Requiem so sweet we forgot what it lamented (PoemTalk #89)

Nathaniel Mackey, 'Day after Day of the Dead'


Tsitsi Jaji, Herman Beavers, and William J. Harris joined Al Filreis in the new Wexler Studio at the Kelly Writers House to discuss a poem by Nathaniel Mackey, “Day after Day of the Dead” (text).  The poem appears about a third of the way through Mackey’s book Nod House (New Directions, 2011). As is typical of Mackey’s work, especially in recent years, the book includes poems that are individually new installments in one of two ongoing long poems, one called “Mu” and another called Song of the Andoumboulou.” Our poem is the 48th part of the “Mu” series, and it follows immediately after the 68th “Song of the Andoumboulou.” Our recording of “Day after Day of the Dead” comes from a “Close Listening” show hosted by Charles Bernstein at the Kelly Writers House in February 2011, some six months before Nod House was published. 

Tsitsi comments on the appearance and also the disappearance of the “we.” Billy Joe reads “we” as lovers, at points, but wonders what traumatic break this “we” has endured here. Disaster of some sort. A flood? (Tsitsi mentions New Orleans.) An attack? (There are references to the 2004 Madrid bombings earlier in the book.) Herman suggests that the collective journey could remind one of the Middle Passage. This for him partly explains why the ensemble in the poem no longer wants to know what soul was. “You actually try to forget what soul is,” Herman offers, “so it cannot be taken from you.” All agree that the speaker and his cohort or “philosophical posse” are survivors of some sort, and that the poem is marked by the effort at witnessing and testifying to others’ deaths and (for the speaker and his colleagues) one’s own near-death. They eat with great appetite — glad to be bodies, glad to be alive — yet the repast is morbid (“knucklebone soufflé” is on the menu).

There’s so much more to discuss: echoes of The Waste Land and in them a “response to modernist formalism”; changes that occur as they do in a jazz solo; “Mu” as a rudiment of MUsic; “the collective thinking one has to engage in if you are an ensemble of musicians”; art as a response to scarcity; the pure poetry of drones and hisses; Mu as the epic story of humanity; the poetics of reprise; certain kinds of wholeness that are not available to us; and making something positive or at least productive out of “discrepant engagement.”

PoemTalk #89 was directed and engineered by Zach Carduner and Tyler Burke, was produced by Al Filreis, and edited by Amaris Cuchanski. You can find PoemTalk at Jacket2 of course, but also in iTunes. If you subscribe to podcasts, please subscribe to ours.