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Friday, September 11, 2009

Nathaniel Mackey's Songs of the Andoumboulou 23-25

[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.]

These three poems are the final ones in a sub-series within the Songs of the Adoumboulou that is entitled "Strick." I will discuss this series as a whole in my next post on Mackey. For now, I will just focus on these three poems.

Wings of a Dove — Could he be referring to the classic country song by this title, written by Ferlin Husky? It is a Christian song that makes reference to Noah.

Bamako — Capital and largest city in Mali.

The Station Hotel — Attached to this hotel in Bamaka are the passenger railway yard and a bar where traditional and contemporary Mali muscians performed.

Cerno Bokar
"Tierno Bokar (1875–1939) was a Sufi sage, a member of a distinguished clan, and a spiritual leader in his village in Mali. His clan, exponents of repeating a Sufi prayer 12 times, was embroiled in a debate with a rival clan that advocated repeating it 11 times, a debate that devolved into a conflict over power and leadership in the Tidjani Sufi Order. When Tierno eventually became a follower of Hamallah, a member of the rival clan, he was cast out by family, relatives and clan, branded a traitor, and forbidden to teach or pray publicly. His enemies further ostracized him by collaborating with the colonial powers, portraying him as a fomenter of rebellion against French rule. Tierno died impoverished and isolated."

— "The Mande people are very magical in nature. This can be mostly attributed to the nyamakalaw subgroup; an endogamous people who are born with the inherent ability to control nature. The power they are able to wield so well is called nyama. In fact, their name nyama-kala could be translated as handlers (kala) of nyama. The Mande see nyama as a hot, wild energy that is the animating force of nature. Nyama is present in all the rocks, trees, people and animals that inhabit the Earth. It is similar to the Western notion of the soul but is more complete than that. It controls nature, the stars and the motions of the sea. Nyama is truly the sculptor of the universe..."

See also
, "a Nyamkala griot [is] a highly trained musician whose traditional job is to carry the knowledge of the people from person to person and generation to generation. He sees himself in direct opposition to the more popular notion of a griot as a popular storyteller and praise singer, or as a street musician and beggar, both images that have come to be common throughout West Africa

Shaykh Hamallah
— Cerno Bokar became a follower of this Sufi master, thereby alienating his people.

Gassire's Lute
— A West African folktale. This is a translation by Marcus Garvey. There are others.

Salif Keita
— "Salif Keita is an internationally recognized Afro-Pop singer and song writer from Mali. He is unique not only because of his reputation as the Golden Voice of Africa, but because he is an albino and a direct descendant of the founder of the Mali Empire, Sundiata Keita. Keita was born on August 25, 1949 in the city of Djoliba. He was outcast by his family and ostracized by the community because he was an albino, a sign of bad luck in Mandinka culture. He left Djoliba for Bamako in 1967, where he joined the government sponsored Super Rail Band de Bamako."

Djelimady Tounkara — "Djelimady Tounkara is one of the foremost guitarists in Africa. Born in the culturally rich town of Kita, east of the Malian capital, Bamako, Djelimady grew up surrounded with traditional music played by members of his family. The Tounkaras are griots, musicians and historians by birth. Djelimady played djembe drum and ngoni, a banjo-like lute, as a boy. When he moved to Mali's capital, Bamako, during the 1960s, he had actually planned to work as a tailor. But music proved a stronger calling. He started playing guitar in a large, government-sponsored neighborhood band, Orchestre Misira. Voted the best guitarist in the band, Djelimady was selected to join the Orchestre National as rhythm guitarist, a great honor for the young player. The band's solo guitarist in those days was multi-instrumentalist Keletigui Diabate, who is known today as one of the most accomplished balaphone players in West Africa. Djelimady established himself early on as a guitarist capable of evoking the griot's three major traditional instruments--the ngoni, the balaphone, and the kora--on guitar. From the first time he performed solo on the national radio station, his mastery of tradition and his innovative approach to the guitar were evident to all...."

— the Sorcerer King of Sosso

What-Sayer — In epigraph to the whole book What Said Serif, Ellen Basso is quoted from her book A Musical View of the Universe: "...The what-say may be someone who asked to be given the narrative [of a story] or the recipient of a story that exemplifies explanatory principles needing clarification..."

loquat — "
A tree of moderate size, the loquat may reach 20 to 30 ft (6-9 in), has a rounded crown, short trunk, and woolly new twigs. The evergreen leaves, mostly whorled at the branch tips, are elliptical-lanceolate to obovate lanceolate, 5 to 12 in (12.5-30 cm) long and 3 to 4 in (7.5-10 cm) wide; dark-green and glossy on the upper surface, whitish-or rusty-hairy beneath, thick, stiff, with conspicuous parallel, oblique veins, each usually terminating at the margin in a short, prickly point. Sweetly fragrant flowers, borne in rusty-hairy, terminal panicles of 30 to 100 blooms, are white, 5-petalled, 1/2 to 3/4 in (1.25-2 cm) wide. The fruits, in clusters of 4 to 30, are oval, rounded or pear-shaped, 1 to 2 in (2.5-5 cm) long, with smooth or downy, yellow to orange, sometimes red-blushed, skin, and white, yellow or orange, succulent pulp, of sweet to subacid or acid flavor. There may be 1 to 10 seeds, though, ordinarily, only 3 to 5, dark-brown or light-brown, angular -ellipsoid, about 5/8 in (1.5 cm) long and 5/16 in (8 mm) thick."

djinn — "In Islam, the djinn are a race of spirit beings that can be good or evil. (Djinn, or jinn, is the origin of the more familiar word "genie" in English.) "

Raz — Perhaps an anagram for Zar — ""The purpose of the Zar ceremony is to cure mental illness through contact with the possessing spirits which cause maladies. Though there are several methods for dealing with psychological disturbance, the Zar is the last resort which is supposed to have powerful therapeutic effect for several kinds of ailments," writes John Kennedy in Nubian Ceremonial Life. "

Dadaoua — Both Jeff Gray and Megan Simpson in the Spring 2000 Callaloo claim that this is an anagram of ouadada, 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.Aaccording to Jeff Gray, ""Dadaoua," an anagrammatic "turning-around" of "Ouadada," echoes also the "real" ... The counterpart to the Ouadada / Dadaoua turn-around is precise here, ..."

A Night in Tunisia — Jazz standard, written by Dizzy Gillespie and with its roots in the bebop era.

Rasp — This is a word that Mackey frequently uses to refer to the friction of cross-cultural encounters, the creaks and nomadic tendencies in language, and the way the Dogon singers sound on "Song of the Andoumboulou"
"Chant des Andoumboulou"("Song of the Andoumboulou")Dogon Song, from the album Le Rituel Funeraire (Songs Of The Living - The Funeral Rites) (5:29): MP3" to be found on the Mackey page of PennSound

Oub'da — from
Jeff Gray - "Beyond the Letter": Identity, Song, and Strick ... "The a that troubles the spelling is a convention of the French prefixes established in Ouadada, Ouagadougou (often spelled Wagadougou), and Ouab'da."

Zar — This is all I could find: "a pagan religious custom, apparently originating in central Ethiopia during the eighteenth century, later spreading throughout East Africa and North Africa. Zār custom involves the possession of an individual (usually female) by a spirit. It is also practised in southern Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East. A featured Musical instrument in the Zār ritual is the tanbura, a six-string Lyre which, like the Zār practice itself, exists in various forms in an area stretching from East Africa to the Arabian Peninsula. Other instruments include the mangour, a leather belt sewn with many goat hooves, and various percussion instruments. The Zaar cult served as a refuge for women and effeminate men in conservative, Muslim-dominated Sudan.

Hurqalya — An important setting in the Ba'hai faith. "The Shaykhis believed, that between the physical world and the spiritual world, there exists an intermediary world called Hurqalya (from the Greek word Huvarkalya) or the world of archetypal images (Alame' Mithal). Everything in this world has its counterpart in the world of Hurqalya. Each individual being has two bodies - one of which exists in the physical world and one in Hurqalya. The occulted, but living Twelfth Imam and the cities of Jabulqa and Jabulsa, where he is supposed to live, all exist in the realm of Hurqalya. "

School of Udra — From the back of the Mackey book of poems of this title: "School of Udhra takes its title from the Bedouin poetic tradition associated with the seventh-century Arab poet Djamil, the Udhrite school of poets who, "when loving die." Bedouin tradition, however, is only one of the strands of world revery these poems have recourse to. They obey a "bedouin" impulse of their own-fugitive, moving on, nomadic"

"Hollow be my name" — Play on the line from the Christian lord's prayer, Hallowed by thy name. Mackey's phrase seems to echo Gnostic suspicion of the God of the Bible.

atavistic — The return of a trait or recurrence of previous behavior after a period of absence.

pa'l monte — "Vamanos Pa'l Monte" is the title of an early '70's recording by salsa star Eddie Palmieri. Is this what Mackey is referring to?


In interviews Mackey makes clear that the sections of "The Songs of the Andoumboulou" are permeable: the end of one poem and the beginning of another signals something new, but it is rarely a break. Similarly, such permeable sections exist within poems. Sometimes Mackey will set off a section of a poem by a dot. Other times he goes to more extremes: he makes a page break, and then continues the poem under a horizontal line that appears some distance down on that page. There are definitely formal and thematic shifts that occur with this sectioning. But things reoccur as well. Click here to see an online poem at the Poetry Foundation website that uses these techniques.

Whatsaid Serif begins with a group of nine poems given the name "strick." Strick refers to hemp or another type of reed that is good for weaving and creating rope. More on this in a subsequent post.

The final three poems of the "Strick" series is what I will concern myself with today. They are "Song of the Andoumboulou 23-25."

Throughout "Strick" there is traveling: on railroad, on bus, on plane, on the underground railroad. We begin where we left off in Andoumboulou 22, on a bus. But here, while a 'cut', a song, plays on the boombox, we have a specific destination: The Station Hotel in Bamako, the capital and largest city in Mali.

Somehow, Mackey has a vision of Cerno Bokar climbing aboard the bus, and then transitions into his story (see above), and his difficulties when he became a disciple of Shaykh Hamallah. He sees the warring elevens and twelves jihading on the bus.
He continues the story as he moves to a new setting: the bar at the Station Hotel. In fact, the band there "reminded us" of this story of doctrinal splitting and betrayal.

After a dotted break, he describes Cerno Bokar coming aboard again and he "called / war the male muse." Bokar then seems to join up with a chorus of contemporary African musicians: Nyamakula flutes, Keita, Kante, Djelimady Tounkara.

Mackey earlier describes the musicians as "Souls in motion, conducive / to motion, too loosely / commected to be called a / band." Then he inserts Bokar's tale into the music, points out war as a "ruse" — punning on "muse," that "boast and belittlement" were tossed back and forth, that Tounkara's guitar is compared to Gassire's bloody lute, "Tenuous Kin we called / our would-be band, Atthic Ensemble."

How are we to take this violent music?

The answer, if we are to be given one, is not given immediately.

After a dotted break, we are back on a train, "hovering" between book and not book, what and not what, train and not train, ready and unready. Also, there is an unidentified character 'insisting a story lay behind the story," but the voice of the poem insists a story named "Ever After" is in front of where this is. What is certain? We are in an epistemological and narratological crisis. What is the character of this specific crisis?

After a dotted break, Mackey discusses a "Beginningless book" and a musician feeling "as if all want were in his holding / a note only a half-beat / longer." He is addressing desire: the way we can feel, in our artistic creations, that we almost got it just right. But this is delusion. The nature of desire is mutation, substitution, and frustration: it's object is so unnattainable that we should perhaps think of desire as simple somatic energy, without specific objects, but with signposts, with glintings, with wonderings: "no book of a / wished else."

How do we put this all together?

The first section begins by punning on "cut" as both a song on a record and the schism of Sufi's that Cerno Bokar was in the middle of. Music and violence are interwoven. This is continued in the second section, where contemporary African musicians are brought into contentious, bloody, dialogue with Cerno Bokar. The third introduces the notion of hovering between opposites, "people ever about to get ready, unready." This "ever" hovering between opposites I take as the endlessness of desire.

The fourth and final section emphasizes this endless of desire, "the where / we / thumbed" — perhaps an image of hitchhiking, but certainly an image of moving, of "thumbing through."

Music will not carry us to a pure state beyond desire and contention. No art will. No story will. We are where we are, and it will never end, even after we die discussions of us will continue amid the desire and contention.

"Andoumboulou 24" takes us back onto the bus. The passengers mus go into a field to pee. Then he writes of "The world's raw want, could it all have / been so compressed," bringing us back to the issue of desire. The desire turns graphically sexual when "one whom love set / wandering" performs a bloody form of cuninlingus.

Into this dangerous situation the what-sayer steps. I am a little confused about what happens next, but it seems that "we for / whom the word was long dead...woke up to a new life." This raw, bloody desire is perhaps what it takes to get to words, to get to language.

The next section of the poem comes after a dot. It tells an elliptical story of heterosexual lovers rnning from a city in ruins, mentions the 8,281,404th beating, "a tale / too inane to be told." This is, I think, the story of violence being banal, simple, and without meaning. Being beaten is being beaten. To say anything else is to offend the pain.

The next section of the poem begins on the next page and under a horizontal line. The violence continues: "boots / to the ribs, batons to the / back."

Sexual violence, created by desire, is brought into relation to political violence. In the last section, this violence is given a place name, Ouab'da, like Abu Ghraib. This is a disturbing poem: Mackey unflinchingly refuses to distinguish the violence of rough sex between what seems to be willing partners and political violence.

Could it be that the very violence of the sexuality opens their desire to the possibility of fresh language, to their "legs bent ready to / spring, hellbent on / heaven, / lit between themselves a star"? But this opening is politically suppressed because it cannot last, it is a "No-Such-Place."

Logicallhy, the fact of political suppression would suggest that, without human intervention, the freshness of language, heaven, and stars that results from intense sexuality, is possible. People, not metaphysical absolutes, decide to oppress the seers.

But I don't think Mackey is this optimistic. I don't think his poems give any sense of a shared, unitary human-ness. We will always be many, and the many cannot become united except by violence. If the many remain many, there will be contested lands and desires. Either way, violence of some sort is inevitable.

The epigram for number 25 reads — "zar" nth part —" The Zar is a religious ceremony described above. Apparently, he is referencing a an unknown part of the ceremony.

This time they are again on a train. The train is not making stops, and is apparently going to an unknown destination. The tone is ominous: "reich," "hitlist," "dismembered" and so on. The tone continues. It is a mournful poem.

Perhaps what is most important is its reference Hurqualya (see above.) In Ba'hai it is an intermidiate world. This puts me in the mind of the hovering he brought up a poem or two ago. It puts me in the mind of the Gnostics who believed the true gospel had to be discerned through the false one Christianity now uses.

In all these instances there is the recognition of slippage, creakiness, and even conflict.

I don't believe Mackey is a secular poet, but I do believe he is an immantist one: his poetry is stuck in the complexities, nuances, and sublties of the desiring, dynamic, evolving and revolving.

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