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Sigrid Kelsey

MACKEY, NATHANIEL (1947- ) Nathaniel

Mackey is among the most prodigious and versatile African-American writers, practicing a unique open form that draws from the objectivist and black mountain


movement. His poetry is closely connected with improv-isational and spontaneous music. It explores and celebrates traditions and mythologies of the African diaspora that are largely marginalized in American culture. A literary nomad who invokes and channels descendents of spirits that inhabit the world, Mackey frequently makes references to Dogon cosmology (from West Africa), continental jazz, and Caribbean ritual in his work. His poetry will often unite, even within the course of a stanza, completely unconventional references with fluidity and lyricism. His collections are transcontinental maps that hold and cross-reference many narratives outside dominant cultural forms.

Mackey was born in Miami, Florida, and raised in California before attending Princeton and Stanford Universities. His first collection, Eroding Witness, was published in 1985; besides poetry, he has published three volumes of fiction and a book of criticism. Mackey has been editor of the journal Hambone; he also coedited the anthology Moments Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose (1993). In 2001 he became a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Along with individual works, Mackey has authored an ongoing series of poems entitled Song of the Andoum-boulou (1977-present), named after the unfinished beings of the Dogon. These poems are emblematic of Mackey's work, an excursion that the author will not bring to a conclusion, opting for hopeful (if fretful) pursuit of originality. This postmodern choice of serial incompletion offers the possibility that in seeking and representing difference or newness, a change in worldly circumstance will follow (see long and serial poetry). These poems, spiritual-psychic locations, move along a highly developed web, "wrestling with / sound" that is inclusive and unreduced. Words, for Mackey, are blocks to be carved and reshaped while advancing content: "Sat on a / train crossing adverse / heaven. Raz they called / it, fractured masses . . . / Arz it / could've easily been, more / likely Zra, Zar the / asymptotic arrival we / glimpsed, / 'Not yet' yelled at every / stop." The poem continues, "Raz / with an e on the / end. A way of / spelling, a spell if / by e we meant / exit." This passage is indicative of Mackey's unusual, chordal treatment of words, which reflect the malleability of language. The-matically it shows Mackey's attention to an endless pursuit of something beyond what is present.

Mackey's poetry illustrates that there is progress to be made and boundaries to be crossed by people interested in cultural inclusion. The complexity of his work indicates that exploring the truth of history and density of humanity is a challenging, rough, and potentially endless ride.

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