by Jonah Raskin
Sugar Zone: Poems by Mary Mackey; Marsh Hawk Press; 2011; $15.00; 83 pages.
(Swans - July 28, 2014) 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 divided into six 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 Pelé, 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.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. He is the author of the booklet, A Few French Scenes, that was first published on Swans in November and December 2013 (see the Travelogue's archives). To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)