Breath and Precarity” grew out of a poem I wrote in the wake of the murder of Eric Garner, a poem in the “Mu” series called “The Overghost Ourkestra’s Next.” Variations on the line or idea that “no matter we couldn’t breathe, we blew” occurred or came to me as I thought about the approach to breath and breathing taken by black horn players. I thought about it in relation to the cutting off of breath, specifically black breath, of which the killing of Garner was yet another horrid instance. I heard the way these horn players have with breath as an artistic othering of the asthmatic conditions imposed on black folk, the asphyxiations imposed on black life, an othering in which the intentness and evidentness of breath and breathing spoke to their social othering’s revocation of breath. I heard an antiphonal or dialectical relationship between the two. I was thinking about a blowing-without-breath that ranges from Hawkins’s or Webster’s use of subtones to John Tchicai’s or Sonny Rollins’s asthmatic, apprehensive stutter to Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s or Roscoe Mitchell’s triumphant or defiant or put-upon recourse to circular breathing. By making breath more evident, more material, more dwelled-upon, they make black breath matter, implicitly insist that black lives matter. “Unable to breathe though we were, we blew” is one of the ways it’s put in the poem, a line of thinking I ended up dealing with in a more extended, expository way in “Breath and Precarity.”

That involved reviewing the breath-based poetics of Olson, Creeley, Baraka, and Ginsberg, all of whom were influenced by black music and all of whom influenced me. I see that poetics as less literal, less organic, less a matter of finding and following one’s natural or normal breathing patterns than I did when I first encountered it in my teens and early twenties. I’ve come to see it as being about the ability to alter the rhythm of one’s breathing, to construct alternate breathing patterns. Breath becomes a vehicle for senses of duress exactly with regard to breath, which is to say exactly with regard to life. This bears not only on a racist society in which black lives demonstrably don’t matter but on an era that doesn’t seem to be sure life matters.

Nathaniel Mackey
The Art of Poetry No. 107
Paris Review 232, Spring 2020

The Art Of Poetry

March 11, 2020

To gaze at a river made of time and water
And remember Time is another river.
To know we stray like a river
and our faces vanish like water.

To feel that waking is another dream
that dreams of not dreaming and that the death
we fear in our bones is the death
that every night we call a dream.

To see in every day and year a symbol
of all the days of man and his years,
and convert the outrage of the years
into a music, a sound, and a symbol.

To see in death a dream, in the sunset
a golden sadness — such is poetry,
humble and immortal, poetry,
returning, like dawn and the sunset.

Sometimes at evening there’s a face
that sees us from the deeps of a mirror.
Art must be that sort of mirror,
disclosing to each of us his face.

They say Ulysses, wearied of wonders,
wept with love on seeing Ithaca,
humble and green. Art is that Ithaca,
a green eternity, not wonders.

Art is endless like a river flowing,
passing, yet remaining, a mirror to the same
inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
and yet another, like the river flowing.

Jorge Luis Borges

going on all the time

February 5, 2019

I feel that poetry is going on all the time inside, an underground stream.

John Ashbery
The Art of Poetry No. 33, Paris Review

cultural life…

October 12, 2016


Well, the difficulty about England is the cultural life — it was certainly dim, and I suspect it still is. In a sense it’s the same difficulty one faces with some kinds of family life. I love my family very dearly, but I don’t want to live with them.

W H Auden
The Art of Poetry No. 17
Interview with Michael Newman
The Paris Review, Spring, 1974