Strong Readers Reading the Difficult Long Poem

A metronome does not measure the pleasure of reading a long poem. The pleasure exists, outside of time, in a reader’s total aesthetic experience of bringing something to the poem and taking away much more than she or he arrived with. Only strong readers survive, and some of them opt to transform knowledge gained into actions. Others hoard their intellectual wealth. In American time-and-capital-driven cultures of reading, one might argue that becoming a strong reader is often a luxury enjoyed mainly by the incarcerated, for they are condemned to live in “abnormal” time. While they may open their readings to the sufferings of history, they do so without the Kabbalistic gestures Harold Bloom ascribes to strong readers in A Map of Misreading (1975). They employ fierce independence and common sense.

Mackey, Nathaniel. Blue Fasa. New York: New Directions, 2015.

In Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (1993), Mackey provided theoretical foundations for grasping why his poetic practice diverges from the orthodox frames of referentiality described in Stephen Henderson’s groundbreaking Understanding the New Black Poetry (1973). Nevertheless, attentive readers of this book can detect that Mackey’s practice is not alien in the tension-marked dynamics of modern African American poetry. The relatively uncanonized works of Russell Atkins and the canonized ones of Melvin B. Tolson, for example, are prototypes of what conservative academic critics might judge to be the transgressions of Mackey’s poetics. They provide evidence that difference and difficulty are inherently normal in our poetic tradition, normal to the extent printed poetry can replay music.

Aware that his work appeals most to a small, specialized readership, Mackey warns in Discrepant Engagement against “the totalizing pretensions of canon formation”(3) and urges us not to dismiss “reminders of the axiomatic exclusions upon which positings of identity and meaning depend” (19). Ultimately, however, we can account for where and why he is included by paralleling the critical efforts of Brian McHale, T. J. Anderson III, and Aldon L. Nielsen with those of Carolyn Rodgers and Kalamu ya Salaam and using Amiri Baraka’s writings on black music to walk the thin line between the blues and jazz that paradoxically includes what it excludes . Note well that paralleling is not identical with comparing.

Do not take my word for it. Use independent common sense to parallel

Anderson, T. J. , III. Notes to Make the Sound Come Right: Four Innovators of Jazz Poetry. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2004.

Baraka, Amiri. Black Music. New York: William Morrow, 1968.

McHale, Brian. The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.

Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Rodgers, Carolyn M. “Black Poetry –Where It’s At.” Negro Digest (September 1969): 7-16.

ya Salaam, Kalamu. The Sound(ing) of Black Poetry: A Study Guide to the Theory and History of Black Poetry (unpublished 1995)

[[Much of Kalamu ya Salaam’s writing on poetry and music can be studied by accessing the poet Rudolph Lewis’s ChickenBones at and ya Salaam’s “Breath of Life” at . We are deeply indebted to Lewis and ya Salaam for their unique efforts to document African American literature and culture. It is unfortunate that academic pretensions “silence” their contributions to literary and cultural discourses.]] Prefaces or introductions to poetry books are often lightweight, but Nathaniel Mackey is generous and wise in making his preface heavy. It is a tutorial for reading Blue Fasa that drops knowledge, that plies the slipping string.

The syntax of his prose is itself instructive:

Blue Fasa continues Nod House’s continuation of Splay Anthem and the work that came before it, braiding the two serial poems Song of the Andoumboulou and “Mu,” It continues a long song that’s one and more than one, “The/one song the songs all wanted in/on, all inwardness inside out. The/ one song the songs, added or/ not, added up to, song any one song/ was,” as “Song of the Andoumboulou: 68” puts it (xi)

Mackey painstakingly explains that the vibration one might hear in the music of Rahsaan Roland Kirk “brings multiple senses of string into play.” Mackey takes care to position the words lyric/lyre/liar, so that his desire to integrate poetry and musicality is not lost upon his readers. Neither is his yoking of the West African musical tradition of griot epic with Brazilian bossa nova. Following his pull, a reader can swim in quantum (recall the string theory of contemporary physics) and the waters of rag to reach the shore where the voices of refugees from history speak in Blue Fasa, where “the wandering ‘we” of this if not every long song, this if not every long poem, especially this if not every serial poem, this extended lyric, dream and would usher in a new history” (xv). Strong readers will say we see what you are pulling our coats about. Reading Blue Fasa demands that we take small steps and savor the particles before we dare engage the whole.

Ultimately, we can read Mackey’s Blue Fasa by willing ourselves to think in jazz, by subordinating totalizing pretensions to what we will into being.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.