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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Nathaniel Mackey's "Songs of the Andoumboulou"

Over the course of a three-decade career Nathaniel Mackey, in addition to releasing novels and editing a journal, has been writing one of the more singular serial poems of recent years. Entitled "Song of Andoumboulou," it receives its initial impetus from the Dogon People's notion of the Andoumboulou, mythological beings symbolizing an earlier, failed form of humanity, a "rough draft" of humankind, as it were.

I have become quite involved with reading Nathaniel Mackey's Andoumboulou poems of late. What I intend to do is make frequent, dated additions to this post that reflect on some aspect of the Andoumboulou series. I will consider the poems, interviews of and articles by Mackey, and critical articles on Mackey.

A guide to Mackey's allusions and a concordance to the series appears in the posts after this one.

My first commentary concerns the initial group of poems that appeared in his first full-length collection, Eroding Witness. Click HERE to see the poems.

March 8, 09

I will be starting out slowly: the first song gives us death, images of sticking words and discussions of songs. He creates a thick texture with his images, but there is nothing tough about the verse, it's graceful and almost dancelike. Notice the soft consonants: "Faces, run / out by water. /Features waste and reappear." The only hard consonants are a few 't's and a 'p', and all are placed around syllables so that they are unaspirated.

Note also in the second stanza, the only words with hard consonants are 'get' and 'sticks', both serving an almost onomatopoeic function.

Does this use of consonants hold true for other places in the series? Also, how does it tie into lineation? What does this do for voice, and how does it form voice as saying these particular

March 9, 09

These early poems, and I think later ones as well, aer characterized by a fluidity formed by alliteration and the soft consonants, but also by a particular rhythm. The poems feel like gentle waves, ever coming, never ending, drifting in eddies around the legs of piers or large stones, using repetition to create nodes of interest, places where the flow coalesces only momentarily, only to give way. "all ascent moves up / a stairway of shattered / light." Attempts to ascend in a traditional manner, up a narrative line, ends in shattered light, the loss of enlightenment, not its gain.

Many poems exhibit a narrative impulse — having charactes and settings — but the 'plot' quickly turns or glides from its initial direction. In Song #2 the woman with nubbed hands appears at the beginning in, perhaps, a brothel. The poem returns to this woman later, but is it the same setting? How has she changed, if at all? Has she become anew?

Mackey's poetry is similar to what has been called Melville's self-cancelling prose in The Confidence Man. The difference is that Melville tends toward skepticism and perhaps even nihilism. Mackey is just the opposite: he has a spirituality. But it is immanent, fleeting, hard won, then quickly lost. Only to come again.

March 10, 09

Mackey is interested in The Black Mountain Poets, and it seems useful to compare Charles Olson's observation in The Maximus Poems, "Limits are what any of us are inside of," to Mackey's sense of drift and boundary. In "Andoumboulou 9" (collected in School of Udhra, can't locate a version of it on internet), for instance, we encounter this line: "moored / abundance of clouds collecting." Admittedly, taking lines out of context in Mackey is more problematic than most, if not all other poets. But the paradox of moored clouds illustrates what I think Mackey may offer in relation to limits: there are no limits, but there are always boundaries. Boundaries are not rigid; limits are. Boundaries are not physical lines, but the feeling I, for instance, got as I traveled out of France and deeper into Germany, where J-walking was frowned upon and strictures on movement where much more severe. That said, strictures on nudity seemed much less than they were in France. This disparity was the feeling of the border.

This elastic border seems to be under much of what happens in the Andoumboulou poems. Just as the Andoumboulou themselves are beyond the boundaries of time and death, beyond human form, and inside the boundary of the earth, they are nontheless here, always, sometimes exerting more influence, sometimes less.

He names his second book of poems School of Udhra: a Bedouin school of poetics. I don't know what the Bedouin world was like, but I can't imagine from what I know of them that there were rigidities in their landscape, such as "this is my land starting right here."

* * *

On the back of School of Udhra it is written that the poems stitch together cultures, with threads ranging across the world.

I don't know if Mackey agrees with this characterization, but it seems a little off to me. William James describes consciousness not as a stream but as a bird, flitting from bird stand to tree, from branch to branch. The flight actually of little time, but perchings are a preparation to move, quickly, to the next spot, the next focus.

Mackey's poetry feels like this bird to me. Moving about amid cultures, from that of postmodern intellectuals to the Dogon to Cuban santeria, and on and on. But these flittings into and out of cultures are not stitches and not threads: threads and stitches build. The andoumboulou poems are nomadic, they move.

The poems may revisit certain concerns many times, maybe even obsessively. But they do this in the course of moving.

As they move, they cross boundaries. Is there a home in these poems, a more or less comfortable place, maybe bounded?

The answer is yes: jazz and modern and postmodern poetics and thought. The poems often take place in the tension between this home and the various cultures and ideas addressed.

It is important to note, however, that even the home is adrift, molding and being molded.

March 11, 09

I have some concerns about Mackey's project. They in no way discredit what he is doing — who else has ever written like him? — but they do highlight some of the epistemological difficulties he is involved in.

One thing is certain: I know of no other poet who has successfully negotiated the myriad complexities of multiple cultures, and done it with such elegance and grace.

Questions: Mackey's cross-cultural poetics relies partly on his personal experience with a variety of cultures, and possibly his experience as a black man in America. (The introduction to Mackey's set of essays, Discrepant Engagement, leads me to believe that he does see race as playing a role in his being aware of margins (boundaries?).) However, much of his knowledge of other cultures seems to be culled from anthropology. Anthropology was, and perhaps still is, a determinedly Western discipline: it attempts to make sense of and explain phenomena rather than letting them be or accepting traditional explanations. To what extent can a true cross-cultural poetics be developed that makes a lot of use of anthropology? Does Mackey believe that his project is cross-cultural?

To what extent is Mackey's poetry not Western? Granted, he discusses and thematizes non-Western ways of thinking, but he is using Western investigative techniques to learn about them.

Thinking about this makes me even more convinced that there are homes, unstable homes but homes nonetheless, in Mackey's work: anthropology, modern and postmodern poetics and thought, jazz, his experience of being marginal (his word) due to his race.

Is jazz Western? Is it partly Western?

These seem to be the key lenses through which he perceives other cultures, such as the Dogon or Santeria and so on.

March 12, 2009

About fifteen years ago I began a study of the Andoumboulou poems that had been published up until that time. However, I did not get far. I found the tremendous number of allusions overwhelming. While I could appreciate the general evocative power of these illusions, and I got a general sense of the poems, I wanted more.

Why am I having a successful relationship with them now? The answer is the internet. Most of the time when I read the andoumboulou poems I have the web open, and I track down every allusion.

Example: Andoumboulou 8, in School of Udhra, begins — maitresse erzulie —. Who is this person, if he or she is a person? I found that she is the Voudoun goddess of beauty, wealth, and love. She is the lunar wife of legba, the sun god. She can have vices such as jealousy, discord, vengeance, and anger, and she can be quite vain.

With this information, the poem comes alive. At first I read it without looking up her name. And I got it right: I think it is about a man drawing strength from performing cunnilingus on a woman.

One hand on her hip, one hand
arranging her hair,
blue beaven's
bride. Her beaded hat she hangs
from a nail on the danceroom

He is either describing erzulie, or a woman who radiates her beauty, or, what is probably more accurate, both in one. The poem goes on to describe the speaker waking up "As though an angel sought me out." This is a typical and fascinating move: Makey gives us the simile without ever mooring it securely down, leaving us readers in what he might call a liminal zone, where things are like this but not exactly this: "Not yet asleep I'm no longer / awake." Later, fucking is described using the old blues metaphor of the "thrust / of a crosscut saw," followed by the most beautiful description of cunnilingus that I have ever encountered:

Who sits at her feet fills his
head with wings, oils his
with rum, readies her way
with perfume

The poem ends by, I think, referring to the boldness given "By whatever bit of her I touch."

This is a poem that evokes the overpowering beauty represented by maitresse erzulie as she is manifested, and how this power becomes part of the man who has sex with her. It is not only a spiritualization of sex, it is also a sex-ification of spirituality. It is not so much about mutuality —mutuality assumes an even power dynamic — as it is about dialogue, about her beauty overpowering the man, but eventually leaving him "bold."

The man is empowered by erzulie, but I think she still holds cards.

March 18, 09

I have not written an entry for a few days because I have been working on the concordance and the allusions. I guess I am a little obsessive, but I find the concordance work fascinating. I never before realized how much the tallying of word choice can tell us about a poet.

In my first entry, on March 8, I discussed Mackey's use of soft consonants to create the fluid motion that so often characterizes his verse, in spite of Mackey drawing our attention to the way the verse "stutters." (More on that later.)

In Song 10, a poem initially about "reading drafts / of a dead friend's poem," he writes "Baited lip. Love's lawless jaw ... like a pointed gun...Burnt rugs nedded." This writing seems and feels less graceful, and it has an almost stern beat. Later, a line reads "mad at the world."

Here, the hard consonants break up the fluidity and cause the texture of the poem to coinside with the speaker's grief and anger. The poem spits out its negative emotions, in words and lines that foreground the tough use of hard consonants.

One last interesting note: on the page after the first 40 or so lines Mackey, as he often does, drops the next "stanza" well down the next page and places a straight line right above where it begins. Here is one of his fascinating similes: he begins the poem by referring to the "Rugs burnt Persian red" that was, apparently, in a draft of a poem by a long dead friend that the speaker was reading. The poem is in red ink. This is where it gets interesting. On the next page, underneath the line, Mackey refers to "likeness," and the "exotic Persian red robe" the speaker put on that morning. The robe, the dead, Persia, the ink, all adding up to, in this case, a sickening simile.

Could this one type of what Mackey refers to as "creakiness"? The uncanny coincidence. But with Mackey, we must always wonder if the coincidence is truly a convergence or a contact point. Maybe it is all three, operating on different levels.

One thing I know for sure, Mackey is using, for instance, the words "rock" or "stone" repeatedly, and they often have profoundly different cultural contexts and resonances. For instance, one refers to the Cuban Santeria. Another the Dogon. It is Mackey's personal experience (I assume) coupled with his reading and research that creates this contact, this simile.

We can never be sure how far these similes connect the cultures. That is a part of their resonance. The silence.

The lack.

March 19. 09

Eight of the 21 poems in School of Udhru are in the Song of the Andoumboulou series. After Song 8, the mood becomes quite somber.Things are breaking up, but not in any reassuring or "creaky" way, as Mackey might call it. In 9 we run into the words with negative connotations: "ruins," "collapse," "crumble," "thin air," "erratic," "crutch," "embers," "blown seeds," "hurt," "meek," "caiman's teeth."

Yesterday, I wrote about the next poem, number 10, and how he uses hard consonants to create a texture conducive to this moodiness.

I am tired. All for now.

March 26, 09
For today, I will be ambitious: readings of two different poems and a response to a critical article.

"Song of the Andoumboulou: 11" (Click on the title to find the poem on page 7. Please, I recommend that you buy these books, but I want to make sure all of my readers have quick access to the poems at hand.)

The "School of Udhra" were a group of 7th pre-Islamic Bedouin poets who emphasized complete surrender to romantic feelings, even unto death. This being the case, I take it that the poem will be about some difficult, overwhelming love that tears asunder the 'self' of the poet.

What fascinates me most about this poem is its orientation toward time. In the very first stanza he sits up, present tense, "holding you a year ago," which points toward memory. The image I get is a nod toward an overwhelming memory that takes place in the present. What is this 'yearning'?

Is it the desire for the person — adult? child? — who was held up? Or something larger, just 'short of eternity'? Or are these two possibilities compatible, that the eternal is in the moment, that the yearning for the eternal is always already with us?

In the second stanza, what is 'found'? the 'you' in the first stanza? Since Mackey doesn't give us enough evidence to clearly connect the two, he must be asking us to look elsewhere. One connection is between the word 'yearning' in the first stanza to 'waiting' and 'wanting' in the second. Somehow, this desire ends up well (in a provisional sort of way), with the large assocance and alliteration in 'bloom, bamboo blossom.' It appears we are discussing death, 'soul off to its alternate light', but it is a death that the poem comes to some sort of terms with.

The next stanza seems to shift from the consideration of a single death to an apocalyptic war scene. It begins with an image excruciatingly everyday: the taste of orange juice. It ends with the Cold War sense of a 'planet long / since about to blow away every / minute now'. We see the political issues of the day seeping into the most daily of concerns. (The book from which the poem came from was publish in 1993, so it could be very likely that this poem was written in the latter years of the Cold War.)

In the same stanza, Mackey again plays tricks with time: "the end had come around yet / again'. This is clearly paradoxical, nothing can end twice. Here, it seems that Mackey is not asking us to consider memory, as we did in the initial stanza, but anticipation. All the 'sweetness' and kisses we receive are haunted by the specter of bombings.

The next stanza, beginning 'Ins and outs', seems to consider quotidean love using war as a metaphor: 'brind', 'mending', 'assault.' In one stanza he understands war through its impact on the everyday; then he uses war as a metaphor for understanding the everyday. We also come to a a phrase we encountered in the first stanza, 'allergic to time'. To be allergic to time is to be incapable of being unmoored to one of the basics of the human condition: temporal alterations and shifts. Whoever is allergic will not be able to survive, will be too rigid to keep flexible and fluid, which these poems value highly.

What do we have so far? 1) a breaking down of linear time into a much more complex brew, where the memory and anticipation play a huge role, perhaps even forming, the present. 2) A consideration of love in terms of this complex of time, where the past is never over and the future is always forming. 3) War and love seen as metaphors for one another, 'love's retreat'.

In the last two stanzas the verse seems to break apart, as if a clusterbomb were dropped on it. Beginning with "an anonynomous cloudbank', it moves to the 'insides of a blow turned inside out'. Then Mackey uses a simile to compare this complicated image to 'the air extracted an itch / dug deep in the blood, earth's fitful ruler'. Is blood earth's ruler? Does this point back to war, perhaps registering heartbreak at its continuation?

Near the end we read 'lines / drawn against the givens'. What are the lines and what are the givens? One understanding is that it describes a doomed charge by an army against an enemy stronghold — 'the givens' being the fated outcome. Or it could refer to the poem itself, its 'lines' attempting, and failing, to do something about horrible and overwhelming givens such as the 'clusterbomb canister'. Or it could bring us back to the allergy to time, with time being the given and the line — war, love, mindfuly drinking orange juice — being ways to fight it.
The Udhrite poets died for the intensity of their love. And this poem definitely has love in it, but it might not be that strong. What it does have is worry and despair.

I am bothered by a few things with this reading. It feels a little too pat, as if it ties up loose ends and neatly clips off the remainder. Did I respect Mackey's concept of 'creakiness' when writing this post? Did I make it cohere too much?

In Whatsaid Serif, see Song of the Andoumboulou: 16, page 3-8

"Garcia Lorca's meditation upon the "dark sounds" of cante jondo, deep song, the quality and condition known as relation to an array of "dark sounds" which bear upon a cross-cultural poetics
The title "cante moro" goes back to a recording ... [by the Flamenco singer] Manitas de Plata...At one point ...a member of the group says, "Eso es cante moro," which means "That's Moorish singing." Calling deep song cante moro summons the past rule and continuing cultural presence of the Moors in Spain; it acknowledges the hybrid, heterogeneous roots not only of cante jondo but of Spanish culture generally, of, in fact, culture, collective poesis, generally. A Gypsy doing so, as in this instance, allies outcast orders, acknowledging hybridity and heterogeneity to entwine the heterodox as well—heterodox Gypsy, heterodox Moor, cante moro bespeaks the presence and persistence of the otherwise excluded, the otherwise expelled.
When Lorca met Torre in 1927, Torre, evoking the Gypsies’ fabled origins in Egypt, said to him, "What you must search for, and find, is the black torso of the Pharaoh." He meant that you have to root your voice in fabulous origins, find your voice in the dark, among the dead.
The word duende means spirit, a kind of gremlin, a gremlinlike, troubling spirit. One of the things that marks the arrival of duende in flamenco singing is a sound of trouble in the voice, The voice becomes troubled. Its eloquence becomes eloquence of another order, a broken, problematic, self-problematizing eloquence. Lorca also quotes Torre as having told a singer, "You have a voice, you know the styles, but you will never triumph, because you have no duende." So you see that duende is something beyond technical competence or even technical virtuosity. It is something troubling. It has to do with trouble, deep trouble. Deep song delves into troubled water, troubles the water. "
Mackey, Cante Moro

The poem begins by describe a 'they' dredging the sea. One commentator says that 'they' are gypsies (I will track down the source later), and that others nearby are listening to Flamenco music.

However, what I find most interesting is that the personified flamenco strings are 'distraught'. Where does this come from? Apparently, the oud must play some sort of surface song that it doesn't want — 'elsewhere's advocacy / strummed' — and not its lost complaint.

Then, in a stunning move, Mackey connects this hidden complaint to places in the western, southern, and eastern Mediterranean areas: Cairo, Cordoba, Red Sea, Nagfa, Muharraq. Apparently, there is some deep and often hidden complaint in the oud that crosses cultures.

Perhaps duende? (What is the connection between duende and African American musical 'soul'?)

Perhaps this occurs when the Andalusian Lebrijano sings with his 'burr-throat', similar to the way Mackey describes Dogon singers. Clearly, Mackey wants us to be thinking about duende in this part of the poem. Lorca's notion of the dark underside that must be fathomed to make any light possible.

It is fascinating the way Mackey responds to Torre's notion of origins, in Egypt. Mackey splays origins with his geographical names.

To what degree is Mackey exploring the notion that all art must be 'raspy', 'adamant', and 'turning away' from the 'light'?

The kef-pesh is an ancient Egyptian amulet.

One of Mackey's images in this poem is "treadmill mesh." It is obvious to me at this point that a more or less linear approach, beginning at the beginning and moving to the end, is not the approach to take with this poem. I am going to see what happens when I look at constellations of word choices.

dead - 4
oud - 2
edge - 2
alive - 2
raw-throated - 2
raspy - 4
night - 8
lips - 3
pharaoh - 2
singing - 2
air - 2
burr - 3
eked-out - 2
love - 2
lost - 2
dredge - 2

Not surprisingly, 'night' and 'dead' are repeated the most. In addition, there are no words with positive connotations in the list, except for 'love.

I will come back to this tomorrow. Feeling tired.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jefferson-

    You may know this passage from Guy Davenport. His context is the Olson/Pound multiverse, but I like it in relation to NM's figuration of rocks & stones:

    "This 'taste for stone' is a theme in modern literature that emerges in the early days of Romantic writing and flows like a submerged river of meaning through practically all serious work in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It stems from the classical feeling that stone was a dead substance and therefore belonged to a separate realm of being. Hades, for instance, was stone, as was the dead moon. The firm Greek sense that stone does not grow distinguished it radically from things that do. And yet it was of mineral substance that everything is made: an organism was an interpenetration of matter and spirit. can read The Cantos as a subtle meditation on whether stone is alive..."

    Mackey makes of the "firm Greek sense" a firm Afro-Asiatic sense, in which there seems little doubt but that the stones are alive. Wanting "blood" as they do.

    Isn't there somewhere in the Andoumboulou (or Mu) the image of a "glass-bottomed boat"? What better vehicle for having a good look at that "submerged river of meaning"?