After over twenty-five years of annual expeditions to Brazil, Mary Mackey’s exploration of the Amazon River ecosystem, indigenous cultures, environmental destruction, religious rites, samba, and the teeming streets of Rio remains fresh, insightful, and enlightening.
In her new collection of poetry, Travelers With No Ticket Home, Mackey’s keen eyes scan and inner and outer landscape that merges the rational with the mystical, deconstructing everything from life in the favelas, drug wars, the destruction of the rainforest, the omniscient spirit of nature–both healing and destructive–and her own feelings of displacement, all thrown into stark relief against a throbbing tropical sun and the teeming streets of Rio.
Mackey is a stranger in a strange land that is at the same time hauntingly familiar to her. In the opening poem, “Jacob’s Ladder,” she addresses her Kentucky ancestors, musing on how her travels have changed her way of seeing her place in the world:
“what would they have said/if I had spoken to them in Portuguese?/
dearest aunts/sooner or later/
we all stand at the foot of a ladder that’s missing rungs/
speaking in tongues no one can understand”
The use of internal rhyme in “Jacob’s Ladder” and Mackey’s other poems gives us a resonance of the past with the present, and a hint that after all her years (and mind you, all her books–13 novels and 7 poetry collections) she still struggles to understand and be understood.
Mackey has often said that she sees herself as coming from two poetic traditions: one that takes as its subject the physical world, and one that is mystical and even at times hallucinatory. As a result, her poetry is layered and complex, recording real moments from her own life, yet moving beyond those moments to signs, rituals, and visions that unfold from line to line as she tries to integrate personal meaning with glimpses of something more transcendent.
In “Inquisition,” for example, she speaks of her experience of being ill in the jungle:
“in this land god is a poisonous spider/
the size of a shoe a lash of fire ants/
a snake with hinged fangs/
do not ask me how I am/
do not ask me if we will survive/
there are so many ways to die here/
I’ve lost track/”
Mackey repeatedly uses metaphor both as a weapon to expose social injustice and a map to explore undiscovered territory. Take for example “The People of Brazil Discover the Portuguese,” in which she imagines the first contact between indigenous Brazilians and the Europeans who sailed into Rio’s Guayanbara Bay on April 1, 1500:
“what is it that comes out of the east/
like a tower of bones/
white with fluttering wings/
larger than the largest bird we have ever seen/
what new plague/
is the wind blowing toward us/”
In almost all the poems, there is a sense of unease: of great beauty and equally great danger; of displacement and grief for the on-going destruction of the natural world that Mackey treasures mixed with her joy that so much of it still survives. In “The Invisible Forests of Amapá,” she combines a list of animals that are threatened with extinction with a rapturous description of the beauty of the rainforest:
“Crested Capuchin, Nectar Bat/
Red-handed Howling Monkey/
great rivers veiled in steam/
sixty billion trees/
reaching toward a sky so green/
it shines like copper/
As she did in her previous collection Sugar Zone (which won the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award), Mackey sometimes mixes Portuguese with English, giving these poems a musical quality, yet never going to far as to make them incomprehensible. Again she invokes Solange, that ambiguous, mysterious female figure who first appeared in Sugar Zone and who, Mackey has said, may be a muse, a shaman, a former lover, a guide, a spiritual teacher, her own alter-ego, the unquenchable spirit of the rainforest, or all of these combined. The poems about Solange provide some of Travelers With No Ticket Home’s finest and most poetic moments:
From “Onça Pintada/Painted Tiger”:
“trees and vines are tattooed on her body/
when she moves they flow across her thighs/
like the Rio Solimões in flood/
Solange who stalks us by day/
Solange who is everything we have destroyed”
The poems in Travelers With No Ticket Home invoke a Brazil that Mackey knows intimately, yet a land that is, in the end, as completely unknowable as the depths of a human soul. Mackey has said she has no plans to stop her journeys, so I suspect we will be hearing more from her about those unexplored lands which like both south of the equator and within us.
Brazil: A Sweet and Bitter Pill
Sugar Zone: Poems
By Mary Mackey; Marsh Hawk Press; 2011; $15.00; 83 pages
If the world has learned anything about Brazil this summer it’s that the Brazilians aren’t as brilliant as they’d like to be in the world of football. (North Americans from the U.S.A. mistakenly call it “Soccer.”) What the world and the U.S. especially haven’t learned is that there’s much more to Brazil than football, as Mary Mackey, the longtime California poet makes abundantly clear in Sugar Zone, a collection of dazzling poems about a Brazil that few if any tourists will ever see.
The book appeared in print three years ago and attracted a modicum of attention. Perhaps now that Brazil is in the news again readers will turn to it for the first time, or return to it again and hear the voice of the poet anew.
A tireless traveler, teacher and novelist, as well as the author of half-a-dozen volumes of poetry, Mackey has divided much of her time over the past twenty years between the U.S. and Brazil. You might call her an honorary citizen of the South American nation that’s the fifth largest in the world and one of the fastest growing economies on the planet, with dire consequences for the environment.
Written mostly in English, with a smattering of Portuguese words and expressions that provide authenticity, the poems in Sugar Zone are not about the exotic in the white western colonizing sense of the word. They’re not dark, either, in the sense that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, his parable about colonialism in the Congo, is dark.
Real and surreal, tangible and intangible, fleeting and solid, Mackey’s Brazil warns readers to stay away and invites them to come closer and closer, to explore mountain, river, jungle and the jungles of Brazilian cities.
Sugar Zone is divides into four parts: “Sugar,” “Latitude Zero,” “The Cold Lands,” “Dancing for the Soldiers,” “The Land of Bad Dreams” and “Fado Tropical.” “Latitude Zero” is a reference to the fact that the equator cuts through Brazil. Fado is the musical style born in Portugal and reborn in Rio and elsewhere. The poems in each and every section feel fluid and organic. They’re a kind of magical dance that the poet performs and that draw on the force of the Amazon itself. At the same time, they’re as tightly designed and precisely woven as an Indian basket that can withstand all the force of the Amazon.
The poems I like best are about ghosts, hosts, disappearances and reappearances. They embody the richness of Brazil itself that’s inhabited by prowling jaguars and purple snails: the nation that pulses with the blood of the great anaconda and that’s polluted by the smoke of burning rainforests. Mackey’s poems sound an alarm for the Brazil that’s vanishing before the eyes of the Brazilians themselves.
Sugar Zones offers apocalyptic poems, private poems and poems about poetry and the limits of human expression. “This is a poem creating itself em um idioma/ in a language you don’t understand,” Mackey writes near the start of the book. In one of the last poems in the volume — it’s entitled, “The Breakdown of Language/ The Failure of Translation” — the poem itself seems to break down in lines such as these:
You do not want
how (a febre)
if (the break)
You might finish the book feeling you’ve made a terrifying and exhilarating journey, that you’ve searched the depths of your own soul and that you’d go back again with the poet herself as guide and translator who dishes out catastrophe and beauty, the sweetness of sugar cane, and the bitterness of Brazil itself. Now and then there’s also a grim sort of humor as when Mackey writes:
dying is something you only do
you don’t have to get good at it.
Brazilians themselves might remember those lines and live by them. They might remember that the World Cup won’t go away, that next time Brazil might summon the ghost of Pele, perhaps the greatest football player ever, and show all of us how brilliantly and how poetically they can play the universal language of football that brings the world together. Until then, we have Mary Mackey’s Sugar Zone to provide a Brazilian fix that won’t go away any time soon.
Poet and Performance Artist Richard Loranger reviews Mary Mackey’s poetry collection Travelers With No Ticket Home, June 7, 2014
MARY MACKEY CREATES WORLDS: REVIEW OF TRAVELERS WITH NO TICKET HOME
Whenever Mary Mackey writes, she makes worlds. Whether you pick up one of her historical novels (The Notorious Mrs. Winston), her speculative early culture fiction (The Earthsong Trilogy), or her poetry (Sugar Zone and many others), you are guaranteed immersion in a universe that radiates from the focus of action outward. Her latest book of poetry, Travelers with No Ticket Home, is no different, except in that we journey without a guarantee of return. In this collection, Mackey transports us through several scapes, each as vivid as the last though vastly different in and of themselves. As she has in her previous two collections, she takes us through Brazil and into the heart of the Amazon. She travels with us there, but she is no tourist, as she and her husband, a professor of Environmental Studies, have been visiting regularly for over twenty-five years. This is her world, her backyard, a Rio and a rainforest that she knows, and she brings us to it with razor details swimming in verdant language (some of it Portuguese). So soon enough we find ourselves
nesta cidade dos sonhos
in this city of hallucinations
the air is like cola quente / hot glue
and the buildings are stuck waist-deep
in asphalt tão suave / so soft
you can chew it like gum (“Travelers with No Ticket Home”)
suspended on a black mirror that reflects the sky
we pass our fingers through clouds
as if they were the souls of birds (“A Estação das Chuvas / Rainy Season”).
Both very real and, yes, hallucinatory, her tone and word choice convey the impact of the places she deems to take us on several levels at once, the experience steeped in emotions, scents, cultural filters, shocks and epiphanies and the cycle of life lurking in every corner. This terrain is gorgeous and epiphanic, yet Mackey pulls no punches; whether stewing a monkey in cream sauce (everyone’s favorite image from “In Those Days Rivers Could Not Cool Me”) or lamenting for
…this city of despair where the poor live
in cardboard packing crates and children
are born to be shot (“Where I Left You”),
she remains uncompromising in her vivid and deft recounting.
Despite what I’ve said, lest you imagine this merely a travelogue, as the title implies these are places from which we might not leave, or which might not leave us. Perfectly in line with that conceit, this book takes us beyond the physical world to journeys into the affairs of the human heart and spirit. For Mackey also ventures more than a few steps into the experience of madness (via fever, drugs, and the world-beaten brain); explores the deep dusk of grieving, where lost ones “move toward us slowly like swimmers / floating toward the top of a pool that has no surface” (“Dreaming of the Dead We Have Loved”); and lifts us into the more ecstatic realms of human love. These latter pieces are given a section and a series title of their own, The Kama Sutra of Kindness, and it is indeed a kindness to place these toward the end of the book, lightening our journeys after treks through myriad daunting terrains.
There is, in fact, an ecstatic quality to much of this book, regardless of tone and subject, and this is precisely how Mary Mackey seems to travel – by throwing herself into life and place. And as language is itself a vessel, a carriage, a mode of travel, it carries that same excitement, an intoxication by which she transports us into the realms of the jungle, the realms of the mind from which there may be no complete return. As she notes in “After Carnival,” “how easy it is to give ourselves to the gods, o meu bem / how hard to take ourselves back”. Do yourself a well-deserved good, and book a one-way trip with Mary Mackey right soon.
Author & Anthropologist Tamis Hoover Renteria reviews Mary Mackey’s novel The Year The Horses Came
Review of Mary Mackey’s Novel The Year The Horses Came
Mary Mackey’s Earthsong Trilogy is a perfect example of this. Mackey takes the archeologist Marija Gimbutas’s skeletal descriptions of matriarchal Neolithic societies, and fleshes them out into vivid stories about what life was like——in all its texture and richness——in this peaceful culture before it’s people came into contact with violent, patriarchal tribes.
I particularly love the first book, The Year the Horses Came. It has vivid descriptions of a clan-based society on the coast of Brittany that is organized around women, children, and the enjoyment of life (as opposed to men, conflict, and the celebration of war). In the first ten pages the reader is transported into a foreign and beautiful world of communal longhouses centered around a Goddess Stone where people fish, farm, and celebrate the arrival of adulthood with egalitarian, non-violent rituals which involve no shaming or bodily mutilation. We are treated to details: women steam shellfish in rock and seaweed lined pits; a “Young Men’s Society,” practices drumming and dancing in preparation for a young woman’s coming-of-age day; and Marrah, the young female protagonist, anticipates with excitement the moment when she will throw her childhood necklace of seashells back to Amonah, goddess of the ocean, as part of her transition into adulthood.
Details like these, woven throughout the narrative, are what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls “thick description,” and this is what every cultural anthropologist strives for in her professional descriptions of the cultural “Other.” In Mackey’s case as a historical fiction writer, she is not describing what she sees while doing fieldwork, as an anthropologist would. She’s creating a cultural “Other” out of her experience, scholarship, and imagination. And its effect is just as compelling and challenging to the western reader as any ethnographic description of tribal societies in Africa or the Amazon. Her descriptions, set in the context of a compelling story, invite us to understand a society different than our own, and in this way, see our own culture with fresh, and perhaps critical eyes.
And it may even inspire us to envision a different, more peaceful culture of our own.
For more book reviews by Author & Anthropologist Tamis Hoover Renteria you are invited to visit her website.
Joan Gelfand reviews Mary Mackey’s Sugar Zone in The Huffington Post
The Tower Journal reviews Mary Mackey’s Sugar Zone: TowerJournal.com
Poetry Magazine features Mary Mackey. This article includes 3 poems from SugarZone (The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams, Dreaming of the Bullet-Proof Cars of Maceió, and Walking Upside Down on the Other Side of the World.)
“Best-selling Author Mary Mackey Publishes 10 ebooks on Vook“ Press release about Vook publication of ten of Mary Mackey’s novels and poetry collections as e-books.
Mary Mackey’s Amazon.com Author Page: Mary Mackey Author Page at Amazon.com
Kate Clemens (pen name of Mary Mackey) Amazon.com Author Page: Kate Clemens (Mary Mackey) Author Page at amazon.com