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

Micro Essay 7 – Re-engineering

This week’s micro essay examines Joanne Kyger’s poem, titled:

Very Important & Natural
Absorbed in People Magazine
Beyond Giddy

Following the examination, I have provided a re-engineered take on this poem of my own creation.

The first thing I notice is the sarcasm within the title, which feels less like a title to me, and more like a preparatory stanza. “Very Important & Natural / Absorbed in People Magazine / Beyond Giddy” – I attempted to find the July and August issues from 2010 of People just to get a feel for what she might have been reading but was unable to find anything beyond the cover (at least without purchasing them). Surely it isn’t imperative that I know this reference, because I can track the humor throughout the poem, but I do remain curious.

An aside, as someone not in the habit of looking at People, it appears there are two cover stories – either someone is being married, or someone is going through a divorce.  From time-to-time someone dies or has a baby. Were anyone looking for stories based only upon the most obvious and universal of topics, they are certain to find them in People; but I digress.

Not only does the title of the poem feel like an opening stanza, the three-line structure also reads as if each line could be referencing an individual article. My curiosity about where these lines were pulled is killing me. They are three individual states-of-being; with their own sort of life – which is reflective of what comes in Kyger’s question “What if every emotion has a self”?

In response, I wonder if allowing oneself to be absorbed by an emotion or feeling conjures this “self” into being. As an example, the feeling of being “Very Important” can shut down feelings of empathy if the person allows that feeling to take over, for them to become “Absorbed” in their own importance.

I’m having a difficult time reflecting on what I notice line-by-line without jumping ahead and then reflecting back; I also want to consider the sounds that are made within the piece, and those I will take on next. Tabbing the remainder of the poem to the right, allowing for additional pauses as the narrator works through the question about “every emotion” having its own “self” feels to me as if the question is put forward to the reader, but then the narrator provides their own inner monologue – like what might happen in a conversation (or perhaps an argument – such as where this seems to lead).

Observing the fact that time is fluid, and chained to which emotional selves are in existence feels like a new thought in the poem, but also reflective of the title. Such as the Warhol concept of 15-minutes-of-fame. Or the cliché of time-flies-when-you’re-having-fun, and it drags when you are not; or in Kyger’s terms, “although seconds / can seem like total horrible eternity”.

Following this series of considerations is a quote from Tristan Tzara which pulls from his Dada poem “12th December 1920”[1]. Within Tzara’s poem he seems to linger on concepts about gossip, popularity, and the commercialization of creativity and art is leading to art’s own “annihilation”. This feeling of impending doom follows in Kyger’s poem as well – I think – or maybe I’m missing a larger point. Where “action proceeds from immediate response” is then established by the next few lines, beginning with the argumentative statement about a phone call. Throwing water on a newly lit stove provokes both a visual response of what feels to me like an argument between a couple, wherein the narrator shows her (his?) seriousness by extinguishing everything they were underway with – both the dishes and the cooking.

People magazine is colloquially thought of as a gossip rag, so the Tzara theme seems to call back to that as well. The 30-minute-phone-call suggests that there is another example of fluidity to time, emphasized by the physically fluid “dishpan of water”.

Here I feel we see how the drudgery of daily life intrudes upon the prospect of something new; with gossip being a way to prevent boredom. The lit stove representing something new. The argument over how much time was spent gossiping while doing dishes is like adding insult to injury. The narrator already suffering the chore of the dishes, only wants something to keep their mind busy or an emotional state that doesn’t “seem like a total horrible eternity” – yet this isn’t OK to the mysterious antagonist.

Finally, in the end there is another dose of sarcastic humor, not unlike how the piece began – “Bit of a mess to clean up, but worth it / considering all the wet dust I found.” Not only is there humor, but there is also the call back to considerations; and in Tzara’s poem, there is the desire to maintain mess for the sake of maintaining art – for hygiene is what will ultimately lead to the death of art – and to wrap it all up together, People magazine is about as plain-Jane and hygienic a piece of literature(?) as there might be.

Now then, I promised to consider the sounds associated with how the poem flows, and the energy it passes back in forth in doing so. To that point, I noticed that the use of the sssss and the e/E sounds dominate the first stanza, even intermingling. For example, the use of the E words: every, emotion, existence, and eternity. The S words: self, selves, seconds, and seem. Within each of the S words though there is a secondary E sound – such as in self there remains elf; seem holds eem.

Connecting the sounds of the title through to the end of the poem are these Oooo sounds such as in the words: Absorbed, Beyond, emotion, long, seconds, response, on, and on.

The breaths between, which I mentioned briefly above, are worth consideration as well. The first stanza as an audible question followed by a sort of internalization of the thought. Then, bringing in the reference to Tzara, there is a much quicker response – as would be appropriate of leading with “The thought is made in the mouth” – quickly followed again with “the thought” from “the mouth”, with a breath to consider which action should follow. The result requiring a few breaths, a pause, to consider the aftermath.

I notice that Hoa locked in on Olson’s use of “a stranger, suddenly showing up” to alter what her narrator was doing, the way that Death acted upon the narrator in “Cole’s Island”. Following that lead, here then is my re-engineered poem. I hope I am capturing a piece of the rhythm from Kyger’s poem along with the concept of how thoughts interact with our day. Funny, in a way I feel like this Kyger poem is a re-engineered version of Tzara’s poem; sort of a stripping down of it, an updating of it – but maybe I’ve read too much in.

[1]  http://www.391.org/manifestos/1920-dada-manifesto-feeble-love-bitter-love-tristan-tzara.html

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A Sense of Completion
Podcasts on 1.5x
My Lunch Breakfast

Rosecrans Baldwin brings me down with the reality that in Paris you do not take lunch at your desk. Had I known I might not have applied for the position at UNESCO.

Why must the lunch hour be an hour when it can be five furious minutes

— American–

By nine A.M. my lunch is eaten to the sound track of Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks reporting on esoteric topics such as the creation of the first “jock-bra”, or debates on prison abolition and gun control from a leftist foundation

Hunger is a secondary concern in my cubicle, as it is in Paris

in Paris even my 4-year-old ate snails, followed by two more courses; then she ate cake

in Paris we sat for hours

Procrastination is not far from Productivity

in preparation, I spend two minutes making a vegan shake, then selecting a Lara bar, so my breakfast will be gone before I get to work, and my lunch shortly thereafter

a cubicle is for completion of tasks

not contemplation

so un-American

career suicide

for that I’d need a window