By Joan Gefland, Poetrymagazine.com, Spring 2015
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.