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Nathaniel Mackey. Bass Cathedral.

Nathaniel Mackey. Bass Cathedral. New York: New Directions, 2008. 196 pp. $16.95.

Early in this latest installment of Nathaniel Mackey's serial fiction, one of its recurring characters, Lambert, does a dance that is described as endlessly bordering on imbalance. Our epistolary narrator, one N., tells us that Lambert's dance "found an awkward beauty in finding itself on the verge of coming apart, a sustained and concrete play in being taken aback" (14). Those of Mackey's readers old enough to have seen Bob Marley in performance know exactly what Lambert looks like in his dance through this passage. Marley, when not playing his guitar, would literally fall away from his microphone. Arms wheeling, he would, from his running start, seem to lean so far back out of his center of gravity that he would look to be on the verge of collapsing backwards into his own lyrics. Then, feet perpetually pushing the song back toward its limits, feet perpetually not failing him, Marley and his song would achieve again an even keel and the loping rhythms of the composition would continue on their appointed rounds. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this performance was that the other members of Marley's Wailers, from the singing I Three to the double-teaming bass and drums, gave no sign of noticing their leader's seeming struggles with gravity. They, one sensed, had lived long enough in the imbalance, perpetually making Reggae from scratch, that they remained themselves rock steady. Marley might well have said, as Mackey's narrator does, "a bit of melody held me up" (1) meaning, as N. does, that a tad of tunefulness delayed him and that the melody, and its sustaining chords, held him from falling finally to the stage.

And that is exactly the sense of reading Mackey's fiction. This is the fourth volume in a series appearing under the collective title From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. Nate Mackey has, of course, signed his own nickname in the nick of time here, as it were, calling readers out from the last syllable of his own long-running, running title. Then again, our serial correspondent signs himself "N." This does not make the reader necessarily the "Angel of Dust" to whom all the letters are addressed so much as it makes of us the ghosts of reading and writing, the echoes of an address, or, yet again borrowing from the work itself, the after-the-fact audience for an unheard-of opera.

Let me underscore the "unheard-of." I cannot recall another work, serial or otherwise, in which an author has addressed himself so assiduously to the detailed description of nonexistent music. Though N. is a composer as well as a multi- instrumentalist, he does not exist in the same way that Anthony Braxton does or that Miles Davis did. He exists as the signatory of our readings, as our host, as the only partly imagined vehicle by means of which the music of Mackey's imaginings comes through to us. We do get some help along the way. N. invokes a growing chorus of predecessor artists in his descriptions of the music made by his band, formerly, among other namings, the Mystic Horn Society; now the Molimo m'Atet. We gather that the sound they make is something like Beaver Harris's 360-Degree Music Experience, Sun Ra's varied extraterrestrial assemblages, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Uptown String Quartet, Max Roach's M'boom, the Brotherhood of Breath and the Women of the Calabash all inextricably intertwined with modes from Dakar, vocal stylings from Egypt and a strong dose of the blues.

Mackey's correspondent has been slowly working his way through time to us, and has with this volume reached the Autumn of '82. By now familiar characters such as Lambert, Aunt Nancy, Djamilaa, Drennette and Penguin reappear, this time joined by a ghostly albeit familiar figure from the earlier volumes. For some time the members of Mackey's band have been puzzling over the emanation from their instruments of curious text-filled balloons. In the new book, not only do the balloons sometimes rise from the grooves (remember this was the early '80s still) of the band's first record release, Orphic Bend, but the word balloon itself puts in an appearance as a character (look to page 117 for a composite sketch of the somewhat perplexed fellow, a sketch one assumes to be about as accurate as most composite police sketches based on the often conflicting memories of often conflicted eyewitnesses). Our "Mute- Steroptic Emanation" (117) as he is described, is himself named, apostrophized and contracted in the letters telling of his comings and goings. He is now known to us as "B'loon," seemingly indicating the essential looniness of his being. Among the band's many concerns is this, that the "balloons might be upstaging the music" (101). There is a most serious side to this concern. For decades now, jazz musicians have been bedeviled by what Anthony Braxton terms the "sweaty-brow syndrome," whereby a musician's artistic success with an audience in the end comes down to the question of whether or not he displayed a sweaty brow. Think here of the techniques that bring a Joshua Redman, for just one instance, his greatest responses from his audience. It's not his ballooning talent alone. Think, too, of what claims audiences have become used to making upon the persons of African American authors. Which is not to say that Anthony Braxton doesn't work up a sweat, or that Lambert doesn't, after all, dance. It is to say that the dance finds its own justifications in the movements it traces in air, not in its ability to reassure an audience of the dancer's endlessly replicable suffering.

B'loon is also a humorous way of getting at the way that compositions tend to get away from their composers. In the same moment, however, B'loon's very name is characteristic of the movements of Mackey's lyric development. While he was still a visitor on this planet, Sun Ra explained that he called the various iterations of his band an "Arkestra" because that was how black people he knew had always pronounced the word "orchestra." But then, Sun Ra also was heard to hold that the word "word" should be spelled "wered," which had nothing at an to do with matters of pronunciation and everything to do with the unfolding of significations in time, just what you'd expect from a musician. This too is Mackey's way. Reading Arna Bontemps's expansive historical novel Black Thunder leads Mackey's initialized namesake narrator N. to foreshorten and unfold Bontemps's title, creating a one-word, struck- through poem that serves as the first ever one-word after-the-fact lecture/libretto, which reads in its entirety: "BL[begin strikethrough]ACK TH[end strikethrough]UNDER" (63). The "blunder" is like what musicians term an "accidental," which is no accident at all and is invariably a pleasure to hear. Having read Mackey's unfolding fiction across its episodes, one fully expects to encounter next a musical text composed by "Bl'under." These may seem like small things, but in the aggregate, like the additive movements of a Roscoe Mitchell composition or accreting motions of an Arthur Mitchell dance, they add up to a reader's dance with time and sound, a recourse at last, as this novel has it, to "boogaloo largesse."

Reviewed by

Aldon Lynn Nielsen

Pennsylvania State University
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Author:Nielsen, Aldon Lynn
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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