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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Nathaniel Mackey's "Strick" Poems

[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 four 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.]

Nathaniel Mackey,
within his larger poetic series, Song of the Andoumboulou, entitles a sub-series of poems "Strick." They are Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25.

“Strick” is a word for various types of fibers that can be woven into rope, clothing, ship’s sails, any number of things.

Why might Mackey have given this series of poems, appearing within a larger series, this name?

Mackey himself uses the word “weaving” to describe his poetry. He does this in relation to what is referred to as the "creaking of the loom" in Dogon culture, which is a metaphor for language, cross-culturality, and anti-foundationism more generally. The creaking of the loom is "the noise upon which the word is based, the discrepant foundation of all coherence and articulation, of the purchase upon the world fabrication affords. Discrepant engagement, rather than suppressing or seeking to silence that noise, acknowledges it. In its anti-foundational acknowledgment of founding noise, discrepant engagement sings "bass," voicing reminders of the axiomatic exclusions upon which positings of identity and meaning depend" (Discrepant Engagement 19).

Fibers are first raw, and single. Then they are woven through creaking of the loom. At the other end the fibers are again loose.

The act of reading poems in “Strick” is the weaving and woven fibers: on either side of the loom the fibers are singular and merely bundled.

This raises an immediate question: if the “Song of the Andoumboulou” poems before the “Strick” poems are like a bunch of fibers, how could they be poems, which, according to the metaphor, are woven?

Weaving involves creaking: imagine how a wind finds its way through the fibers in a woven sweater. Poems breathe. In addition, woven fibers break down, so that as we move on in reading, the former poems can give way and be reformed both in our memories and in the unfolding of the poems' concerns and obsessions.

“Song of the Andoumboulou” is both a poem of a lifetime, and forever breaking down and beginning anew.

This is borne out in the form. While the parts of all poems are dependent and independent of each other, Mackey makes more use of this interconnection, this weaving, this pourousness.

The “Strick” poems as a whole are both dependent on and independent of the other poems in "Song of the Andoumboulou." The individual poems in “Strick” are both dependent on and independent of the other poems. The sections of the poems, separated by dots and horizontal lines, are both dependent and independent of each other. The stanzas are both independent from and dependent on each other: and so are the very lines of the poem.

See this Mackey poem: Andoumboulou 21. This is a part of “Strick."

Notice this stanza break btween "outside..." and "It was a train." In these ways it is a standard break: 1) it skips a line; 2) there is a change in focus, from the scenery to the setting on a train.

In these ways it is not a typical stanza break. 1) The word "outside," followed by an ellipse, is a wisp of a line — indented, one word, the ellipse signaling us to slow down or that something is missing. The first stanza closes quietly with it.

2) The second stanza retains this wispiness by being in the passive tense, but it is also more of a specific statement of fact rather than impressions. The indentation further breaks it from the short line above.

Mackey's stanzas often draw to a close in this way. In addition, even inside his stanzas, as you can see in this poem, he will place single words toward the right margin, creating quasi-stanzas.

This is the essential point: even in most avant-garde poems, the edges and distinctions between formal elements are quite distinct. A series of poems is a series of poems. Think of Oppen's Discrete Series. A stanza is a block of lines. A line break is where the poet absolutely chooses to break the line: there is no such thing as a partially broken line.

Mackey breaks this rigidity down. Sup-series can be in poetic series. Poems coming right after one another can sometimes be quite distinct, and sometimes seem like a continuation.
Sections of the poem are divided by dots or horizontal lines. Stanzas, as we have seen, may or may not be located where he places a single word way on the right margin.
Even the lines do not always have a clear beginning and end. How are we to read the indentations?

The result is that Mackey increases the number of formal techniques he can use, and he frequently uses them to smooth out the surface of the poem. It is as if he is playing with a 12-string rather than a 6-string.

The poems seem to glide into and out of jarring, creaking, cultural and semantic areas.

As we undulate down the lines and stanzas of Mackey's poems, the line and stanza breaks are both there and not there. Does the fifth line of Anoumboulou 21 end with or "eternity" or "minha"? The opportunities for subtlety, nuance, and stress increase tremendously with his use of these softening techniques.

This is Bedouin poetics.

I am “allowed” to use this term because Mackey himself brings it up when he names one of his books School of Udhru.

Undulating movement into and out of forms, into new forms, only to have them dissolve. Unwoven strands on either end of the creaking loom, woven strands tight together, but not fused, later, after use, to be unwoven.


The next step is to follow some of these strands through Strick poems so that we can get a better feel for how they work out in particular. Initially, I will see if using a concordance will help me to read across the poems rather than down them, as I have been doing.

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