Wednesday, September 19, 2018


D. NURSKE Engages

(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2018)

[First published as Introduction to Mary Mackey’s collection.]


"Days and months are travelers of eternity," said Basho, setting out on a last expedition. In The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams, a breathtaking "new and selected," Mary Mackey, quintessential traveler, takes the reader to fascinating places; rural Kentucky, the Amazon, Yucatan, New York, California, ancient Japan, "a nice room with a view of the Taal volcano."  Always she's alive to estrangement, "the trance of the south." She's a traveler hip enough to know there's always another layer of the unknowable between her and her surroundings, however skillfully she decodes them—see the poem "Defective Instructions for Becoming a Shaman."

Mackey, like Basho, is also traveling in time. She follows the arc of a lifetime, as you might follow the left bank of the Orinoco, thrilling to the strangeness of human identity as it comes to know itself, as it casts itself into a lover's eyes, or a strangers, or a cat's. Mackey's lines are brilliantly honed to the visceral, playful, savage detail or epigram. Army ants make "their dead into bridges,"  a woman in the wilderness twists her wedding ring into a fish hook and survives, a mother "taught me compassion because/she could not feel it."

But behind the compelling surfaces, transcendental back stories assemble themselves; the self-creation of a psyche over generations; the hidden history of an era, from the flowering of feminism through the endless death agony of the patriarchy; a blunt story of love in struggle, struggle in love, triumph and dispossession. As in the poem "Witness," there's a knack for exploring the horrific without rhetoric, without playing the disaster card. Always Mackey's eye is drawn to the marginalized, the poor, the outcast, the trivialized, the ones who stand at the center of the human adventure.

The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams is a dangerous and fortunate journey. Mary Mackey has created an oeuvre, wilder, more open to change with each passing year. Hers is a monumental achievement.


Disaster tourism

drive us around
says Aunt Kitty
we don’t get out much

see that farm to your left
crying shame
fools sold it to Peabody Coal
all the topsoil stripped off
those folks never gonna get a crop of corn
worth spit again
if they live to be a hundred

see that tumble down shack
that’s where Mr. Joe Brady
took an axe to his wife
knocked her on the head
with the blunt end
then chopped her up in 4 neat
pieces with the blade
and tried to feed her
to his hogs

they wouldn’t eat her
says Aunt Ebbie
Mabelle Brady was too mean
a woman even for hogs

when did all this happen

‘84 or there about says Aunt Kitty
Nah says Aunt Ebbie
year of the flood
and the Whiskey Rebellion
1792, late spring

drive on honey  says Aunt Kitty
see that place yonder
last man hanged in Hamilton county
lived there
gave his soul to Jesus at the camp meeting
less than a month later
danced on air like a backslidden Baptist

man was saved just in the nick of time

L. Tells All

I wanted a man
but they were in
short supply
so when this big white
swan followed me home
and announced
"I Am Zeus, Lord of All Creation,"
I crooked my finger at him
and said
"come here, Bird Boy,
let's give it a try."

at first
I have to admit
it was fun
his soft breast
the excited squawk
the way he beat his wings
like an umpire gone bad
but basically
it was an act of

we had nothing in common
his feathers made me sneeze
I was afraid to fly
he was married
(of course
they all are)
and we even had religious differences

what can I say?

and then there were his other
Io, Europa, Semele
(not to mention the
sluttish little pens he picked up
in the park)

we started to have
terrible fights
I called him an overstuffed
pillow and threw seed
in his face
he threatened to migrate
the usual stuff

by spring
we'd both had enough

one night
while we were sitting
in a Greek restaurant
I told the old cob I'd always
be his friend
but I just couldn't handle
interspecies love

(I lied, of course
the truth was 
I'd already started to see
a duck
on the side)

The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams

Up on the Orinoco, Rio Negro, Solimões,
Tocantins, Xingu, Javary
they’re drinking the bebida preta/black drink  
snake vine  ayahuasca/yage/    blood of the great anaconda
with the smoke of burning rainforests in their nostrils
and o gosto de cinzas/taste of ashes on their tongues

Eles estão comendo    they’re eating
purple snails    powdered viper venom
lagartas esmagadas    flowers that dye their lips
the color of blood    singing of cities of blue glass  
and the jaguars that prowl our dreams

O que mais/what else     are they seeing?
O que mais/what else       do they know?

they’re not saying
they’re not telling
they’re calling on the ghost tribes instead

ghosts of the Tupinambá, Tupiniquim, Aimoré
lost upriver    forever
lost in the burning world 

Defective Instructions For Becoming a Shaman

cast off your flesh like the pelt of a molting snake   you told me
walk to the aldeia dos mortos/the village of the dead
where the old grow young    the young grow old
and women hunt jaguars under a snake of stars

become um morcego   a bat
an armadillo   a bird with a human face
não pode haver nada no mundo que não é você
there can be nothing left in the world that isn’t you

you never mentioned the web that hangs between
the visible and invisible worlds
dancers who hold their eyes in their hands
the Boitatá who glows in the dark
the Mapinguari who rips the tongues from cows
the Curupira who eats poachers 

you didn’t warn me about o túnel de espinhos
the river of snakes   the plain of thorns
or those transparent beings with small hot hands
who would offer me a crown of Macaw feathers

now I sit here   trapped in the curare of regret
as fever eats my body like a hungry jacaré


there were once beasts called elephants
when one could not get food
the others fed her
they were taken for their tusks
which were made into bracelets and piano keys
and their feet, which were made into footstools
the seals were made into hats and coats
the salmon were fished out of the rivers
and eaten
the ostriches were taken for plumes for hats
the giraffes became seat covers

there were once trees
older than our oldest cities
with trunks as thick
as the pillars of temples
near the end people tried to save them
by sitting in the tops
but they were forced down
and the trees became plywood

Swordfish were served in fine homes
on long polished tables
covered with exotic sauces
bones of wild mules were
ground up for glue

Mostly it happened by accident
no one meant to get rid of the frogs
at night they used to sing so loudly
we had to shout over the sound of them
and then one summer they sang softly
and then one summer they stopped singing

the honeybees died of some kind of virus
and then the crops failed
and the fruit trees stopped bearing
and a great silence spread over the fields

small things died
things we hardly noticed:
wild grasses
obscure fish
plants that didn't flower
tiny brown birds
a kind of grasshopper that only lived in Africa
a plant that grew high up in a tree in the Amazon
where no human being had ever seen it
a biting gnat that people were glad to see go
clothes moths
a Siberian squirrel
some weeds along the side of the freeway
some silly-looking thing that lived in the sand
that the curlews ate
some tiny green plankton that floated in the sea
that no one knew about

soon only the oldest of us could remember
a time when we woke to the humming of the locusts
when a coyote danced in the sagebrush
a beaver felled a tree
a rhinoceros bathed in the mud
and wild roses bloomed in the ditches beside the roads

on summer evenings
large birds
used to cross the thin golden plate of the sun

in the forests
the whippoorwills sang all night long


D. Nurkse is the author of eleven poetry collections, most recently Love in the Last Days: After Tristan and Iseult, from Knopf. He's the recipient of awards from the Whiting and Guggenheim foundations and the N.E.A., and the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He's taught at Rikers Island and served on the board of Amnesty International-USA.

Mary Mackey is the author of eight collections of poetry including Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence and Finalist for the Northern California Book Reviewers Award; and The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams: New and Selected Poems 1974 to 2018, recently published by Marsh Hawk Press. Mackey’s poems have been praised by Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, Dennis Nurkse, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ron Hansen, Dennis Schmitz, and Marge Piercy for their beauty, precision, originality, and extraordinary range. Her poetry has been featured four times on The Writer’s Almanac. She is also the author of 14 novels, one of which have made The New York Times Bestseller List. Website: