Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Nathaniel Mackey Awarded Bollingen Prize + Poem: Nathaniel Mackey + NBCC Nominees

Nathaniel Mackey
The Bollingen Prize for American Poetry, administered by the Yale University's Beinecke Library, is one of the most prestigious awards of its kind. Since its initiation in 1948 by the Library of Congress, in a firestorm of controversy because of the inaugural winner, avowed fascist and bedrock Modernist Ezra Pound, it has recognized many of the US's most important and innovative poets. The Bollingen shifted to its home at Yale by 1949, and originally was conferred on a yearly basis until 1962, when it switched to a biennial calendar, in some years honoring two poets at the same time. Throughout its history nearly all the honored poets have been white and the overwhelming majority male, and this has mostly remained the case, though some of the country's greatest women poets, including Marianne Moore (1951), May Swenson (1981), Adrienne Rich (2003), and most recently Susan Howe (2011). The sublime Jay Wright was the first African American recipient of the award, which I recognized in my very first post at J's Theater in 2005.

Yesterday another extraordinary, prolific poet--as well as fiction writer and critic--Nathaniel Mackey, has been selected to receive the Bollingen Prize. Mackey first came to wider public notice when he won the National Poetry Series in 1985 for Eroding Witness, but he has been publishing his poetry since 1978's Four for Trane, for a total of nine books or chapbooks of poetry, and a forthcoming tenth volume, Blue Fasa, to be published this year by New Directions. His collection Splay Anthem, also published by New Directions in 2006, received the National Book Award for Poetry. Among the other awards he has received for his work are the Stephen Henderson Award from the African American Literature and Culture Society, a Whiting Writer's Award in 1993, a Guggenheim fellowship in 2010, and the Ruth Lilly Prize from the Poetry Foundation in 2014. In 2001, he was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, serving until 2006. He currently is Reynolds Price Professor at Duke University, and has for decades published the literary journal Hambone.

Nearly all of the works since Eroding Witness can be read as constituting a long, serial poem under the rubric of the Song of the Andoumboulou and Mu, combining with consummate artistry cross-cultural strands drawn from African and African American mythological and musical traditions, tuned to a peerless pitch. The ear never errs in Mackey's work; he has a gift for generating an often entrancing music, full of mix and dance, that carries the complex and profound knowledge his lyric imparts. For many years during his long tenure at the University of California-Santa Cruz, Mackey hosted a radio program on local public radio station KUSP, "Tanganyika Strut," that featured African music, and this well of familiarity with the language of music, with song's cadence and power, along with his grasp of multiple literary, philosophical and critical traditions, richly informs the poems' form, texture and content. As the Bollingen Prize committee said of Mackey's poetry:

“Nathaniel Mackey’s decades-long serial work—Songs of the Andoumboulou and Mu—constitutes one of the most important poetic achievements of our time. Outer Pradesh (2014)—jazz-inflected, outward-riding, passionately smart, open, and wise—beautifully continues this ongoing project.”

and, of the 2014 book Outer Pradesh:

“The book’s epigraph is Jean Toomer’s assertion of modernist open-endedness and generic not-belonging: ‘There is no end to ‘out.’’ Mackey applies this endlessly outward-going passage to an ecstatic, exilic experience, as a group of travelers—a ‘philosophical posse’—makes its way across an Indian province. What they and we encounter on this journey is a pre-history embodied by ‘old-time people’ whose songs must be heard. Together we find ourselves within an improvised social continuum that grows larger, stranger, more remote, and more consoling at every turn. Memory becomes a site of social commentary and collective vision. Mackey’s epic of fugitivity forms a stunning meditation on being.”

I must note Mackey's fiction as well; he has published four novels that together constitute another serial project, this time in prose: From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. The first volume, Bedouin Hornbook, published in 1986, went off like a volcano when I first came across it during my Dark Room Collective days. I still have that volume, which I peer into periodically; it is a book that, like its intense and probing companion volumes, From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate: Bass Cathedral (2008), Atet A. D. (2001), and Djbot Baghostus's Run (1993), could sustain repeated and extended readings--and studies--for years.

Congratulations to a nonpareil writer, Nathaniel Mackey!


Before I post a poem by Nate Mackey, I wanted to offer congratulations to all the writers nominated for this year's National Book Critics Circle Awards, which will be announced on March 12. It is a remarkable lineup, and I can say that I know and admire the work of many of the nominees, and reviewed one of the books, Ian S. McNiven's biography of James Laughlin, a few posts back.

Among this year's honorees, Claudia Rankine, a poet whose work I hold in the highest esteem, was nominated not only in the poetry category, but also in the criticism category for her superlative volume Don't Let Me Be Lonely, which should have received the National Book Award last fall. My  brilliant former Northwestern colleague, Eula Biss, who received the National Book Critics Circle Award a few years ago, was nominated again in the criticism category. Another former Northwestern colleague, Chris Wiman, who was also the editor for many years of Poetry magazine, received a nomination in poetry too, as did Saeed Jones, a dazzlingly talented young poet who graduated from Rutgers-Newark a few years before I started, and Willie Perdomo, a superb poet I've known and read since my early 20s.

Also, the great Toni Morrison, who received the National Book Critics' Circle Award for her 1977 novel The Song of Solomon, will receive the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Congratulations to Claudia, Christian, Eula, Rasheed, Willie, and all the other nominees!

Blake Bailey, “The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait” (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Roz Chast, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” (Bloomsbury)
Lacy M. Johnson, “The Other Side” (Tin House)
Gary Shteyngart, “Little Failure” (Random House)
Meline Toumani, “There Was and There Was Not” (Metropolitan Books)

Ezra Greenspan, “William Wells Brown” (W.W. Norton & Co.)
S.C. Gwynne, “Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson” (Scribner)
John Lahr, “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh” (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Ian S. MacNiven, “Literchoor Is My Beat”: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Miriam Pawel, “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez” (Bloomsbury)

Eula Biss, “On Immunity: An Inoculation” (Graywolf Press)
Vikram Chandra, “Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty” (Graywolf Press)
Claudia Rankine, “Citizen: An American Lyric” (Graywolf Press)
Lynne Tillman, “What Would Lynne Tillman Do?” (Red Lemonade)
Ellen Willis, “The Essential Ellen Willis,” edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (University of Minnesota Press)

Rabih Alameddine, “An Unnecessary Woman” (Grove Press)
Marlon James, “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (Riverhead Books)
Lily King, “Euphoria” (Atlantic Monthly Press)
Chang-rae Lee, “On Such a Full Sea” (Riverhead Books)
Marilynne Robinson, “Lila” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

David Brion Davis, “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation” (Alfred A. Knopf)
Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book” (Pantheon)
Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” (Henry Holt & Co.)
Thomas Piketty, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press)
Hector Tobar, “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle that Set Them Free” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Saeed Jones, “Prelude to Bruise” (Coffee House Press)
Willie Perdomo, “The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon” (Penguin Books)
Claudia Rankine, “Citizen: An American Lyric” (Graywolf Press)
Christian Wiman, “Once in the West” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Jake Adam York, “Abide” (Southern Illinois University Press)

Alexandra Schwartz

Charles Finch
B.K. Fischer
Benjamin Moser
Lisa Russ Spaar

Toni Morrison

JOHN LEONARD PRIZE Phil Klay, Redeployment (Penguin Press)


A now, a poem by Nathaniel Mackey:

-ring of the well-                        

Fray was the name where we came
to next. Might’ve been a place,
might not’ve been a place but
we were there, came to it
than we could se... Come to
so soon, it was a name we stuck
pins in hoping we’d stay. Stray
was all we ended up with. Spar
was another name we heard
went by... Rasp we also heard it
called...          Came to it sooner
than we could see but soon enough
saw we were there. Some who’d
come before us called it Bray...

Sound’s own principality it was, a
pocket of air flexed mouthlike,
meaning’s mime and regret, a squib of
something said, so intent it
seemed. At our backs a blown
bamboo flute, trapic remnant,
Coast reconnoiter come up empty
but for that,          a first, forgotten
warble trafficked in again even so,
mango seed’s reminder sent to what
end we’d eventually see...

                              We had
Come thru there before we were
told. Others claiming to be us had
come thru... The ubiquitous two lay
bound in cloth come down from on
hoping it so, twist of their raiment

integument, emollient feel for what
might not have been there. Head in the
clouds he’d have said of himself,
have said elsewhere, his to be above and
below, not know or say, hers to be
alibi, elegy otherwise known...

have said elsernrheren

Above and below, limbo what fabric
intervened. Limbo the bending they moved
in between. Limbo the book of
bent knee... Antiphonal thread
attended by thread. Keening string
by thrum, inwardness, netherness...
strings tied their hair high, limbo
the headrags they wore... The admission
of cloth that it was cover, what
was imminent out of reach,          given
went for real, unreal,                                          

“Song of the Andoumboulou: 50” from Splay Anthem by Nathaniel Mackey, copyright © 2006 by Nathaniel Mackey. New Directions Publishing Corp., all rights reserved.

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