[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.]
Allusions / Definitions
Cerno Bokar (also know as Tierno Bokar) — Bokar (1883-1940) was a Sufi mystic who lived in what is now Mali. He sent missionaries to the Dogon in an effort to convert at least some of the tribe's people. Mackey is probably referring to a rift in the West African Sufi community that the French colonial power used to its advantage.
Most of my information comes from this site: < http://www.tiernobokar.columbia.edu/background.html. As you can see, it's associated with Columbia University.
A biography appeared in 1986, West African Sufi: The Religious Heritage and Spiritual Search of Cerno Bokar Saalif Taal, by Louis Brenner. I am getting some of my knowledge from reviews of the book by William R. Darrow, Lamin Sanneh, C.C. Stewart, Danal B. Cruise O'Brien, Peter Clarke.
This book, of course, appeared well after the poems were written. Did Mackey consult The Life and Teaching of Tierno Bokar: The Sage of Bandiagara (Paris: Editions Présence Africaine, 1957) by Amadou Hampaté Bås?
Sophist — Teaching of wisdom. The name given to pre-Socratic thinkers who were discredited by post-Plato Western philosophy at least until Nietszche.
Kanoun — Arab musical instrument. From what I can tell, similar to an oud.
Sidi Brahim — Algerian red wine.
Hsissen — Apparently, an Algerian musician. I can find nothing more.
Ogo — Dogon trickster god.
Gnaoua — Moroccan musicians
Revenant — Visible ghost that haunts the living.
Imperium — Power, authority
Henna — Flowering plant, used for dying skin and hair in North Africa
In this very ambitious poem Mackey crosses the Strait of Gibralter and connects the culture of Southern Spain to Morocco and West Africa. Of course, it helps to keep in mind that Spain was conquered by the Moors for a number of centuries before 1400.
The poem begins where the last one left off: In the Long Night Lounge. However, this time it is given two more names: "Wrack Tavern" and "Inn of Many Monikers." This comes after a fascinating opening sentence that places the emphasis on words of logic and strange adjectives rather than the weak verb and subject: " Notwithstanding we stood miragelike, / outless the world he'd have / given regardless, / Ahtt were it / otherwise." (my italics) 'Notwithstanding' is a word of rhetoric and logic, it concedes some sort of point before making a stronger one. But the concession in this case leads only to self-erasing words: since a mirage is the word for an appearance that is not real, "miragelike" would refer to the likeness of a likeness, removing us one step further from what was an illusion in the first place; by its very nature the suffix 'less' negates the word in front of it, so does "outless" mean "in," or is it referring to a liminal place; "world" is used in an unusual way because it's not clear how a tiny somone can give a world; "Ahatt" we learn in one of Mackey's interviews is an anagram for "that" which serves here, in part, as a name.
What does this all add up to? A scene that language cannot get at except through indirection and angles so severe as to virtually cancel out what is there. Does this sentence give us anything other than this sense of cancelling? I believe so. It gives as the liminility of being like an appearance, in a region perhaps between out and in, a place where letters still have provisional meaning, even when their order is shuffled.
In the next few lines we get the association of language with the body — "skin," "flesh eloquence"; the allusion to Cerno Bokar and the book, perhaps the Koran; finally, the wisdom, apparently associated with Bokar, that rattles the stranger as he spoke, "bits of glass / puncture his lips." We move here from language, wisdom and speaking being connected to the body, to severe pain.
We quickly switch to a Sophic "thigh," "belly," "butt," "sway," and "midriff" (among other body parts) causing the stranger to be "taken out." He lets out a sound beneath the level of language, obviously sexual, a sound that even haunted its maker, in addition to the "she," "I," and "we" that are, in some inexplicable way, present.
We end with the sound of a muted kanoun blowing through "our bones."
The first half of this poem weaves together that aspect of language situated in the body, sexuality, and primal responses with the seemingly sacred: the sufi mystic. And this Sufi mystic was brought down by doctrinal disagreements that the French used to their political advantage.
The religious pulled to the earthly.
There is nothing in the first section of the poem that suggests Bokar is a transcendental figure, even though he is seen as such by some traditions.
After the stanza break the lounge changes names again, this time to Blue Sufi, and in the lounge they sip an Algerian red. An Algerian musician hits a "note no / one knew existed," a song associated with the Andoumboulou, the rough draft of human beings living in the earth (Dogon mythology), and the Dogon god of mishchief. Moving north from Mali, to Algeria, the mysterious Moroccan musicians known as the Gnaoua.
This is a classic cross cultural moment, one that brings together strands of culture from Spain to the horn of Africa — "whirled, unravelling, whir." There is a sense that something is happening, but to fully grasp it is beyond us. (Wisdom hurts.)
What's more, wisdom appears in the form of a woman, Sophia. Only this woman is not Greek, but Algerian, and she describes herself as a "Bedouin hick." Once again, Mackey insists on decentering the Eurocentric worldview, emphasizing the wisdom of the conquered and colonized "hicks."
It's not clear who Sophia is interested in: All we know is that his middle name is "music." The result is that, whoever the male half of 'they' is, "events had brought them to this." A place where wisdom, language, music and sexuality ("sway of / palms / and of hips") all caress, embrace, creak, cut and thrum inside and outside the body ("outless.)"
The languages are many, the wisdom from various hicks, the music from a variety of West African and Southern European cultures, and the sexuality attached as much to culture — "henna," "Bedouin" — as it is to primal urges.
The word "wrack" has appeared throughout the poem.The poem ends by wondering about a possible qualified "salvage." We might learn what 'salvage' refers to in Mackey's shifting, dynamic, and "miragelike" world in the poems to come.
From: Michael Weaver
Sent: Jul 22, 2009 12:39 PM
To: Jefferson Hansen
Subject: Wrack Tavern
Here's a possibly useful gloss on NM's Wrack Tavern/Inn of Many Monikers figures, the only one I've ever been able to find:
"One could liken the journey within the Haqiqat, within the Truth, to training in a divine university, the Tavern of Ruin (Kharabat). In this true center for higher education there are no professors, one's only guide being Absolute Love. Before a perfect being enters this university, he or she can be defined. However, upon entering the Truth, such a being is indefinable, beyond the realm of words."
Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, In the Tavern of Ruin: Seven Essays on Sufism