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Friday, July 24, 2009

Andoumboulou 20

[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.]


What-sayerThe recipient of a narrative. See the epigram to the book by Ellen Basso. Click "here" above.

Oudada — There is a hill in Tunisia named Jebel Ouadada map. However, both Jeff Gray and Megan Simpson in the Spring 2000 Callaloo claim that it is a mythical place of Mackey's creation that stands for an aboriginal collective. Is this corroborated by anything Mackey said in an interview? I don't know.

Onem would seem to be another such mythical place.

Ciskei — a homeland in South Africa during apartheid.

Qareeb — on I have located a number of albums that seem to come from the Arab world and use this word somewhere in the name of the performer. Does it suggest musical performer?

"People Get Ready" — A 1965 hit song by the Impressions, written by Curtis Mayfield. "Part of the March on Washington's legacy is its music. Singer and songwriter Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" was written in the year after the march. For many, it captured the spirit of the march -- the song reaches across racial and religious lines to offer a message of redemption and forgiveness." — NPR

Pres — Lester "Prez" Young, tenor saxophone great, known for, among other things, his playing behind (with) Billie Holiday

Abdel Salim — Sudanese musician
The key lines to this eight-page poem appear in the second stanza: "brought, bought, /sold / on blocks." This is a poem that explores some of the world-wide implications of slavery in the Americas.

The first two sentences spit back at an unidentified "he." "Whatever he said I would / say so what." He then approaches slavery elliptically in this first stanza: "Boated whether / we came by train or by / bus." "Boated" in this context I think points to the middle passage, which left Africans feeling "where we were might 've / been the moon." It is important also to note that all other forms of transportation — train, bus — were preceded by and conditioned by the middle passage.

"Bleak / survival egged us on." I take it that the "us" refers to enslaved Africans and their descendants in the new world. Strange images such as a "tin bird," "a spectral advance" and a "peripatetic spur" suggest a haunting relentlessness, and always shifting perception.

It is also, of course, cruel: thinking they were on the way to the aboriginal haven of Ouadada, they instead found themselves in Dadaoua. This anapestic maneuver not only highlights the outlandish cruelty of slavery, but uses a European word, Dada, to get at it. The absurdities and cruelties of Europe, "Dada," upend the African haven of Ouadada.

The word "peripatetic" is used again to emphasize this strangeness: first they are on a train, then in a tavern, then a mind that cannot settle anywhere. Until one horrible, half-given image concretizes power: "South, more / news of slaughter. Something / we saw we hoped we only / imagined we saw." I take it that a lynching is being described, and it is essential that we note Mackey's elliptical approach to it. I take it that the accumulation of highly specific details works into a realization on the part of the reader. This South is a confusing place in addition to being horrible: "words meaning / more / than the world they / point at." This connects with the (non)description of the lynching by emphasizing the gap between word and idea.

However, we need to see that Mackey is doing more than unhinging the signifier from the signified. He is placing language, with its inconsistencies, its overreaching, its inabilities, its instabilities, into the horror of slavery.

The final stanza in this portion of the poem points to an uprising, "People Get Ready." Sitting on a train, "we / glimpsed, / 'not yet' yelled at every / stop / Stone rail. Stone clime. Stone / motion." The 'not yet' is, I take it, a reference to the 'go slow' slogan of Southern whites during Civil Rights. Also, a "Beast in kin's clothing" is mentioned, and a reference is made to Ciskei, a portion of South Africa where Joshua Oupa Gqozo's troop's fired on members of the African National Congress on September 7th 1992, known as the Bisho Massacre. 28 members of the ANC died. Black people were slaughtering each other.

The rest of the stanza contains images of slave escape: "Went to run but what was /now most real was the 'away / from.'" And the horns (I assume those associated with bloodhounds) wooed the unready, i.e. kept those too scared from running just yet.

And where did they want to run to: the aboriginal collective, Ouadada. Ouadada is either a hill in a desert in Tunisia, or a mythic place of Mackey's creation. Either way, these people could not find what they were running for because it didn't exist.

There was no freedom in America, even north of the Ohio River.

Mackey starts the next stanza about halfway down the next page and underneath a horizontal line. Obviously, he is clearly demarcating this portion of the poem from what came before.

The central metaphor of the stanza is again a train, which now more clearly than ever is the underground railroad. Confusion still remained -- "wondered was it even a train we were on" — and dreamtime. There is a dreamt image of a kiss on an in-flight movie. Why does Mackey collapse time in this manner, by including images of airplane flight with images of slavery? Perhaps, because African Americans still are on the underground railroad, and their having to be there may always haunt our national consciousness. Mackey is moving in mythic time, not linear time. And both mythic and linear time are, in many ways, more 'real' to us than clock time.

To illustrate this, I can pose a simple question: what is a more emotional experience, to hear that it is one o'clock or to hear at this time the runaway slaves arrived safely into freedom? In our culture we are often encouraged to think of the tools of science, such as a clock, as more real than our own feelings, thoughts, and gleanings. It follows that Mackey's use of mythic time is, in many ways, more in keeping with how we move around in time during our everyday affairs.

He ends the stanza by referring to "the collective kiss we called Ouadada." This time, Ouadada is even more qualified as a destination. The lines after it read "Leapt / across / unwon space, pure / caprice."

"Caprice"? "unwon space"? Is this what Mackey is calling the territory the slaves escaped to?

In the next, long stanza Mackey continues to discuss the underground railroad and its implications. Now, he seems to focus on one family, "an awayness / receding as fast as / he approached." I assume the "awayness" refers to the distance to the plantation from which the former slaves were escaping, and that "he" is the slave catcher in hot pursuit.

The stanza is long, bending its way back and forth down the page, perhaps mimicing the difficult and continuous journey, punctuated by stops, but emotionally draining all the time. Within the stanza I have some trouble with the early imagery. He discusses a plain, flat, and "Raz," which would seem to be a god of some sort, with "e on the end." Making it "Raze." Was the plain the result of a razing, a purposeful destruction and flattening of property to expose the escaping slaves?

In the middle lines of the stanza Mackey focuses on the harrowing ride, "conductorless," "ghost." Finally, in some more accessible lines, Mackey describes what I take to be a male and female runaway in a shed for the night: "sophic / skirt with him under / it as if it was a / tent, pitched as / would a note be." This 'him' I assume is performing cunnilingus on wisdom. There is a wish throughout this sentence that "wood be water," that dryness give way (cunnilingus), that water to freedom appears (Ohio River, Niagara River) out of the woods.

Again, the next couple stanzas are placed on the next page beneath a horizontal line. They take on a whole different group of images, notably, a scroll that is red, yellow, and green, the colors of the Ethiopian and Mali flags, among others. Disembarcation and abjuration are also a part of this stanza: I believe that he is referring to people abjuring their U.S. citizenship and going back to Africa, perhaps with Marcus Garvey.

Again, we have the big break that goes on to the next line and has a horizontal line above it. The image cluster here brings in parts of what show up earlier in the poem: wood turning to water, a hut (this time burning), a "white wreck," and the word "razed" shows up. The stanza ends with "had we had our way." However, Mackey does not give us enough to know either what this "way" is or what would have happened had "we" got it. There is a sadness to these lines: is Mackey thinking the environmental wrecklessness of white people, the wreck of solace, the phosphorus in water? If so, he is linking environmental devastation to slavery. He ends the stanza with a wistful "had we had out way."

The following stanza is incredibly strange and elliptical, about two men, one of whom said he would say nothing and the other whatever popped into his head. Then, they both say "nothing." They do mention that there is a world somewhere but they don't know how to get there. Are they the Andoumboulou, living in the earth, a failed human rough draft who are, in mythical time, also us?

In the final stanza, there is a lot of separation, limits, and borders: rift, asymptotic (study of limits), nearness, rode thru, there, nowhere. Qareeb seems to be the name of a musician in the Arab world, and Prez is the great Lester Young, who played with Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and while leading his own combos. Music seems to be a "way of holding the world at bay" allowing us to get a glimpse of it in passing.

Thoughout this stanza Mackey uses the word "star" and some of its anagrams: Rast, Tsar. Apparently, people are the illusion, not the music, the rasping music of the complex, elliptical, nuanced. "Sudan it seemed it was / we rode thru, / there / nowhere and where we / were." Nowhere else has Mackey so explicitly and accessibly stated that these poems offer gleanings and glancings, glimpses and guesses. There is no way to take the whole offered, not even a way to take a part of a whole. Because there is no whole.

Multiplicity is fundamental.

How do these more metaphysical terms tie into the images with the underground railroad? Is it a concern that Mackey treated slavery in such an elliptical manner? Why are these disparate concerns contained in one poem?

All for later.

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