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On the Gnostic Ironies of Poets Nathaniel Mackey and Fanny Howe

Steven Toussaint Considers the Melding of Ambivalence and Political Commitment

The word Gnostic has long shadowed the careers of Nathaniel Mackey and Fanny Howe, two renowned elders of American poetry who each published an important new work last year. Mackey’s three-volume box set Double Trio, the latest installment of the two intertwined serial poems that he has been writing for nearly forty years, and Howe’s memoir Manimal Woe, a poignant prose-poetic elegy for her father, invite a closer look at this strange spiritual affinity.

For almost two millennia the Gnostics have suffered the reputation of teaching a dreary and dualistic religious doctrine in comparison with the hopeful, world-affirming beliefs of the early Christians with whom they vied for disciples on the southeastern fringes of the Roman Empire. First- and second-century Gnostic heresiarchs like Simon Magus, Valentinus, and Basilides notoriously proclaimed that the material universe is inherently evil, the flawed creation not of God but of a lesser deity who through pride, malice, or ineptitude fashioned the world into a prison for the human spirit.

Our only hope for salvation came not through grace—the true God, they believed, is infinitely remote from and utterly indifferent to the world—but through secret teachings and initiation into gnosis, an intuitive and self-actualizing knowledge which penetrates and dispels the oppressive illusions of the world, thus liberating human spirits from the inert heaviness of matter.

Although the Gnostic sects had largely disappeared by the 4th century, the 20th-century philosophers Eric Voegelin and Hans Jonas argued that Gnostic strains endure in any number of modern philosophies, political ideologies, and works of art. “Gnostic” has since become a catchall for varying shades of existential suspicion and magical thinking. There is a recent trend among conservative Christian polemicists, for example, to attack as Gnostic everything they abhor about the modern world—from gender and critical race theories to Silicon Valley transhumanism. But even within the overwhelmingly secular and progressive milieu of contemporary American poetry, to be pegged a Gnostic is something of a liability.

We are living through a period of unquestionable political urgency, when poets increasingly dedicate their writing to collective projects of activism or allyship. Gnosticism, many suspect, is inherently individualistic, otherworldly, and apolitical, encouraging an apocalyptic detachment from the wars and commotions of history, in effect allegorizing them away as contingent symbols of a primordial flaw laced into the fabric of reality. Salvation, for the Gnostics, was from history, not in history. In stark contrast, most contemporary poets express their political agency in straightforwardly materialist terms, despite the hallowed precedent of the revolutionary William Blake, who availed the mythological imagination of the ancient sects, and the efforts of self-described “New Gnostics,” who seek to define a visionary and religiously attuned experimental poetry for our time.

Even within the overwhelmingly secular and progressive milieu of contemporary American poetry, to be pegged a Gnostic is something of a liability.

Few readers familiar with either Nathaniel Mackey or Fanny Howe, however, would question their left-wing political bona fides. Longtime favorites of the indie poetry crowd, both Mackey, seventy-four, and Howe, eighty-one, have in recent years been recognized as among the most important authors of their generation, as evidenced by respective New Yorker profiles and significant honors, including Mackey’s National Book Award and Bollingen Prize, Howe’s Lenore Marshall and Griffin Prizes, and a Ruth Lilly Prize apiece.

Many new readers are therefore currently encountering in Double Trio and Manimal Woe two distinct apotheoses of two vast catalogs (Mackey has published nearly twenty books and Howe close to fifty) of some of the most challenging and imaginative political poetry written since the 1970s, especially as it pertains to the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and the material conditions of Black life in America, preoccupations Mackey, Black, and Howe, white, share. Where Mackey and Howe diverge from the received wisdom is in their refusal to see Gnostic ambivalence and political commitment as mutually opposed. Collective political action, their new books suggest, must be shaped, guided, and channeled with a healthy sense of cosmic irony.

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Double Trio presents the latest, and thus far the longest, episode in what Nathaniel Mackey calls his “long song”: the cross-cultural epic, comprising the two serial poems “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “‘Mu’” (“each the other’s understudy,” as Mackey once put it) that he has been publishing incrementally since his 1985 debut, Eroding Witness.

Double Trio is a pun. The title refers literally to the fact that each of the tome’s three volumes—Tej BetSo’s Notice, and Nerve Church—contains twice as many installments as each of its three antecedents, Splay Anthem (2006), Nod House (2011), and Blue Fasa (2016). But “double trio” also pays homage to the avant-garde saxophonist Glenn Spearman’s group of the early nineties, which paired two jazz trios in free improvisations meant to elicit sui generis collaborations between instruments and bold new interchanges of musical ideas. Individually exploratory and centrifugal, each of the players nevertheless contributes to a vision (or, really, an audition) of genuine collectivity, however transitory, however only partially enacted.

To become a band like that, to reconstrue individual identity and agency through “ensemblic doubling and self-parsing,” to collectively improvise a “we,” is the dream of the “Gnostic sojourners” who travel through Mackey’s long song (Anuncio and Anuncia, Huff, Sophia, Itamar, Brother B and Sister C, Mr. and Mrs. P, Netsanet and Eleanoir, to name only a few) by boat, car, bus, train, airplane, and spaceship, passing through mapped localities (Los Angeles, Troy, Addis Ababa, Costa Brava) as well as allegorically limned regions unique to the Mackey mythos (Lone Coast, Low Forest, Crater, Dread Lakes, Lake Pred), on their way to an “outmost” destination they never quite reach, never more than a “would-be band.”

What prevents the “migrating they” from becoming an arrived-at “we” is Nub— Mackey’s word for that which prototypically dislocates, uncouples, decapitates. Nub is a Gnostic principle of severance endemic to being, but one that reveals itself in contingent historical incarnations, most recently in the “United Slave States of Nub,” the reassertion over the past decade of America’s “old and new nature” of violent deracination and exclusion.

This passage appears in a poem that alludes to the police murder of Eric Garner in 2014. Other poems in Double Trio, written between the summer of 2012 and the summer of 2018, reference the murders of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling, the mass shootings in Charleston, Dallas, Sutherland Springs, and Parkland, as well as the background noise of the troubled second term of the Obama administration, the 2016 presidential campaign, and the ascendancy of Donald Trump. Mackey mockingly portrays Trump as a kind of chthonic monster or archon—one of the malevolent rulers of the planetary spheres in Gnostic cosmology—who lives beneath a field of “comb-over haystacks” and whom, like Scylla and Charybdis, the would-be band of “black Odysseans” must perilously navigate.

As these events sequentially unfold, the mood among Mackey’s would-be band becomes increasingly nonplussed, angry, desperate, defiant, determined, resigned, hopeful—unresolvedly all of these at once.

There is something undeniably fatalistic about Mackey’s treatment of white supremacy and Black suffering. The unique tragedy of Eric Garner’s murder is, if not diminished, then certainly put in perspective by the ineluctability of historical recurrence. Black subjugation is extrapolated into something like a metaphysical constant. This is perhaps surprising, given that Mackey has written ambivalently in the past about a similar instinct in the Vietnam War poetry of Robert Duncan, the most unapologetically Gnostic writer of the 20th century, to “cosmologize” the American war machine, to treat such violence as part of the hidden order of things, and thus avoid taking a decisive moral position. Duncan’s poetic stance of oracular detachment famously cost him his friendship with Denise Levertov (a Roman Catholic convert, interestingly) who believed that the poet had a public responsibility to pursue concrete political measures against the war and used her own writing of the period to bear witness to American atrocities against the Vietnamese.

For Mackey, however, the question for the poet is not primarily between taking a stand and standing back. His characters act, they “blow,” even when they can’t breathe. But just as the pleading final words of Eric Garner were repurposed into a powerful rallying cry for a new generation of civil-rights activism, Mackey suggests that the inescapable and, in some real sense, eternal fact of the violent severance of Black breath must be somehow dialectically incorporated into the sound of its perseverance.

This core conviction has shaped the mythopoetic and formal design of “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “‘Mu’” from their inception. Mackey has discussed at length the importance to his project of the cosmogonic mythoi of the Dogon people of Mali, specifically their belief that doubleness, not individuality, is the true estate of human being. The human tendency to be born singular indicates an ontological “prematurity.” The Dogon song of the Andoumboulou, which recounts the story of humanity’s originary loss of twinness, echoes Gnostic teaching. In funeral rites, the song is sung in a rasping, abraded, torn voice that, in Mackey’s view, timbrally conveys the sense that we are born torn asunder from ourselves. The individual, in other words, is intrinsically “dividual.” The “I” is always already “Nubbed.”

Mackey suggests that the inescapable and, in some real sense, eternal fact of the violent severance of Black breath must be somehow dialectically incorporated into the sound of its perseverance.

In this way, Mackey turns on its head the conventional privileging and universalization of white over Black experience. It is actually the psychic uprootedness innate to diasporic identities, and not the self-assured Cartesian ego, that best characterizes the human lot. Mackey’s critical writings have long protested the pressure historically imposed on Black writers to adopt a transparently and accessibly declamatory style, which a white literary establishment patronizingly presumes is necessary and sufficient for Black writers to “tell their stories” or, in today’s parlance, “speak their truth.” He calls our attention to the possible duplicity whereby a poet might speak of political dispossession, but within an epistemological framework or model of lyric subjectivity that falsely presupposes self-possession.

Identity, for Mackey, is honestly expressible only as an “Insofar-I”: an “I” more subjunctive than securely subjective, one that acknowledges that self-presence is an illusion and that cognitive dissonance is the norm for one natally torn in half. In true Gnostic fashion, however, Mackey suggests that by accepting the truth of this we take the first step toward liberation.

Here, Mackey riffs on the linguistic peculiarities of Rastafarian Dread Talk in order to reveal how the cosmological and historical severance of the “I and I” makes possible degrees of self-detachment, and thus both irony as well as ecstasy (literally “displacement from one’s proper place”), that better enable us to see how we might recover the “we.” The “I,” for example, can imaginatively project its own double or “whatsayer,” who at once gainsays the “I” (so what?) and goads it on (what next?). The religious and political ramifications are what Mackey calls, after Duke Ellington, “blutopic”: a model of communal life that does not try to suppress the blue and bass notes, the nonsense and dissonance (or “nonsonance” in Mackey’s idiolect) at the bottom of everything, but learns how to make of them the doubled instruments of “ongoingness.” “Babble be our boon,” Mackey writes, “such were the dictates of seeming defeat, fugitivity’s / rigor.”

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If Mackey has largely embraced his Gnostic reputation, Fanny Howe has sometimes demurred. A well-known convert to Roman Catholicism, Howe stated in a 2004 interview that although she had passed through a “Gnostic stage,” it soon “felt evil to have that view of being.” She objected to the way the Gnostics understood gnosis to be the privilege of an elect few, the rest of us pitiably wallowing in illusion. Her writing shows perhaps clearer fidelity to Franciscan incarnational theology and the preferential option for the poor. And yet, there is a seditious, heterodox streak to Howe’s Catholicism. Gnosticism continues to function in her writing as something of a check against the possible excesses of Christian eschatological hope.

The beatitudes famously promise heavenly restitution for the wretched of the earth, tempting many Christians throughout history to see worldly dispossession at most as a transitory injustice and even in some cases as an ordained stage in God’s plan. But Howe Gnostically refuses to justify the persistence of suffering as providence. Like Mackey, she is forced to interpret the historical recurrence of evil as cruelly fated; human beings are the unwitting playthings of what she calls, in Manimal Woe, “the mystery of repetition.”

“I wanted to know why,” she explains in the book’s coda, “when slavery formally ended, it went on, both internationally and especially in the American courts, as scapegoating.” Racial segregation and voter suppression, hatred of the poor and red-baiting, warmongering and xenophobia—Howe sees the present-day reappearance of the malevolent forces that assailed and obsessed her youth, negatively shaping her dawning political conscience in the late 1950s, as evidence that

there is something built into our national system, self-destruction, that goes round and round; repetition without progress; evolution of disagreements. So it goes, stopping at the same stations, having the same scuffles with the same people, scratching down the same punishments and laws only to create a population of government-haters, money-makers, angry nationalists with power, and the rest wage-slaves.

She wonders whether this bad infinity is actually innate to law itself. “Life is the enemy of the law,” she writes. “Law struggles to prevent something new from living.”

This sentiment echoes the idiosyncratic Gnosticism of Marcion of Sinop, a 2nd-century Christian heretic about whom Howe wrote sympathetically in her remarkable 2003 essay collection, The Wedding Dress. Marcion saw an irreconcilable difference between the legalistic, jealous, and genocidal God depicted in the Old Testament and the transcendent God whom Jesus in the Gospels called Father. Marcion concluded, by way of an extreme interpretation of Saint Paul’s theology, that Jesus came not to fulfill but overthrow the law. Christ was an emissary, he claimed, not of Yahweh, the “Demiurge” and taskmaster of this broken world, but of a God whom we have never known. “The alien father of the Gnostics,” Howe elaborates, “may have left a little imprint here on earth, but he doesn’t seem to care in the way the interfering God of the Torah did. Evil is powerful because it makes itself known very viscerally; it cares, the way the torturer cares.” The true God, she reflects, would paradoxically express compassion through disinterestedness and absence, wanting us to know and bravely accept that we are abandoned in the world.

These same Marcionite instincts return in Manimal Woe when Howe attempts to come to terms with the life and legacy of her late father. Mark DeWolfe Howe was a blue-blooded descendent of “Ancient Boston” and “mad slave-traders” as well as a prominent Harvard legal scholar, civil-rights activist, and firm believer that US common law could be “an effective instrument,” in his own words, “for advancing the personal freedoms and human dignities of the American people,” even if he was fully conscious of its failure historically to live up to that promise.

Howe plumbs her father’s archives, excerpting his letters, legal opinions, and lectures, often at length, searching for wisdom that might avail us in our current political predicament, but also struggling with his core convictions. The 1967 Civil Rights Act takes on especial symbolic resonance in the book, having been passed in the same year that her father died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack. Howe’s disillusionment with the failures of this specific law to ensure lasting justice for Black Americans is wrapped up emotionally with her acknowledgment that her father represented precisely the kind of privileged white liberal whose time has now passed and whose death created the painful conditions of Howe’s maturation and emancipation, the freedom to forge her own path. “The Law seems to limit our abilities,” Howe writes. This is at once a profoundly Gnostic discovery and, in the context of memorializing her father, an expression of grief.

The true God, she reflects, would paradoxically express compassion through disinterestedness and absence, wanting us to know and bravely accept that we are abandoned in the world.

In one of the most moving sections of the book, Howe composes a series of hypothetical letters in reply to her father, filling him in on the most significant events of her life since his passing. She shows herself to be conscious of the ways that the “mystery of repetition” has been at work in her own experiences and travails. She discerns fateful significance, for example, in the fact that she met and married the Black civil-rights activist Carl Senna just a year after her father’s death. Howe had three children with Senna before their divorce in the mid-seventies. She raised her mixed-race family, alone and impoverished, in sharply segregated Boston and its environs, finding community among other nomadic single mothers.

This is a period of her life that Howe has frequently written about, repeatedly combing her memories for clues about the deeper structures that have determined her life. Motherhood and childhood, Howe wrote in The Wedding Dress, are distinct but overlapping existential horizons both characterized by “bewilderment.” Bewilderment is the natural condition of those left behind in the hero’s journey; mothers and children shadow the hero’s “courage, discipline, conquest, and fame” by sustaining positions of “weakness, fluidity, concealment, and solitude”; their paths are digressive and recursive, spiral rather than ascensional. “Bewilderment circumnavigates,” she writes, “believing that at the center of errant and circular movement is the empty but ultimate referent.”

In Manimal Woe, Howe intimates that the nil point of the turning world is the vacancy left by the Father’s abscondment; the death of Mark De Wolfe Howe and the desertion of Carl Senna represent a lapse in paternal authority writ large. “The Father is over and will never be saved,” Howe insists. “The Father is over like the Sabbath and the swamis. They noticed that laws are fears, and fears fade away. That law stays, the law of change.” Again, for Howe this is an ecstatic, emancipatory discovery tinged with sorrow. “How can you tell hysterical laughter from sobbing?” Howe asks in the next breath, adding, “That which is over is everywhere.”

She retraces walks through Mount Auburn Cemetery, recalls lunches shared at Howard Johnson’s, and imaginatively revives old conversations with her father about the incompatibility between liberty and equality, not as nostalgic and delusional exercises meant to resurrect what is irrecoverable, but as a Gnostic discipline of intuition and attention, watchful for patterns and predispositions in her own biography, in preparation for the next go-around. “Premonition is the only way out of the trap of quantum history,” Howe writes. “To sense the face of yourself coming and to change your course before it does!” What is finished must be repeatedly and creatively worked through “to release a future into the air.”

If this is a private spiritual discovery, it is also a political one. Even as “repetition without progress” has dulled us into “the manimals we are today, pushing, bitching, lying, insinuating, measuring, bullying, and demanding pay for the labors of others,” Howe suggests that just such a creative “recapitulation,” centripetally motored by an absence where the axis used to be, is needed to counteract it.

Recapitulation is backward thinking, like the composition of a poem or song. You look across a finished thing in order to understand it. You have to go over it again, but include your presence this time. You are now part of the thing you are going over. You can’t ever escape this problem of being where you are as a negative presence.

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When Howe subjects, through endless recapitulations, her own memories to this “negative presence” and Mackey harangues his own utterances with “whatsay,” they demonstrate a distinctively Gnostic restlessness, which the Christian theologian David Bentley Hart has recently described as “a nagging apprehension that what we take to be real life or the real world is really only a kind of machine, altogether empty of spiritual life, devised to hold us captive and separate us from the truth.”

Although such suspicions can so easily slide into paranoia and total despair, Hart insists that the Gnostics’ “unyielding refusal… to grant the history of this world a determinative or probative ultimacy” proves enduringly wise. Neither Mackey’s nor Howe’s poetry ever stops dreaming up possible political futures, but their thrumming bass notes of Gnostic disquiet remind us that we are prey to idols and illusions if we believe that history is anything other than a nightmare.

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This essay was published in Issue 112 of Image under the title “Gnostic Ironies: New Poetry by Nathaniel Mackey and Fanny Howe

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Steven Toussaint
Steven Toussaint is the author of the poetry collections The Bellfounder (The Cultural Society) and Lay Studies (Victoria). He is currently pursuing graduate study in theology at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.





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