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Nathaniel Mackey: Black breath matters

By Barry Johnson
November 12, 2016
Language Arts, News & Notes

Gregg Popovich, the best and most innovative coach in professional basketball, responded physically to the election of Donald Trump. It made him “sick to my stomach,” he told NBA beat reporters before the Spurs played on Friday.

He wasn’t alone. The election took a physical toll, if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are any indication, sometimes attacking the gastrointestinal apparatus and sometimes the nervous system. Or maybe your windpipe became scratchy and your chest constricted with the enormous weight of the political events, compressing your lung and interfering with your respiration.

Maybe you couldn’t breathe.

“I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.”

Eric Garner said it 11 times, face down on the sidewalk on July 17, 2014, as a New York City policeman applied a chokehold to his neck. Then he passed out, and neither the gathered squad of policemen nor the EMTs who responded to the call attempted to revive him. The cause of his death, according to the medical examiner: “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Garner couldn’t breathe.

Poet/academic/music writer Nathaniel Mackey mentioned Eric Garner several times at Reed College this week, both in his poetry reading Thursday night and his lecture, “Breath and Precarity,” Friday, a talk that linked the advanced jazz explorations of black jazz musicians in the ‘50s and ‘60s—Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Roscoe Mitchell—to experimental poetry at the same time, to Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, among others. Maybe the common theme of lecture and poems was simply that Black breath matters, a phrase Mackey used.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

The common language the poets and musicians of the ’50s shared, the common physical link, involved breath. Ginsberg famously organized “Howl” with the idea of breath: “Ideally each line of ‘Howl’ is a single breath unit,” he said. “My breath is long—that’s the measure, one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of a breath.” As Mackey pointed out, it doesn’t quite work out that way in practice, neither with Ginsberg nor with Olson, here in his 1950 essay, “Projective Verse.”

“And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.”

Breath is funny. I can control my breath to a certain extent. I can huff and puff until I make myself light-headed, for example, or slow my respiratory process to a level barely perceptible. But then, most of the time, I am breathing without thinking about it at all, autonomically, firing up under stress and damping down during rest. I like the effort to connect creation (in Olson and Ginsberg’s case, poetry) to breath, both to acknowledge its importance and to employ it consciously. I do have to say that it seems…abstract. Idealized. Theorized. Both Olson and Ginsberg would have hated that characterization, because they were so interested in linking mind and body, maybe even to argue the primacy of body.

I don’t feel the same way about saxophonist Ben Webster’s famous version of “Tenderly,” the 1946 Walter Gross-Jack Lawrence song, which Mackey played for the audience during his lecture.

It’s all about breath. You can hear it in the vibrato, hear it spilling down the horn and tickling the reed, hear the control. Sax players don’t make this sound much anymore, maybe because Webster’s use of it in “Tenderly” takes the technique to its logical termination point, at least it seems that way. But Mackey pointed out something else: Webster is in control of the column of air he generates, sure, but it also seems so fragile, on the edge of vanishing, sound and therefore breath threatening to run out. Music threatening to run out. Life threatening to run out.

Mackey calls that side of Webster’s “Tenderly” the Ghost Escort, and it adds a sense of “transience, mortality, expiration” to a beautiful tune. “In Webster, we fear the leakage, the fragility of breath,” Mackey explained.

“Notwithstanding we couldn’t breathe, we blew…” In one of the poems he read, Mackey writes from the perspective of a musician in a jazz ensemble, which makes sense because he is a sensitive jazz critic. In the lecture, he collected many instances of black jazz players referring to breath and blowing in the titles of their compositions, Horace Silver’s “Blowin’ the Blues Away,” for example, and talked about Coltrane and his development of the circular breathing technique—the seemingly impossible feat of inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth to produce a sound that seemingly could go on forever. We know that breath does not go on forever.

The word I stumbled over in the title of Mackey’s lecture was “precarity.” It’s not hard, though, just “precarious” made into a noun. Mackey said he borrowed it from the vocabulary of Europeans dealing with the refugee crisis brought about by Middle East unrest. Make that “Middle East disaster.” Precarity is the condition of these immigrants: “a condition without predictability or security,” Mackey said, a condition extended by the intermittent- or under-employment of refugees when they arrive in a new place.

African Americans are not new to America, but they live in a condition of precarity, and they relate to breath in a distinctive way. Here’s pianist Thelonious Monk talking to a Down Beat interviewer in 1971:

Interviewer: What other interests do you have?
Monk: Life in general.
Interviewer: What do you do about it?
Monk: Keep breathing.
Interviewer: What do you think the purpose of life is?
Monk: To die.

Keep breathing. Mackey said that black music “with its worrying of breath” testifies to the insecurity African Americans feel here. “Blackness is the sign and symbol of risk.”

“We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe,” Mackey quoted philosopher/psychologist/revolutionary Frantz Fanon. Fanon threatens to become increasingly useful in this era we are entering, both for his practical advice (“the oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves”) and for his particular historical perspective: “Two centuries ago, a former European colony decided to catch up with Europe. It succeeded so well that the United States of America became a monster, in which the taints, the sickness and the inhumanity of Europe have grown to appalling dimensions.” We don’t want to believe Fanon is right, and yet we act as though there is not enough breath for everyone, which is, I’d have to say, both sick and inhumane.

fanon“When breath becomes a focus of attention, anxiety is also in the air,” Mackey said at the beginning of his lecture, talking about the ‘50s, when war with atomic weapons seemed just as possible as not. I’m old enough to remember the duck and cover drills, which also applied to tornadoes where I lived. In the first stanza of the poem “America” Ginsberg writes, “America when will we end the human war?/ Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb,” as Mackey reminded us. He didn’t quote the last line—“America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel”—but I like it a lot. In Fanon and Ginsberg, we find examples of a culture of resistance, a library-archive-history that we should have kept on the bedside table but didn’t.

One of Mackey’s recent poems, “Moment’s Omen,” was inspired by the extensive voter suppression efforts of the Republican Party in North Carolina, aimed explicitly at reducing the participation of African American Carolinians. Mackey teaches at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “We threw our votes toward the voting place but it was too far to reach,” the poem says, and then later reiterates: “Where is the ballot box, we asked, where did they put it?”

We can breathe when our side loses an election that is fair. Democracy is like that, after all. We can’t breathe when the election isn’t fair, and this one, from Citizens United to the suspension of the Voting Rights Act, took our breath away. I’m using “we,” but I mean a specific group of privileged people, who think it’s their right to breathe freely. That right doesn’t come without struggle. Sometimes, the right doesn’t come even WITH struggle, as Mackey’s poetry and lecture testify, at least from where I sit.

A lot of black resistance, intelligence, emotion, escape is stored in black music, jazz for sure, but other forms, too, though Mackey is mostly concerned with jazz.

During the two days, he left us a great annotated discography (a term he used to describe one of the prose works he read). Among the artists and songs he mentioned:

Etta James, “At Last”
Bobby Blue Bland, “Two Steps from the Blues”
Thelonious Monk, “Children’s Song”
Stanley Turrentine, “Walk on By”
Marvin Gaye, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”
Dionne Warwick, “Say a Little Prayer” and “Walk on By”
Pharoah Sanders, “Leo” (with the John Coltrane Quintet)
Don Cherry
John Coltrane
Sun Ra
Sonny Rollins, “On Green Dolphin Street”
Cecil Taylor, “Unit Structures”
John Tchicai
Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Henry Threadgill
Archie Shepp, “Cousin Mary”
Ben Webster, “Tenderly”
Don Pullen
Ornette Coleman, “Focus on Sanity”
Roscoe Mitchell, “The Flow of Things”
Horace Silver, “Blowin’ the Blues Away”
Duke Ellington
Dizzy Gillespie

That playlist will keep you busy. And as you think of all those horns, reeds, drums, basses and pianos animated by the greatest jazz players ever, maybe we should close this way, with the very ending of Mackey’s poem “As If It Were ‘This Is Our Music’”:

rubbed off on our lips, reed rubbed off as
well, string steel left on our fingertips, stick
left on our

Read more by Barry Johnson.

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