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Monday, June 29, 2009

Andoumboulou 17 &18

[This is a continuing series of posts that reflect on Nathaniel Mackey's Songs of the Andoumboulou, a series of poems that Mackey has been working on through three books. His latest book with Andoumboulou poems in them, Splay Anthem, won the National Book Award. I take into consideration his allusions, Mackey's prose, interviews with him, and critical discussions of his work. As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts. To access all of the posts, click on "Nathaniel Mackey" in the list to the right.]

[I am currently discussing Mackey's book Whatsaid Serif. If for some reason you cannot buy it (and I sincerely hope you do), many of the poems can be found here. Also, Mackey reads 10 of the poems with musical accompaniment on an album entitled Strick.]

Yesterday I reflected on how seemingly incoherent Andoumboulou 17 becomes given the extraordinary slipperiness of the pronouns. After further consideration, I think that the poem is best seen as a kind of bridge between 16 and 18. Mackey himself discusses in one of his interviews how he wants the poems to echo and suggest each other. If 17 is not able to stand alone, to what extent is it best not to approach it that way?


On to #18

Allusions / definitions:

ogou en dez o — Ogou is a voodoun god of blacksmithing, war, leadership, and water. "en dez o" means that he is of two waters: Petro and Rada, two different classifications of Voodoun deities (I think.) Petro are given libations of fire, Rada of water. Therefore, ogou can also be seen as a mediator of severe difference.

Davidic Harp

— Emphasize Christ as singularly divine rather than human and divine, as was the Catholic position for centuries.

Oudada — Title of a song on the b-side of a French 78 from 1937. The A side is "
C'est tout le contraire." Megan Simpson in her article "Trickster Poetics: Multiculturalism and Collectivity in Nathaniel Mackey's Song of the Andoumboulou" (Melus vol.28, 2003) claims that Mackey invented the term. I don't know what to believe.

inveiglement — To win over by flattery and wiles

obliquity — deviation from moral rectitude; an obscure or confusing statement

abstruse — difficult to comprehend

ta'wil — There are assorted definitions for this word, all pertaining to the interpretation of Islamic sacred books. The one that would seem the most salient, relative to Mackey's interest in the Gnostics, is one that believes a hidden meaning subsists beneath any seemingly literal one.

Ogun's iron shoe —I can't find anything more particular for this other than that Ogun is the god of iron.

"(From martillo, hammer, or martinete – an instrument with which to strike red-hot metals in the forge to give them the required shape). In literary terms, the toná proceeds from gypsy ballads, and it is considered the oldest flamenco cante (style of song). Martinetes, carceleras and debla are varieties of tonás that can be distinguished from one another by the themes of their lyrics, and whose characteristic trait is that they don´t have any guitar accompaniment. The martinete has a strong dramatic impact. Its interpretation as a dance form is relatively recent. It was Antonio Ruiz Soler who incorporated it into his repertoire in the late 1950s. "

"The saeta is an unaccompanied song stemming from Jewish religious songs which are believed to date back to the 16th century. The singer will show his ardent devotion to a particular image of Christ or the Virgin during its performance and to witness an ancient saeta performed from a balcony in a narrow back street is an experience that you will leave you emotionless." -- Tony Bryant

In number 18 Mackey actually uses the phrase "opaque pronouns"! Given my interest in his pronouns, I find this, uh, interesting.

This poem is much more coherent than the previous one, even as it picks up and furthers considerations, explorations, and tropes from earlier in Whatsaid Serif. It begins with the speaker sitting in the Long Night Lounge and having a man, described as a "Gnostic stranger," sit down beside him and repeat the word "so" over and over again. It ends by mentioning two inebriates, presumably the two men at the bar, now drunk.

The bar is full of paradox, "a cramped, capacious room"; as is the stranger. The speaker "embraces him as though it was me I embraced."

Again, as in the previous several poems, boundaries between people are permeable: where does the speaker end and the stranger begin?Are they the same person? Presumably, at least on some level. A "Gnostic" stranger, it seems, could only be a mystery squared, a stranger that is other than his literal strangeness: no chance to get him.

Next, Mackey breaks off to discuss an awakening from sleep (literal? probably not — we're in Gnostic territory.) Awakened by "flamenco's gnostic moan" — which leads to confusion and disorientation: "sank, felt nothing," "spun words rocked," "shook me," "spun." He ends this stanza by refering to sounds: "Davidic harp" (of the ancient Hebrews), "Ethiopian moan," Monophysite lament." Given that the monophysites were and are associated with Egypt, Mackey in one part of one stanza brings together the Hebraic and two different African traditions.

Then he ends with the pronouns: "one we...that we would include, not reduce to us." This seems to represent an effort to not erase cultural difference during cultural contact. "'persons' whether or notd we / knew who they were." Human beings outside our cultural purview remain persons whether or not we can come to terms with who they are.

Mackey is insisting on accepting skepticism and epistemological limits. I feel safe to say that the tentative, searching, Gnostic feel to this poem has to do with the tentative reaching toward culture and cultures. Unlike some of the earlier Andoumboulou poems, where I worried about Mackey overwhelming his subject matter with the frame of Western anthropology, here I see him confronting this abyss head on.

The next stanza again sharply shifts its focus. Now, it delves into on an old romantic affair" "'Was it a woman / he once was in love with?'" "'Was it a lie / he'd long since put it all behind?'"

I am fascinated by these lines since this stanza's obsession with the 'deep' answers about this old love affair must be plumbed, but answers are difficult to come by. All we end with is fire and ears, "ears hot / with what she took to be talk not of / her but of someone else." Feelings are in flames and obsolete.

Mackey breaks these three stanzas off from the rest of the poem with the use of a dot separating them. These three stanzas explore skepticism in three different arenas: the setting of the bar with its permeability and mutability; the cross-cultural 'dream' about various musics and our ability to understand them, especially given Gnosticism's constant warning that whatever it is, it means something else; finally, we have a painful obsession about an old love affair, up in flames, because of the inability to hear, to make ears work correctly.

Skepticism. The necessity of it. The pain of it. The confusion.

The skepticism continues in the next stanza, with Mackey writing that where words point is "not beside the point though almost." What do we have if not words? Mackey also negates "we": the we of romance, of nation, of collectivity. "Rethought what Andoumboulou / meant."

The next stanza seems to be just this rethinking. We have a "squat world," a "failed creation" — which links the Andoumboulou with the Gnostics. Perhaps words and meaning can be found in the very travail of the search, "voice / borne up by what ailed it."

But it doesn't end there. By the end of the stanza words and voices are connected to blood and obliquity.

In the next stanza we again see an attempt to work out of the despair of extreme skepticism and isolation: "Revelled in what once we lamented." While "the dense woods mocked us," "we imagined we rode, running / in place." I don't know what sort of consolation this is, but it seems something. This is a groping, searching, popping poem engaging the intangibles of the most nuanced and subtle differences, which make all the difference.

Mackey now makes a big break in the poem, beginning it again about halfway down the next page underneath a horizontal line. Here, we seem alienated from music itself: "strummed / harp long ago let go." Only a marinete sings to drummed accompaniement, but "wasted breath, wind battling / wind."

We now have another long break ending with a horizontal line. This time, the entire two stanzas seem to sustain some sort of affirmation, however blunted: "Sound / raveling sound calling itself / eternity." He describes hearing a song whose "head had been / chipped / from stone." Also, a ghost is inside skin.

The secret is Gnostic, is inside, beyond and behind the literal: inside the stone, inside the skin.

The poem ends with Ogun of Two Waters meeting the speaker in his sleep and awkening "me to my slumber." Do we ever not slumber? Is it a matter of alternate slumbers, some being less sticky, offering more insight than others?

We end with two images: one baffles me, it describes a knife in trenchwater. The second is a repeated image that we saw earlier in this poem: "Stone / hoisted on / stone." We have just seen that with the right chip, song comes from stone. It does contain life, if we proceed with care and caution.

And stone can be hoisted on stone. We can build, even though we can never fully 'know' a stone. To do so would be to chip it to nothing. But we can know the chips, the glintings, some of the waters and flames that are there.

For the first time in this series, Mackey seems to be fully addressing the cross-cultural difficulties his poems raise, and the aesthetic and intellectual (and perhaps personal?) stakes go much higher. These types of poems are what drew me to this series in the first place, and this careful reading of them is only increasing my appreciation.

We are in the set of poems Mackey calls 'strick' —
any of the bast fibers made ready to be drawn into a continuous strand of loose wool, flax, or cotton, ready for drawing and twisting.

These poems are the fibers, that can later be twisted together.

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