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Review of Creativity: Where Poems Begin by
Mary Mackey (Marsh Hawk Press)

The final chapter of Mary Mackey’s new treatise Creativity: Where Poems Begin starts with lines from a poem that evoke the deep Amazon jungle in which she has spent considerable time. Here are a few of them. why these strange creatures? why this fevered nightmare? the jungle says eu sou grande / I am vast vocȇ é pouco / you are nothing no one is going to save you no one is going to helicopter you out of here.

One look at these lines, and the whole poem in its own context, might give the casual reader a shudder. By the time you reach them in this book, however, you might find them comforting; you might want the jungle to take you, to let you in to become nothing. You might not want to be saved, and you might not need to. And there resides the power hidden in these pages.

Sorry for the spoiler. Here’s another one. As much as this is a exploration of creativity, it’s also something else entirely: a memoir about learning how to get lost. Though Mackey has passages that address the mundane ways of getting lost, her fundamental focus is on losing oneself in an experience or state of mind.

Along with that the idea of liminality, of slipping between states, is central. From an early age she was prone to high fevers (over 106°) which necessitated extreme measures to save her life. She discovered quite young that above a certain brain temperature the world was a very different place, markedly beautiful and serene.

“Teetering on the edge of 107°,” she recalls, 2 a warm golden light—the kind you see only for a few minutes at sunset—flooded the living room. My parents moved toward me so slowly that I could see their clothing billow out and collapse in an invisible wind. Bending over me, they lost their faces and floated toward the ceiling like huge birds. The Coke bottle on the coffee table multiplied to dozens of Coke bottles, which flew up and circled like a huge glassy aura over their heads.”

That was at age three, at which point Mackey recognized that in those ecstatic states things no longer had names and didn’t need them. Those were a pre-language region, and she notes without irony that her visits there put her on the path to being a poet.

“I think of poetry,” she writes, “as a place where you float down a river and fall off the map.” This book is filled with various sorts of liminality, of slipping between worlds, states of mind, perceptions, cultures, languages, worded and wordless states. Some of these experiences were quite pleasant and some not in the least, but all of them in the end helped to make her the poet and person she is today. From the more ecstatic places like the pre-language perspective or the jungles of Costa Rica and Brazil, Mackey learned the value of seeing the world devoid of human constructs, an ability she finds to be key to the creative state.

The jungle, she notes, was not anything human or limited by human language…a whole that transcends its parts, a living creature in its own right, a single entity so different, so far from cities and freeways, computers, political infighting, hospitals, antibiotics, and the threat of nuclear war that I almost need to invent a new language to describe it. She found these visits to be epiphanic, and, between ice-baths to relieve fever and the culture shock of returning to civilization, not very fun to come back from.

Other view-shifting situations that she encountered were far less comfortable but no less informative.

Mackey’s experience often paints the mundane world of human artifice as a violent and disruptive space, oppressive, controlling, limiting, painful. One such place was Harvard, which she hopped to excitedly on a scholarship in the mid-60s to find her place in the writing world. Instead she found herself an outsider with “the social status of slime mold.” Part of that was class status imposed on her by other students. Much of it though was Harvard’s stance and policies regarding female scholars, who at the time were one-tenth of the undergraduate population with greatly restricted housing and study spaces. Rather than finding her place in the writing world, Mackey was shown her place.

Disagreeable as that was to go through, in retrospect Mackey notes, “although I didn’t realize it, being an outsider at Harvard was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Rejection forced me to write poetry that was original, different, even eccentric. It made me pay attention to what I had experienced when I ran high fevers and, later in life, what I witnessed when I lived in tropical jungles. In other words, since I had nothing to lose and no real hope of success, I could write whatever I wanted to write in whatever way I wanted to write it.”

Would that we could all maintain such an upbeat attitude.

Mackey doesn’t advocate, of course, for people to induce high fevers or spend years in jungles in order to access a creative state. She does arrive at an approach that is kinder, more attainable, and less bruising than those formidable experiences that helped her to get there. Our witness to them through her recollections gives us a trail map as well. One thinks of the trauma of birth enacted again and again as she is thrown in ice-water, shown her position in structures of gender and class, pointed to the working world and told to make something of herself when she sensed all along that she had something else to make, someplace else to be.

The book recounts numerous other liminalities, slippages, trials, one series of which landed Mackey finally in a healthy, constructive place: Berkeley in the early 70s. Teeming with radical culture and second-wave feminist writers of all stripes, there she found compañeras who had undergone similar hardships, women reading and publishing women, like-mindedness and thoughtful discourse, and one of the more difficult achievements an aspiring writer can reach— community.

The effect this had on her life was foundational. Mackey’s perspectives and sense of 4 direction became clearer, her footing for the first time truly firm, and she set out to open a door to creativity without going through trauma. She learned to let go—to discover how to slip away from the human world of definitions and conflicts, to slip between without so great a toll that she is damaged by the foray again and again.

It’s not mine to recount or worse yet rephrase Mackey’s delineation of the process she arrived at, as it’s this entire book that takes you there. But I will say this: for her it’s not a matter, so often in these accounts, of learning self-love—she is fortunate to have carried, for whatever reasons, a sense of worth and confidence. In her journey it’s more about learning self-preservation, a quest to access the creative state—a place of generosity and a joy to dwell in— with no further pain than what had already come in the act of discovering it.

In this Mackey usurps the common myth of the tortured artist, dismissing the notion that one has to chemically or otherwise mess with one’s brain in order to slip the bonds of human constructs, the worded world, taught thought.

Precisely there I find the resonant value of this work. She makes a call for creative sanity, a constructive space that acknowledges the dark and welcomes what we learn from it, using it as a key and lighthouse to a clearer vision of the living world.

Having discovered how to unlock the door, Mary Mackey’s trek as an integrated poet finally began in a place both figurative and very real: “Now as I float on the Rio Negro about a thousand miles upriver from the Brazilian city of Manaus and about two hundred yards from the green rim of the jungle, I am finally going home.”

Perhaps we can all find a smoother path to creativity in this book, whether that be a journey into wilderness or a completely new walk through our own backyards.

RICHARD LORANGER is the author of six books of poetry and flash prose, including the recent Mammal from Roof Books, and ten chapbooks, and has writing in over 100 magazines and journals. He has been neck-deep in words since his childhood. You can find more about his work and scandals at