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Monday, March 16, 2009

Nathaniel Mackey Allusions

Since I proposed to try to track down Mackey's allusions with the internet, I'll share what I find. I will go poem by poem. If anyone can help me with anything, I will be thankful. This post will be updated every time I come upon some more information.

Before the entire series, Mackey quotes from François di Dio's liner notes to the album Les Dogon. The best I can do for information on him is the wikipedia article, which is in French. "The Song of the Andoumboulou," which inspired the poems, is on the album and can be heard at PennSound about 3/4's of the way down the page.

For more on the Dogon see photos, social life, art.

Song #1: Before the first poem, which is published in Eroding Witness (EW), there is a quotation from a discussion between Marcel Griaule, a French anthropologist, and Ogotemmeli, a Dogon elder. This comes from a book by Griaule entitled Conversations with Ogotemmeli.

In the stanzas following "Then in the eighth book" Mackey explores the myth of the Nommos, who, according to the Dogon creation myth as it comes through Griaule, arrived from outer space, created a watery home for themselves, and were repulsively ugly, fish-like creatures. The link I give you is not the best, but I could find no better one. Conversations... and The Pale Fox are the books that Mackey used for this informaton.

Click HERE for a translation of a paper by Griaule and his research partner Dieterlen.

There is a controversy about the precision of the Dogon astronomical knowledge, and about the verity of Griaule's ethnographies. The most thorough going discussion of the the skeptical viewpoint on the net is by Robert T. Carroll. Walter van Beek is an anthropologist who is also skeptical of Griaule's work. It turns out that he based almost of his information on the words of a single informer. (It is important to note that, in spite of this controversy, Griaule was considered an excellent anthropologist during his life.) I must also say that I find the arguments of the skeptics quite convincing, and this is bound to affect the reception of Mackey's poetry. However, I have yet to encounter in Mackey's writing any mention of the more spectacular claims made by Dogon 'romanticists' such as Robert Temple's in his book The Sirius Mystery.

For a discussion of the impact of this controversy on Mackey's verse, see the note at the end of this post.

Song #2
I will wait on this. I have some books coming from the library.

Song #3:
Serqet — Egyptian goddess of serpents; wife of Ra, the sun god
Nommo: This is the best place I could find on the net. Once again, Mackey seems to have used the books Conversations with Ogotommeli and The Pale Fox.

Song #4:
"The dead are dying of thirst."

Song #5:

gassire's lute — West African folk tale. For what seems to be Marcus Garvey's translation, go HERE.
Black reconstruction
Song #7
Ntsikana's Bell — Traditional song recorded by South African jazz pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim. Ntsikana was the first African from near the area now called Nigeria to accept Christianity. In spite of being illiterate, he wrote hymns that have survived. This song is one of them. It was the way Ntsikana called his people to worship.

Epigrams before "Song of the Andoumboulou 8-15"

(A number of these poems can be found on the net HERE)

Visita, Interiora ... This says that if you visit the interior of the earth you may find the hidden stone. The notion of rocks and stones repeats throughout "Songs of the Andoumboulou."

Erzulie — See above
Crosscut saw — blues image for sexual intercourse.

Song #9
Osiris — Prehistoric ruler of Egypt. Brought civilization. Murdered in coup and body thrown in Nile. Thoth and Seth magically located body, tore it into 14 pieces, buried it around Egypt. Osiris' wife, Isis, gathered the pieces and resurrected the king long enough to get impregnated by him. Child became King Horus. (I don't know what the "ropewalk" is.) Osiris is associated with the bounty of the earth.
Legba — in Voodoun, one of his avatars is Attibon Legba who is an old man who walks with a twisted cane, smokes a pipe, wears a straw hat, and carries a macoutte (straw sack). He is the the first to be saluted at ceremonies, and is the god of the crossroads.
caiman - type of crocodile found in south and central America.

Song #10

Song #11
School of udhra
asafetidam — spice used to improve singer's voices

Song #12
Camwood paste — placed on women's stomachs to help them conceive
Eshu — Trickster god, has to do with opportunity, in both negative and positive ways
Egungun Yoruba deity, thouth of as collective spirit of ancestors
King Sunny Ade

Song #13
Alhaji Ibrahim Abdulai — Drummer from the Dagbon region of northern Ghana.

Uninhabited angel

Song #15

Note: Does the controversy over Griaule's anthropological methods in any way compromise Mackey's poetics?

The short answer is "no." Why is this? Mackey's project seems, in part, to be concerned with cross-cultural exploration and the complexities created by it. Mackey also discusses, in his critical and theoretical writings (see Discrepant Engagement) the 'creakiness' of language. By this he means, or I think he means, that language can never seize upon any entity or meaning in its fullness. In a letter to "Angel of Dust" that is part of the "Songs of the Andoumboulou" series and appears in EW, Mackey writes "You can't continue to want the whole bleeding, flooding fact of it intact without a cut somewhere" (54). That necessary "cut" may be similar to what Mackey means by "creakiness."

In another letter, that appears earlier in the series, Mackey writes, "You really do seem to believe in, to hold out for some first or final gist underlying it all, but my preoccupation with origins and ends is exactly that: a pre- (equally post-, I suppose) occupation" (50). By breaking "pre-" and "post-" from "occupation" Mackey emphasizes the lack of a desire for full presence in his work. There is no way to take it all in.

Therefore, cultures rub and penetrate and creak and chip away at each other. Knowledge is hard-won and sporadic.

With Griaule, for Mackey's purposes it does not matter if he was correct from an anthropological point of view. What matters was that he was sincere. I am using this word to mean that he tried his best to understand people very different from the way he is. If he failed, and Mackey made use of his failure, so long as it was a sincere failure, one that stemmed from the urge to communicate as freely as possible through the inevitable creaks of cultural and linguistic contact, Mackey's poetics should not suffer.

The sort of difficulties Griaule encountered are just what Mackey is exploring in his poetry.

Caveat: Not only Mackey, but all poets run a risk when using science, either natural or social, as the basis for part of their poetry. Science moves not by proving anything correct, but by proving something incorrect and developing a new explanation for the phenomena under consideration. This means that scientific developments may compromise a poetics by forcing readers to go back and consider now out of date social and natural science in order to understand the poems fully.

This is where the problem lies with Mackey's use of Griaule. It is not at all an epistemological issue or a poetics issue, but a practical one. I am having a hard time digging up translations of Griaule's books from libraries. While his status as an important figure in French anthropology is, for the time, secure, I am not sure how long this will last. A biography was just published on him, but that is no guarantee of long-term recognition.

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