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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Nathaniel Mackey's Andoumboulou #22

[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.]


Allusions / Definitions
Hieratic —
Reft -
past participle of reave: Archaic 1. To seize and carry off forcibly, 2. To deprive (one) of something; bereave.
Ogun - To oversimplify, he is the Voodoun god of iron, war, and politics. Hit the link in order to learn more about this complicated figure.
Woodshedding - an extended private period of practice by a jazz musician
Anabatic - Relating to warm, rising wind currents, especially those that are driven up the slopes of hills, mountains, and peaks. When air comes in contact with the warm ground surface, the air heats up, becomes less dense, and rises upward. Anabatic winds are especially common during the daytime in fair weather conditions.
Bruit - transitive verb, Date: 15th century, meaning "rumor"
Fez - third largest city in Morocco. In the central part of the country and fairly north.
Tetua - Northern Moroccan city with architecture and culture that is similar to the Andalusian region of southern Spain.


What's most striking about the early lines in the poem is the way Mackey brings together the sacred, "hieratic," with sex — "graspable waist, sinewy limbs, see-thru / cloth." Next, he brings together sex with astronomy: "looked up her / dress. Saw planets, furtive hair, / the insides of thighs."

Next, he collapses the distinction between a tree and a ladder: "Sometimes / called it a tree, sometimes called / it a ladder." Finally, the antecedents of "we," "him," and "I" are intentionally left not particularly clear. All we know is that a he is checking a she out (with her encouragement, as we later learn.)

In the second stanza Mackey continues his reflection on the sameness of trees and ladders. It seems that he fills in some of the details from the images left undeveloped in stanza one: "She took me / aside...Called it a tree [...] they left the train / to pick / fruit from...Knew he'd be / looking, she said, gave him an / eyeful." This is connected to a magical image of a loquat tree pulling itself out of the ground and shaking the fruit off. Again, this is between the he and the she, but not the I.

Somehow, looking up her dress is a vision into death. "Woven of / sun, sun woven of cloth inflaming their / bodies, a glimpse he said she gave / him into what lay beyond the grave. / 'Some / ride it sounds like' was all I could say." The reference to the sun is somewhat literal, because in the first stanza of the poem we learn that the sun was behind her and illuminating the underside of the dress. The ride being referred to is the way the he and she held on to the loquat tree when it pulled itself up. Why is a vision up a dress a glimpse of an afterlife? I simply don't know.

This 'I' becomes quite isolated from the he and the she, who seem to become lost in their attraction to one another and their kinship with nature. He longs for their "reft eloquence" that would seem to pull them into verbal arenas well beyond their experience.

After a break signaled by a dot, making it stronger than a mere stanza break, Mackey continues the reflection on branches, leaves, and a billowing dress.The he is attempting to bring to language what he saw when looking up the skirt. By this point in the poem, it should be noted, that the underside of that dress has been connected to sex, seduction, trees, ladders, magic, and fruit.

He does begin to speak, but it is not particularly effective, it might be "dreamt of pretended." And what is it? In typical Mackey sleight of hand, thinking something may lie in back of the phenomenal realm may be an illusion. Perhaps surface is all we have.

"Ythmic sway" the he says, unable to even fully pronounce words. He becomes a new recruit "into Ogun's unruly way." Are Ogun's warlike tendencies being pointed to?

In the final stanza of this section we see the she playing a flute under a tree in an action musicians call "woodshedding": an extended period of private practice. Winds and rumors and wings are referenced, but what seems the most striking is the poem's claim that the he and she became a couple because each saw a child in the other.

We end with a reference to Gnostic remains, which should put us in mind of the lines earlier that question whether or not there is illusion, which is a profound question since it would deny the central tenet of Gnosticism: this is a world made by an evil demiurge that is an illusion compared to the true realm of God.

A final image gives me real trouble: "wed short of / wood becoming water, wrought wood out/ of water." I can only connect this with the images early in the poem that collapse tree and ladder, natural wood and wrought wood. Perhaps it is referencing the practice of soaking wood in order to bend it.

The next section of the poem begins halfway down the next page under a horizontal line. It begins by mentioning, again, the loquat fruit and the impudent pout on a woman who ate some. Then we learn we are no longer on a train, but a bus traveling through Morocco. The poem ends with images of "them" sleeping in the bus, "loquat height let go, //rotting / fruit lay at the foot of the / tree, / having gone to their heads."

This part sounds a little bitter. This is not celebratory intoxication, but exhausted, foolish intoxication.

This is not an easy poem to come to terms with. In spite of several clear threads running throughout — loquat fruit and trees; a she, he, and I; sexuality and relationships; tension between the natural and artificial; tension between the illusory and the real — I can't find specific insights about these threads that the poem provides. My guess is that this poem will begin to cohere in light of the poems following it.

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