve to link one clause to the next: “all . . . / advance.”

Similarly, an image that appears in “Song of the Andoumboulou: 93,” “The horns / were / flowers blooming behind him, dark flowers, / mud / on the lip of / each bell” reappears, an echo of itself, in “—andoumboulouous etude 2—” as “a black / well / dipped into, horns’ bells / burrowing in.” Stars, erotic encounters between two characters in the book, the dream-like figures of a Mr. and Mrs. P, of people named Nunca and Anuncio and Huff, appear again and again, in similar but changed formations, moving toward but never quite arriving at an implied horizon.

“To get where / they were going and lie / down / was all we wanted,” Mackey writes, in one of the many moments in the book in which the boundary between “they” and “we” blurs. And yet these characters don’t arrive, don’t rest; if the book can’t be said exactly to tell a story, at least in the way we might traditionally think of an epic—featuring a single, definitive hero, ending with his arrival at home—it conveys a kind of journeying, in and through a world that both is and isn’t recognizably our own.

It’s important that the trajectory of this epic—of which Blue Fasa could be considered an installment, not a conclusion—is not one of an easily identifiable return, because the journeying depicted here is diasporic. The epic “The Dausi,” on which the book draws, tells the story of a lost city; as Mackey writes in Blue Fasa’s preface, those who sang it, the Soninke, “had . . . become something of a homeless people, remnants of a once-powerful empire that was eclipsed by the rise of the Mandinka in the thirteenth century, wandering with their mournful songs of the loss of Wagadu all over West Africa.”

This story, Mackey notes, “is one of decline and dispersal, an intra-Africa diaspora against which the out-of-African diaspora brought about by the slave trade resonates.” The displaced figures in the book also suggest other resonances: the 137,000 people from the Middle East and Africa who left their homes last year to undertake the journey across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe, for example; the hundreds of people who die every year in the Sonoran desert trying to cross into the United States. The “indifferent river” Mackey’s characters confront is both mythic and familiar.

If Blue Fasa conveys the pain of disruption, of ongoing searching, it also conveys something else—since, as Mackey notes, concomitant with histories of “uprootedness and migration” is “a creative digestion of dislocation . . . the tradition of durability underscored by the hard in hard bop, an ability to roll with, or swing with, the unexpected and new.” The very duration of the book, how these long poems inhabit the condition of being unfinished, might be understood as one way in which the dream-state of Blue Fasa not only endures but challenges reality. Mackey has suggested that in our current moment of social media—in which only this moment, divorced of history, seems to matter—to invite the kind of sustained attention that a long poem requires is to offer a different experience of time, of being awake. In this sense, then, the “fugitive time” the book creates could be said to “replace waking with realization,” or maybe to allow us a glimpse of that realization, since it is a “book of not getting there / yet.”


[1] “Taking Note: Nathaniel Mackey’s Long Song.” Duke Today, April 2015.

Margaree Little
Margaree Little’s first book, Rest, is forthcoming from Four Way Books. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, New England Review, Missouri Review, and Southern Review. She is a 2016-2018 Kenyon Review Fellow.