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Nathaniel Mackey, Late Arcade.

Nathaniel Mackey, Late Arcade. New York: New Directions, 2017. 191pp. $16.95

For over three decades, Nathaniel Mackey has been composing a serial fiction that measures the resonance between music and language. In these works music sounds language, while language expands upon music's capacity to signify, each serving the other in what Mackey calls a "syncretistic salt, " a "mix in which adverse traditions relativize one another, relate while applying a grain of salt to one another." Each of the novels in the series--Bedouin Hornbook (1986), Djbot Baghostus's Run (1993), Atet A. D. (2001), Bass Cathedral (2008), and now Late Arcade (2017)--constitutes a movement in an ongoing work titled From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. The novels follow the life of the fictional jazz sextet Molimo m Atet through the epistles of the horn player N., who writes regularly to an interlocutor he calls only "Angel of Dust." The letters relate the story of the band as both an artistic and personal collective, narrating practice sessions, gigs, compositions, conversations, and various romantic encounters.

Simultaneously quotidian and meditative, N.'s letters are an ideal platform for the concerns that animate Mackey's expansive oeuvre. In addition to the novels Mackey has published sixteen books or chapbooks of poetry, including Splay Anthem (2006), a work that united his ongoing twinned serial poems, "mu" and Song of the Andoumboulou. He has authored two books of criticism, edited the journal Hambone, and hosted the long-running jazz and global music radio program Tanganyika Strut. In much of this work Mackey engages what he calls "black music," here primarily jazz but applied broadly to incorporate a whole range of African, diasporic, and hybrid traditions, from flamenco to reggae. Black music articulates black life as history itself, conceived of as a series of ruptures, displacements, uncertainties, and accidents, to which one can respond only by way of improvisatory composition. Accident is not form here so much as it requires or provokes form in the many avatars that appear throughout Mackey's works, whether musical, literary, or visual. By continually rearticulating these elements into an accumulative whole, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate has become a major work of experimental and philosophical fiction, propelled not by plot but by the movement of sound-concepts. Composed in a language that is attuned to its own materiality as both aural and semantic resonance, Mackey's novels comprise an ongoing meditation on black cultural production writ large.

For Mackey, black music as cry or wail articulates lost sociality, while black music as repetition or improvisation presses toward alternative futures. Repetition is always a revision, a restatement of earlier work that acknowledges the past yet casts it in a different key. Late Arcade revises the concerns of the previous novels--sound, performativity, the political ontology of music--to bring out an expanded sense of time as loss, whether personal, cultural, or ecological. Time as both loss and repetition is signaled from the outset: the novel opens with a letter dated September 14, 1983, when N.'s bandmate Djamilaa comes to practice with a new piece entitled "Sekhet Aaru Struff." This creation is, in fact, a repetition, an allusion to N.'s own earlier composition "Sekhet Aaru Strut." In the musical world of Molimo m'Atet, each work is already a remake, restlessly continuing toward another articulation, strut becoming struff on the way to Sekhet-Aaru, a heavenly reed field in Egyptian mythology. The novel thus plants us firmly in the early 1980s, but also in ancient Egypt or some other heaven, as well as the evolving oeuvre of Molimo m'Atet and, indeed, of Mackey's own writing. Messianic promises, such as they are, emerge fitfully through musical and epistolary repetition, in those folds of time that the novel enacts.

The folding of time often produces ontological uncertainty in Mackey's writing, as characters and speakers move between worlds, at times accompanied by mythical or syncretistic companions. Early in Late Arcade, the band is haunted by the return of their most persistent companions, the floating text "balloons" that first appeared in Atet A. D. as a textual, performative accompaniment to Molimo m'Atet. At once comic book dialogue balloon, bubble, and captured breath, the balloons are a productive wedge, what the band refers to elsewhere in the series as "an opportune prodigal opening" between sound and sense. A similar ontological crossing occurs in a series of dateless letters by Dredj, an alter ego who appears when N. suffers a trance-inducing "attack" from the cowrie shells embedded in his skull. One attack leaves Dredj playing his horn at the bottom of the ocean, staring up at the flamenco singer Lole Montoyas "metathetic morning boat" that "bulged with voices, some stowaway, some aboveboard." Are those voices enslaved persons on the Middle Passage or perhaps adrift refugees? We can't know. The passage speaks to multiple possibilities, including those still to come; Dredj's musical accompaniment testifies to the unfinished business of the displaced.

We might consider the ocean itself to be one of those refugees, a castaway fractured by the pollution of modernity, a global reality that will undoubtedly lead to even more human suffering on the part of the poor and vulnerable. While the ocean as the ambivalent geography of diaspora has been a recurring theme for Mackey, Late Arcade extends these concerns in new ecological directions. Shortly after his cowrie shell attack, N. composes "Fossil Flow," a musical piece inspired by the "massive" oil spills of 1983, another day in the life of the Anthropocene. The spill is an ambivalent return of the repressed, proof that, ecologically and socially speaking, the past is not entirely past. N. glosses the spill as "the distant past (prehistoric apocalypse, collapse or catastrophe) achieving fluidity, the oxymoronic play between fossil and flow of such dimension as to put the present at risk." The spill is a disaster, yes, but also a sign of transhistorical entanglement, a story still being told: "It's as though it were the dinosaurs and the mastodons' revenge, prehistory's grudge against ... preservation or containment, fossil solidity, an entropic brief against past and present keeping their places."

This muddling of past and present usefully illustrates the productive lag between compositional and narrative time that Mackey often exploits. For such fossil flows may strike our ears more paradoxically and apocalyptically now, in 2017, than they did in 1983. We are overhearing N., years in the past, inevitably speaking of our present, articulating a future both yet to come and already here. In another passage, N. compares time passing to the experience of re-listening to Miles Davis's "Autumn Leaves," where the trumpeter generates an "off-to-the-side reticence or recoil I can't help hearing as recondite presence and manifest absence's mix or mating dance." Similarly, the present moment of any re-listening always evokes the accumulative absences of one's past: "I can imagine listening to this track thirty or forty years from now and still finding it fresh, the advent of my own autumnal prospect lending it all the more relevance and resonance, a time-capsule bubble or balloon loaded with decades of what won't tell itself but does, caption after caption donned and auditioned only to be cast off." We cannot help but hear Mackey speaking through N. in this passage, the author in his seventieth year writing as a younger man thirty-four years in the past. The text is not quite an oil spill, but certainly a geology, as time becomes a palimpsest, uniting musician and audience, author and reader.

While palimpsestic time can be an occasion for mourning, it can also afford hope. In both his poetry and prose, Mackey insistently opens resonant spaces between tragedy and transcendence, forcing us to think them simultaneously. In the face of time's multiplying field, improvisatory repetition can approach an aspirational heaven, what N. elsewhere dubs "No-Show Sunday." In Late Arcade that heaven appears in many guises, but particularly as erotic love. As Jeanne Heuving has argued in The Transmutation of Love and Avant-Garde Poetics, Mackey is a contemporary poet for whom love offers an experiential extension of the self, an ekstasis into the world. Lovers are metamorphic in his work; they change names, couple with dream selves, and, muse-like, occasion new compositions. Love's promised heaven, however, never avoids risk. In the longest letter of the book, N. describes Molimo m'Atet's performance at a birthday party, an invited gig the band approaches with trepidation, uncertain that their music is appropriate for the occasion. Aunt Nancy, another member of the band, encourages them to stay true to their fractured vision, calling them to "darken festivity or strike a note of dark festivity." N. reads Aunt Nancy's provocation as a "dread, gnostic note," one that insists on birth as an issue of misconception, conception itself as an issue of misconception, dubious arrival into a miscreant world." The band's performance of errant conception provokes the return of the balloons, this time bearing a confession of pain as the road to love and self-discovery. "I tore myself to be whole," one balloon reads, "tore myself to possess myself." Mackey's is an erotics of accident, where the fragmented, suffering body is reclaimed as historically constitutive of the subject, particularly the racialized and disinherited subject of black history. That subject is always belated, if not actually late, an embodied testimony against modernity and its misplaced promises.

As it turns out, the risk of No-Show Sunday--it may appear, or it may not, it may be nothing more than a fanciful promise--echoes the dilemmas of love, particularly "the millenarian, great-gettin'-up-Sunday collective love we all so badly want." As the affair between band members Penguin and Drennette heats up in the final letters of Late Arcade, their relationship produces not transcendence but loss, as love is constantly provoked by what it can never actually achieve. Love's tragedy also characterizes beauty as its aesthetic proxy. Lambert, another band member, suggests that beauty, continually withdrawing from us and beyond our grasp, "hawks the intangible," a street-side huckster of transcendent promise. Beauty testifies to and affirms the inadequacy of the material world, emerging from the world in its appearing but always eluding final grasp. Through beauty, we thus learn a surprising lesson about history as struggle, as dislocated, enslaved, or segregated being: it is always not-here.

Which is not to say, exactly, that it is nowhere or never. Love's "late ark, love's late arcade, love's last arcade perhaps" leaves N. imagining a similarly displaced heaven, precipitated by no less than the balloons as captured breath or airy substance. In the novel's final pages the band stops Los Angeles traffic by initiating an impromptu parade with B'Loon (another avatar of the balloons), a march that recalls the second line in the New Orleans funeral tradition. As the parade swells, a social being created simply by the willingness of its participants, so does B'Loon, growing into a giant unfinished figure that towers above the crowd. Sustained by this breath, B'Loon takes flight, floating up into the clouds and gradually becoming invisible, leaving the arrested crowd to watch a now-empty sky. The band and audience together strain for the unseen, looking hard after a leave-taking that could just as easily be an advent.

As a balloon floating into absence, No-Show Sunday is a fragile thing, a thread of hope that makes a tiny opening into time. Mackey's achievement in From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate has been to articulate that opening, again and again, through ongoing literary innovation and an attunement to human contingency. We could, following N., call this opening the "sound of the future perfect," a tense and tone that can only be imagined and pursued yet never grasped. In the future perfect, departure is also an initiation, no matter how belated. B'Loon's disappearance, leaving a small collective beyond itself, signals that such departures and arrivals are not simply aesthetic, but also social, political, and cosmological. Sound and sense are inescapably in time, no matter how little of that time may seem to remain. Mackey's novels have been teaching us this truth all along. But, as Late Arcade demonstrates, the lesson bears repeating.
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Author:Jaussen, Paul
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2017
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