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Friday, July 3, 2009


[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.]

Christopher Maurer in his preface to Lorca's In Search of Duende, notes that Lorca, after writing his original essay on "Deep Songs" in 1922, met a number of professional cante jondo and flamenco musicians. He could see from observing that these people wrestled with duende at their most intense artistic moments.

As a result, he stripped his theory of some of the more Romantic elements: flamenco is bad, cante jondo is good; city is bad, rural is good, etc. Granted, Lorca did not work with these dichotomies in a uselessly oppositional manner, but his thinking did become sharper.

In his 1933 essay "Play and Theory of Duende" Lorca sees duende as a fertile, grounded source that all art needs to contend with in order to generate true power. It is more important than technique or craft:

"La Niña de los Peines had to tear her voice because ... she had to rob herself of skill and security, send away her muse and become helpless, that her duende might come and deign to fight her hand-to-hand .. Her voice was no longer playing. It was a jet of blood worthy of her pain and her sincerity" (53).

The dichotomy in this essay is not between flamenco and deep song, but between duende and the shallow art that emanates from heartless, bloodless skill.

Lorca does connect duende with some types of religious feeling in this essay. However, the religiosity is grounded and dramatic, not at all transcendental. And, I wonder if Mackey makes much use of this aspect of Lorca's theory.

"Song of the Andoumboulou 17" begins with a direct quotation from this essay: "the rim of the well." Here is the wider context:

"The Duende, on the other hand, will not approach at all if he does not see the possibility of death, if he is not convinced he will circle death's house, if there is not every assurance he can rustle the branches borne aloft by us all, that neither have, nor may ever have, the power to console.

With idea, with sound, or with gesture, the Duende chooses the brim of the well for his open struggle with the creator. Angel and Muse escape in the violin or in musical measure, but the Duende draws blood, and in the healing of the wound that never quite closes, all that is unprecedented and invented in a man's work has its origin.

The magical virtue of poetry lies in the fact that it is always empowered with duende to baptize in dark water all those who behold it, because with duende, loving and understanding are simpler, there is always the certainty of being loved and being understood; and this struggle for expression and for the communication of expression acquires at times, in poetry, finite characters."

Loving and understanding are simpler with the duende only because of the ongoing struggle with it. And this struggle is of darkness, blackness, from the earth — loam.

Towards the end of the speech Lorca makes a nationalist plea for duende. He claimes that bullfighting is the ultimate struggle with duende, and that virtually all of Spain's important artists have encountered duende. He ends by once again distinguishing duende from the muse and from the angel.

"The Muse keeps silent; she may wear the tunic of little folds, or great cow-eyes gazing towards Pompeii, or the monstrous, four-featured nose with which her great painter, Picasso, has painted her. The Angel may be stirring the hair of Antonello da Messina, the tunic of Lippi, and the violin of Masolino or Rousseau.

But the Duende - where is the Duende ? Through the empty arch enters a mental air blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, seeking new landscapes and unfamiliar accents; an air bearing the odor of child's spittle, crushed grass, and the veil of Medusa announcing the unending baptism of all newly-created things."

The duende is almost diabolical. It never ends, is restless, is immanent in the material process of things, a process that takes baptism from the church and places it in this immanent realm of endless creation, where baptism touches each new thing not with transcendence but with the dirt, loam, the struggles, and the complications.

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