Poet Susan Kelly-Dewitt has written the following stunningly intelligent, powerful, beautifully crafted review of Travelers With No Ticket Home, my most recent collection of poems. Her review originally appeared in Poetry Now a few days ago. Kelly-DeWitt goes straight to the heart of my poetry, understanding not only its meaning but its more subtle intentions. She sees both the darkness and the light, the exotic and the familiar.
I am re-posting her review of Travelers With No Ticket Home here, because I think you will find it a pleasure to read.
Travelers With No Ticket Home
by Mary Mackey
Reviewed by Susan Kelly-DeWitt
Mary Mackey’s new book of poems, Travelers With No Ticket Home, is mystical, passionate and strange. It picks up where her previous collection, Sugar Zone, left off—continuing the journey through the ravaged jungles and rainforests of the 20th and 21st centuries, reminding us that, wherever we are, history insinuates itself into our lives, exiling us from ourselves, from the past and from each other—so that we are always “travelers with no ticket home.”
Here Mackey also continues, as she did in Sugar Zone, to weave the English and Portuguese languages together into a lyrical text that becomes, in its own way, a third language unto itself—as if to say that all language is finally one language if we can learn to speak as members of a global community.
The first section of the book begins with a poem called “Jacobs Ladder,” that sets the tone for what is to come. In it we get a portrait of the speaker’s great aunts, “hair done up in braids/ calico feedsack dresses aprons full of chicken feed”—turn-of-the-20th century Midwestern farm women for whom a Brazilian landscape, an Amazonian rainforest, or their great-niece speaking the Portuguese tongue to them, might have seemed incomprehensible:
“queridas tias / dearest aunts the jungle is thicker than corn
mais grosso do que o milho
greener than cucumbers/ mais verde do que pepinos
filled with black lagoons that shine like obsidian
In the Old Testament story, Jacob’s dream of an unbroken ladder to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it, comes to him as he flees in exile toward an unknown future; the dream connects him to the promise of a homeland, a kind of earthly and spiritual ticket home. (Genesis 28:11-22) The great aunts might have grown up with that story, but the poems that follow catalogue a brokenness that dispels that myth.
The poem ends with two lines that set out the theme for the book: “we all stand at the foot of a ladder that’s missing rungs/ speaking in tongues no one can understand.” (Mackey’s endnotes also remind us that “Jacob’s Ladder” is a traditional block quilt pattern; one can think of Mackey’s book—six separate sections, each with its own design—as a kind of word-quilt.)
The second section of the book, called “The City of Apocalyptic Visions,” drops us into that very world so “foreign” to the great aunts:
“How you loved it in the beginning
the flashing sequins the bare thighs and breasts
the drumming that you said made you feel
as if you were being passed from hand to hand
over a crowd of 72,000 people
who loved you more than your own mother…
the samba whispers terrible secrets!
you cried but you would not tell me what they were
how easy to it is to give ourselves to the gods, o meu bem
how hard to take ourselves back
[from “After Carnival”]
And so it is with Mackey’s “travelers”—which is again to say all of us—who are “like souls trapped between two worlds.” (Mackey has traveled to Brazil regularly for twenty-five years and, as in Sugar Zone, the poems here are grounded in those years of exploration and travel.)
we walk on the bottom of an invisible ocean
under us the ground heaves in slow waves
look the masts of a thousand ten thousand a million
sunken ships surround us in a cage of pale flame
over our heads vast green clouds tremble in the dying light
the Waika have warned us to be silent
they say if we open our mouths here
we will drown
Much to the poetry’s advantage, Travelers also reintroduces the surrealistic shamanistic dream figure, Solange, who first appeared in Sugar Zone.
Tempting as it is to think of her (at least in part) as doppelganger or alter ego, Solange insists on being much more than that: She is soothsayer, truth-sayer, lover and doom-monger; materializing and vanishing again and again throughout the book. To my mind she is surely one of the most interesting characters ever to appear in a book of contemporary American poems.
Solange Taunts The Colonels of Para
She lifts the flowers to her lips and blows on them
until the petals flap like the wings of egrets
she disappears becomes invisible incorporeal immaterial/delusional
transforms herself into a snake stalks us like a jaguar
tears out our throats and heals us with a kiss
when the colonels and their jagunços come to kill her
she greets them by pulling up her skirt
which of you fat men with big guns and small pistolas
is brave enough to enter the door that leads nowhere she cries
which of you wants to die with the taste of cashews on your tongue?
after they run away she sleeps for forty days
when she wakes she tells us to place another row
of small black seeds on her tongue calls them
the bitter stones that pave the path to Paradise
Not surprisingly reviewers have compared Mackey to Elizabeth Bishop, who traveled to Brazil intending a brief visit and stayed on for the better part of two decades, living there during the Fifties and Sixties with her partner, Lota de Macedo Soares. (Soares committed suicide in 1967.) Bishop would surely have described herself as “a traveler with no ticket home,” and Mackey alludes to her Brazil-Bishop connection in the poem “View From The Balcony”:
View From The Balcony
Nine times the sun rose over the bay
nine times the sea looked as if some great
fish had been slaughtered between
the channel and the point
in the streets people dressed in strange
danced to songs of drought and starvation
each night the spirit of Elizabeth Bishop
walked in the park her lover had designed
where palm trees waved like human hands
the wind was a cough that stopped and started
and the heat burned like strong coffee
from our balcony high above it all
we could see long white ships taking people to kinder places
this is how we learned about despair
this is how we were schooled in it
“Bright-colored clothing; dancing to ”songs of drought and starvation; ships “taking people to kinder places”—these are things Mackey’s travelers see along the way—this is how they enter the land of Despair.
Travelers chronicles much about the Brazilian world—the favelas, the homeless street children, the military “fat men,” the polluted waters, the anacondas and bocarubus—the cruel and gorgeous set side by side or peeled away in layers.
The poems here seem to say: No matter how much good the travelers intend, no matter what beauty remains in the degraded land/human-scape, history has left things in ruins. We understand then why, when the travelers encounter “the last six speakers of Arikapu” (in the poem “Under the Bocarubu Trees”)
they did not turn to look at us standing there beside our canoes
we were the noise that had drowned their silence
the thieves who had cut out their tongues
pale ghosts in their green light
our words harsh and incomprehensible
as the ringing of axes
In the last three sections of the book, Mackey shifts her focus to include some intimate family poems that in some ways hearken back to “Jacob’s Ladder”—poems like “Language Lessons” and “To My Mother on her Second Non-Birthday”—among the most emotionally touching poems in the book.
These are followed by a penultimate section of poems called “The Kama Sutra of Kindness” (several poems reprinted from earlier books), which explores the place of kindness in erotic love (eros and agape).
Walking Toward the Largo do Machado
when the smell of jasmine
flows through the streets of Catete like a warm fog
when the scent is so liquid you can
breathe it in get drunk and stagger
I think of all the years I have loved you
and all the years I will go on loving you
I think of how we protect each other from pain and betrayal
how each night we wrap ourselves around each other
and peace floats above our bed like a canopy of white petals
The final section, “The Martyrdom of Carmen Miranda,” is composed of a single poem, an elegy for the Brazilian samba dancer and film actress who became one of Hollywood’s shooting stars but was, in the process, reduced to caricature—with “the fruit basket hats,” allowing herself to be “done up in pompoms like a pet poodle.”
Here is an excerpt from the closing stanza:
Carmen like you we are all travelers
who set out believing we can bring back
something to make it worth the trip…
something that will make us happy and whole…
It is a poem that brings us back to the central theme of the book, to exile and to those missing rungs in our own Jacob’s Ladder.
Susan Kelly-DeWitt is the author of The Fortunate Islands and ten previous print and online collections; a new book, Spider Season, is forthcoming in 2016. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Northern California Book Reviewers Association; her reviews have appeared in Library Journal, Small Press Review and Poetry Flash, among others.