Micro Essay 8 The Beats and Bars of Mackey

In Nathaniel Mackey’s poem “Sound and Sentience” I found a familiar connection between the field of composition captured by Olson and the field of tonal dynamics brought to life in the broader Splay Anthem collection. “Sound and Sentience” is placed on the page in such a way as to remind the reader of the registry of a scale, moving up and down, with ellipses and commas placed strategically throughout to perform the duty of a rest, or half beat. Each stanza ending on the right margin as though a whole note was being held over to maintain the connection between one thought and the next. As an aside, this feels like an obvious point given the word “scales” appearing as the first word of the poem – even if it is utilized with an alternative meaning.

Mackey remarks in his essay, “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol”, how it was Farris Thompson who defined the “ancient African organizing principles of song and dance [as] … suspended accentuation patterning (offbeat phrasing of melodic and choreographic accents)”; which it feels to me Mackey has done expressly here in “Sound and Sentience”. Mackey notes that the “black music” is a “critique of our [black people’s] concept of reality” and, “because of racism, one finds oneself deprived of community and kinship, cut off.”

To this end I find it interesting that “Sound and Sentience” bounces between the physical world and the spiritual, where in the physical world it would seem that there is a struggle to remain tangible – for example in the opening stanza:

Scales which would once have been / skin … feathers which would once / have been cloth … There that / claiming heaven raised hell, fraught / sublimity, exists ever more to / come …

From here Mackey moves out of this physical skin and into what he refers to as a state of being as “protoghosts”. The feeling throughout the rest of the stanzas is this desire to be physical, to be some-thing instead of a ghost, or protoghost, or “spook”. I’m reminded of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in these specters presented by Mackey. Invisible Man having also been referenced by Mackey in his essay where he connects Ellison’s concept of invisibility as a “two-way cut”. As such, in the poem, Mackey’s protoghosts are both invisible to the world as in excluded, or cast out of society; but, as in the second half of the poem the “protoghost entourage” weren’t: “tied to what had been wood” — both a comment on their freedom of being, of their own metaphysical sentience; and also, a comment on no longer being worried about the “would once have been” that repeated itself in the first half of the poem.

Sonically each line of this poem rings less rhythmically – or as Mackey put it – ythmically, although it does that, and more like a staggered beat. Mackey of course is drawing this from ancient African musical traditions. For me, as a fan of early punk rock and hardcore music, I am being awoken further to the appropriation of this technique from the African tradition into euro-centric white anti-establishment music like punk, hardcore, etc. Specifically, for me, I hear echoes of the songs of Fugazi and their earlier work as Minor Threat. Regardless, the point of this digression is that the appropriation by rebellious white Americans (in this example) did not lose the spirit of the “black music” pointed to by Mackey, insomuch as Fugazi was equally expressing a frustration for being outside of acceptable society.

The selection of words used for these staggered beats manage to roll from alliteration to alliteration via not only the sound, but the descriptive patterns and running-words-together to form syllabic patterns found today, more commonly in certain rapper’s lyrics.

Just read this stanza out loud and consider how these words create their own backbeat:

We wandered into, circling wind we / considered moot, a way we had of / running in place… Phantom limbs they / were we ran on, ghost feet that / they were. Nubs that’d once been feet /lost their numbness. Feeling it was / made /

Breaking this down into beats and bars[1], I came up with this:

1                                 2                                 3                                 4

We wan                  dered                       in                                to

Circ                           ling                            wind                         we

And this first line is interesting because the word “circling” is the pivot between two similar sounds: i.e. we wandered and wind we.

1                                 2                                 3                                 4

con                            sid                              ered                          moot

away                         we                              had                            of

When you break things down like this – assuming I’m not breaking some sort of rule of poetry here – it becomes more evident how Mackey plays with syllables to capture these half beats, or off-beats referenced in ancient African musical tradition. Here looking at line one, the first beat and a half is “We wan”; then, in the second line we see a similar extra syllable in the beat for the word “away”.

All of this reminds me a bit of an Ornette Coleman piece “Freeway Express”, from one of my favorite jazz albums The Empty Foxhole. You can give it a listen here: https://youtu.be/rHplFiz22-w

“Freeway Express” includes three layers of rhythm, the drums keeping one beat, the bass/strings another, and then the trumpet a third – yet all of them are in sync with one another. Much the way Mackey loops together rhythms based upon words and context, on rhyming sounds, and finally on breath and beat.

[1] Admittedly something I understood very little about until last year when Vox posted up this video: https://youtu.be/QWveXdj6oZU