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I came across Retallack's book under interesting circumstances. I was in Los Angeles to give a salon reading at Sun & Moon Press, and I had the chance to visit John Cage's installation "Rolywholyover A Circus" at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The first room of the exhibition consists of a long table set up for browsing and for playing chess, surrounded by two large cabinets of books and papers (some of which would be changed every day). In fact, at first I smiled knowingly and thought that the two people sitting down playing chess were part of the installation, but as we spoke to one another I realized that they were no more installed than I was. I felt like I had arrived at John Cage's house only to find a note: "I've gone to the country. Make yourself at home. Feel free to browse." The book-browsing was a delight. One of the first books I found was Retallack's Errata 5uite (which, apparently, had just been published). Then, during my stay in L.A., the poet/editor/critic A. L. Nielsen, with whom I was taping a radio show for KSJS, gave me a copy of Retallack's earlier book, Circumstantial Evidence. So, circumstantially, or by chance, my trip to L.A. became a way to realize that Retallack's poetry has now begun to gather in significance, strength, force, and importance. (Such has already been known of her critical intelligence for some time now.)
At once philosophical and playful, intelligent and error-prone, Joan Retallack's Errata 5uite is a remarkable production. Bringing together the errata slip with the five lines of the musical staff, Retallack constructs a space for thinking. Such a space bears kinship to the stanza--that is, it makes a room for thinking; it also asks us to rethink fundamental questions: poetry is a space for what? From the cover art (also by Retallack) to the title (written on a five line staff) to the series of five-line pages, Retallack's is a book which exhibits proudly an awareness of its own constructedness. As one of Cage's favorites, Thoreau, wrote in Walden, "shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?." In terms of Kandinsky's division of modern art into two polarities--expressionist and constructionist--Retallack's work positions itself decisively in the latter camp. Such a commitment marks a considerable shift in her poetry from the earlier work represented in Circumstantial Evidence (1985).
Let me present a sample (as best I can reproduce it) of a typical page
in Retallack's book (though in its layout in the book, both right and left
margins are justified, and there are a few accent marks which my lack of
computer-expertise may not allow me to reproduce):
read for for four last line misting eart aron (of) spoken rhythms untitled add a pronoun what it is/has agitated to a strange and not (for) tensor analytic reads as reads as follows crossing the ford where Emerson saw the sky glad to the brink of fear ybore dislodg-ed enso semiamazia o tics of zero sum ergo blather to rush to race to wander
If poetry, as a heuristic mode of thinking, allows chance, errors, and stammers to figure into its arsenal of what even a compulsively eloquent poet such as Wallace Stevens would call "sudden rightnesses," then the reader of such poetry must learn to inhabit a reading-space which is less rigidly thematized, less linearly insistent than the poetry of most earlier moderns, including Stevens. If there is a recurring "about" in Retallack's book, it is "about" processes of reading--as in the errata slip, recurrently a reading by replacement, "for x read y" (but also more philosophically, "why read?").
In miniature, the passage I have reproduced from Retallack's book enacts many of the possibilities under investigation in _Errata 5uite_. It is the reader, in the rushes and stays of path-making, who enacts these possibilities. If we attend to our own processes in sense-making, and in delight at the disturbance of habitual forms of sense-making, our own phenomenology of reading becomes itself a heuristic device. Oddly, there is an authoritative tone to the errata slip--we are ordered into certain directions of reading and substitution. But the reproduction of the errors themselves introduces a humor opposite (or is it apposite) to the command voice of correction. So that, as in the carefully multiple manuscript-poems of Emily Dickinson, the poems and the passages do not stabilize into their singularly corrected print but remain in their multiply noted directions. Retallack's errata suites equivocate: both the "error" and the "correction" are given voice (or, more accurately, space within which to be printed, and recognized). Within such a field of multiplicity, what Marjorie Perloff in an earlier phase of her scholarship might have called a hymn to possibility, one such hymn, but now in a new context, is that old tune of lyrical epiphany, a pleasing trace which haunts much experimental writing, from that of John Cage to that of Susan Howe. In Retallack's passage, it is the Emersonian moment of the transparent eyeball, glad to the brink of fear, a moment which (by its familiarity) emerges from the welter of Retallack's dense textuality as a kind of comforting narrative release. Oddly enough, rather than Emerson's own sudden retreat from the moment of insight and self-obliteration (back into the conventions of the forward-moving essay), since Retallack's own writing is not premised on self-expression but is (like Cage's) already built on self- erasure, paradoxically, Retallack's fractured langauge allows her/us to enter more substantially and decisively into the realm of Emerson's ecstatic experience and to dwell there by means of a language not tied to syntactical and semantic correctness. We cross the ford into "ybore disoldg-ed enso semiamazia o tics of/ zero sum ergo blather to rush to race to wander." In a sense, Retallack plays Emerson against himself. His own attention to the magical, philosophical properties of the individual word--which Emerson finds to be a fossil holding the traces of certain fundamental truths which we, as inspired readers (and philologists), can decode--now is employed with the attention to the individual word that we'd find in Stein (of Tender Buttons or the Portraits). If the word does have the resources that Emerson claims for it, then much of twentieth century experimental writing has been a literalizing and an exploring of those potentials. To put it politically, such poetry reclaims the rights of the signifier. But those rights are not claimed on behalf of the word as a vessel of truth but on behalf of the word itself (freed of any preconceived obligation to a "higher" truth other than the possibilities of its own particular being).
Many of the finest sections of Errata 5uite are built from the
writings of others. Similar to Cage's process of writing through others,
Retallack's compositions are more a mode of radicalized anthologizing.
That is, she exercises more choice in her selections and builds from them
more willfully. Here is one such example:
art is a mode of prediction not found in charts & statistics (D1) poetry and religious feeling will be the unforced flowers of life (D1) practical socialism consists rather in a correct knowledge of the capitalist (E1) for the sceptics the ideal was to be optimistic (F1) the methodological preeminence that thus belongs to poetry (G1) D1-Dewey/E1-Engels/F1-Foucault/G1-Gadamer
But what is "the methodological preeminence that thus belongs to poetry"? Perhaps as David Antin argued in essays and interviews in the early 1970s, the foundational activity for modernist writing is collage. Perhaps, as in some of Retallack's work, that methodological preeminence comes from and illuminates the acts of reading and recomposing--reading as a means to writing (and writing as a means to reading).
I know that for readers of RIF/T it is not necessary to ask that typically conservative, xenophobic question: "but is it really poetry?". Nevertheless, in relation to Retallack's work in Errata 5uite, I find it profitable to engage some of those square questions again. For example, what do we gain by calling it "poetry"? I think that the term improves our chances of hearing certain kinds of musical relationships among the sounds of the words (as in Retallack's "courage to err and Guess that Mess for read thru authors deranged/ chronologies foretasta alphabeta foreven were earth's inner discontent/ assuaged"). And the term "poetry" seems like a fit occasion for a perhaps vanishing mode of attentive reading, a sort of hyper-alertness. In his provocative and seminal book, Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age (Pittsburgh University Press, 1992), Myron Tuman (by way of George Steiner) describes the changing scene of reading:
'To much of the planet,' writes George Steiner in the essay, 'The End of Bookishness', (1988) 'what I have called the classical act of reading, the private ownership of space, of silence, and of books themselves, never represented a natural or native formula.' For Steiner, changes in our use of space and silence, brought on by changes in electronic technology, all spell the end of a certain book culture, except perhaps as an object of nostalgic yearning. Gone, for example, is the 'circle of silence which enables the reader to concentrate on the text'. And for this Steiner is not entirely sad, for he sees that we have already lost most of the appreciation for the wondrous things contained in books. Book culture, he speculates, may exist in the future as it once existed in a more distant past, as the expression of a coterie, in what he calls 'houses of reading-- a Hebrew phrase--in which those passionate to learn how to read well would find the necessary guidance, silence, and complicity of disciplined companionship.' (10-11)
But the entire argument about the end of book culture, and its replacement by a culture of digitalization and the VDT, often is staged within a very limited conception of the reading processes possible within a book culture. Many of the most productive transgressive reading/writing deeds within the book culture have occurred within the poetry texts of the past one hundred (post-Mallarme) years. And Retallack's own Errata 5uite, in its celebration of "error" as a means to renewed, defamiliarized expression and in its playfully intelligent collagist fusing of multiple texts, creates a hyperspace within the domain of book culture. What is so remarkable about Retallack's book is that the presumably nostalgic gesture of constructing a mode of writing out of contact with the bookish, scholarly errata slip leads into a fractured, playful space of intelligent, speculative thinking. (I am also struck by the irony of my proof-reading my own essay; Retallack's work makes me feel funny as I try to get her cited errors "right.")
Retallack's world of playful substitutions, of crazed phrasing and conflicting semantic intersection, stands in opposition to an expressionist (and distinctly Emersonian) dream of reading as a transcendental moment of pure correspondence. The latter--a romantic myth of reading--is best represented in Wallace Stevens' poem "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm":
The house was quiet and the world was calm. The reader became the book; and summer night Was like the conscious being of the book. The house was quiet and the world was calm. The words were spoken as if there was no book, Except that the reader leaned above the page, Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom The summer night is like a perfection of thought. The house was quiet because it had to be. The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind: The access of perfection to the page. And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world, In which there is no other meaning, itself Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
Stevens' dream is of a world (via reading) of pure correspondence, of such correspondence (presumable of the reader's consciousness with the external world) as constituting an ultimate truthfulness. Retallack's "truthfulness" or fidelity is to a world of much greater contingency--a world of expressive error. Or, in Charles Bernstein's terminology, a world of dysraphism--the stitching together of mismatched parts (to produce a new form of rhapsody). Thus, Retallack composes in what Stein calls the time when the work still is taken to be ungainly and "ugly," a time in which many contemporaries fail to realize that a (truly contemporary) work is still beautiful even when and while it is jarring and odd. In fact, more generally, I would argue that our relationship to eccentric texts enacts a more generalizeable political/social relationship to "otherness."
But to return more directly to the specific excellence of Retallack's
work: her poetry is one of intersecting musics, where the rhetoric and
phrasing of good old Robert Frost meets a critique of mainstream
contemporary poetry's twin dullnesses--predictable scenic writing and
predictably sincere expression:
read ignomine domine flushed with sincerity's ergo sooner or later along the horizon o creaking smiles to go to sleep to rest is history read for an age not so much wrong as abstracht and preliminary the coastal scenic drive to scenic points with almost all left out to know to read the blind reed urgent moist and smooth fore rough & civil
As I read it, the scenic and the sincere profit immensely from erasure, interruption, and discontinuity--else we read only a boring correctness, "o creaking smiles to go to sleep." And as I re-read Retallack's book, I found a passage from Pascal's Pensees--a passage which I was forced to memorize over twenty years ago--bubbling up into impertinent pertinence. Pascal claims, "L'homme n'est qu'un roseau, le plus faible de la nature; mais c'est un roseau pensant." Retallack's passage, and her recurrent juxtaposition of "read" and "reed," makes me think again of Pascal's version of man as "a thinking reed." Retallack's work too offers a thoughtful read, verdant reed/read, as eyes close to the page we learn "to know to read the blind reed urgent moist and smooth fore rough & civil."
Retallack's Errata 5uite provides us with a reading experience of
choices. I begin to hear in my head these kinds of transformations: "the
road not taken" becoming "he rode not talkin" becoming "the road knot
talking." But my form of word-play differs from Retallack's. Errata 5uite celebrates the play of printed exchanges (whereas my passage, and much of my own writing, indulges in puns and other oral/aural forms of
replacement). In Retallack's invigorating stew of playful and sustaining
print, we find
to read read real denied being there at all that is to cause to follow these the choices that make us defacto human bacchae melanesia cafeteria ergot cert to be included a error for mirror interroregnum regulaterrrata p. 8 forementioned bag-O-bugs the gardeners friends late evenings inadverdant soar remarks to others to mak ammendes
We see the Pleiades better by looking slightly away from them; in Retallack's book we read (not exactly in Emily Dickinson's truth told slant) but askew; as in the erotic play of Stein's tender buttons, we touch around and slightly off. And with each particular reading--"inadverdant soar remarks." We, greenly, make amends, pass amendments, read through various emendations--"to follow these/ the choices."
As the last fragment of Retallack's composition (from Wittgenstein's Remarks on Color) asserts and/or asks: "phenomena of seeing.--For whom does it describe them? What ignorance can this description eliminate (W2)". Hers is an infectious world of textual play. It does not eliminate ignorance; instead, she compounds error, and thus earns interest on the original casual investment. Divested of the anxiety of correctness, her suite-music (read sweet music) tolls for the (read thee). It is, then, a phenomenon of seeing which, I imagine, we would do well to listen too. RIFF
(This review will appear in _The Little Magazine, Vol. 20_)
"I an I alone/a trod tru creation"
In Dogon mythology, the egg within which primordial events transpired was divided into two twin placenta, each containing a pair of twin Nommo, who were the offspring of Amma (the first personalized being). Each twin, spiritually, was composed of both male and female principles, though in bodily form was either male or female. In this tradition, earth got off to a bad start: in one placenta the male Nommo, Yurugu, became impatient for birth and forced his way out of the egg prematurely. He tore off a piece of his placenta and with it came hurtling down through space out of the primordial egg. The fragment of placenta became earth, though Amma's plans for creation had been seriously disorganized. The earth was now provided with only a predominantly male soul, which Amma recognized as incomplete and imperfect. Eventually the son recognized this impurity and realized he could not rule the planet without his twin soul. He climbed back to heaven to find her but it was already too late, Amma had handed over Yurugu's twin soul to the other half of the placenta and she could not be found. From that time he has vainly searched for her. Yurugu, returning to earth, began to procreate in his own placenta, that is with his own mother. From this wretched act there came into existence single, incomplete beings sometimes known as the andoumboulou.
The twinning and tearing motifs we see in the Dogon cosmology provide one of the recurring themes throughout the writings of Nathaniel Mackey. In addition to some twenty-five "Song[s] of the Andoumboulou," eight of which appear in _School of Udhra_, there are other indicative passages in the "Outlantish" section _School of Udhra_:
Saw satisfaction in a bed of yeses calling it eelpot. Steeped indignation. Threat. Rhythmic imprint. Wishful, whispered, "Be my twin." Calling it raw, too crude a truth to admit. Desperate. Unrequited. Thicketed rush which if we could we'd outrun... Called it caustic, luminous brew we sip wincing, seed finally free of its husk albeit broken, world an erotic inch out of reachThe passage envisions a bonding ceremony, and a broken seed's release--ritual activity, an unlost pact.
Djbot Baghostus's Run, the second installment of Mackey's ongoing prose work "From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate," begins with a letter by the protagonist N. describing a rehearsal of the Mystic Horn Society (N.'s band) in which the women in the band protest against the consideration of a male rather than a female in the group's search for a new drummer. Dressed identically, the women arrive at the rehearsal together and, before launching into a powerful duet, hand out cards to the men present proclaiming, 'Halve Not, Will Travel.' N., speculating on the scene unfolding around him, muses "...the card had said 'Halve Not.' Not 'have-' but 'halve': meaning, one took it, to divide into two equal parts, to share equally." N. continues, "To what extent, one wondered, did the preemptive concert and catechism rolled into one amount to an arraignment, a charge of inequality, a threat of succession." In this passage twinning and tearing motifs work both separately and together. Eventually the group finds a woman drummer named Drenette who, according to N., when responding to a romantic composition Penguin (a male group member) pens for her, "changed the rhythm he suggested to something more difficult, more complex, polyrhythmic. 'It's about splitting yourself in two,' she said."
Parallel to the twinning and tearing metaphors run a series of images of location and dislocation throughout Mackey's work. "From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate" locates itself in African, Caribbean, Jazz and other cultures whose roots are largely ignored in the United States. The ongoing reports on the doings on N., the Mystic Horn Society, and Jarred Bottle (the band's phantom member) illuminate the music, ritual, and other communal aspects of these people in the music and other conversations between band members. Alternatively, there are definite moments where we read the enormity of the pervasive dislocation of that culture within the dominant culture.
In a chapter entitled "Limbo, Dislocation, Phantom Limb: Wilson Harris and the Caribbean Occasion," from his _Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing_, Mackey describes the situation faced by many of those living in "third" world countries today:
'So on this ground,/write.../on this ground/on this broken ground,' writes Edward Kamau Brathwaite. These lines have to do with the Caribbean condition--fragmentation, dislocation, and so forth. The 'broken ground' is the island topography itself, the separation of the islands from one another as though they were remnants of some larger, sundered whole. It is also the ground of other breakages and a metaphor for such breakages--the broken, alienated labor of slave and descendants of slaves, the ecological breakdown or depletion of the soil due to decades of mono-crop agriculture, the break, albeit partial, with old world homelands, old world histories, old world continuities and 'coherencies,' the further breakage brought about by the collision of cultures under circumstances of enmity and coercion. These lines also have to do with writing, and if one calls to mind the Derridean idea that the very possibility of writing signifies and is indebted to a cosmogonic severance known as differance, one is prepared to understand 'this broken ground' in the way that Harris does. The Caribbean's brokenness participates in a larger-than-local problematic, the universal human predicament Harris calls 'cosmic frailty', an ontological estrangement or weakness the Caribbean writer, having no historically sustained 'coherency' as insulation or defense, is in a position to confess. The problem of large-scale emigration from the Caribbean, for example, the fact that every year an enormous number of West Indians leave home in search of economic, educational, cultural, and other opportunities abroad, is not simply a manifestation of the dependency situation peculiar to the Caribbean but is endowed by Harris, himself an emigrant now living in England, with suggestions of a universal condition of exile. In Idiot Nameless's 'Manifesto of the Unborn State of Exile' in the _Eye of the Scarecrow_ then:
The education of freedom...begins with a confession of the need to lose the base concretion men seek to impose when they talk of one's 'native' land (or another's) as if it were fixed and anchored in place. In this age and time, one's native land (and the other's) is always crumbling: crumbling within a capacity of vision which re-discovers the process to be not foul and destructive but actually the constructive secret of all creation wherever one happens to be.
What Harris, Brathwaite and Mackey seek to employ here is an across-the-globe unification on several levels. We are asked to consider the cosmos, all the various peoples and cultures of the world, and many other foreign territories in the way weconceptualize our species and the way relate to the planet in order to ensure an on-going life cycle.
Kamau Brathwaite, near the end of "Trench Town Rock" (Hambone 10), in a section called "Short History of Dis," writes "By now the Age of Dis. Distress Dispair & Disrespect. Distrust Disrupt Distruction." His statement reflects the results of a systematic oppression and violence inflicted on anyone victimized by racism, colonization, xenophobia, Christianity, and other forces which have contributed to the dispossession of people. The forcible removal of so many Africans to the Caribbean and the Americas was but the first disruption which affected following generations. Plantation and other slaveries, other racially biased atrocities have contributed to further cultural fragmentation and disintegration of African descendants. Certainly the type of work Mackey does is an intellectually based practice aimed at alleviating some of this disrespect by engaging the intensities which make up his cultural/historical and/or mythological background. Mackey's work points out the absences and blindspots both in the literatures to which most Americans are exposed in the educational system and in the culture at large. At the very least his poetic project raises questions about a poetics which has been rendered useless by entities which have upheld an under-emphasis on "third" world cultures and peoples. These are the organs of literature which Don Byrd describes in his essay "Learned Ignorances and Other Defenses" in Sulfur 11, whose function "is to choke intelligence with a kind of irreducible fluff, which absorbs attention in the fascination of stimulus-response psychology." N., in a passage in Djbot Baghostus's Run, criticizes "the patness of the 'shattered I,'" and derides the "currently fashionable notions of a nonexistent self" which has asphyxiated so many people involved with the studies in language and literature over the past three decades in Europe and North America.
There are few writing poetry in English who surpass Nathaniel Mackey's level of sophistication with language, topical inclusiveness and lyrical musicality. At a recent reading in Woodstock, New York, Mackey was introduced as "the Cecil Taylor of poetry," but the opposite might also be said to be true, that Cecil Taylor could be called the Nathaniel Mackey of music. With some exceptions, there are few writers who have taken it upon themselves to attack, untune, and re/turn their songs while retaining an impeccable cohesion in their work the way both Mackey and Taylor succeed in using the chords of their craft. In "Alphabet of Ahtt," a poem from "Outlantish," dedicated to Taylor, a tension released is manifest
Not without hope though how were we to take it as they yelled out, "Nathtess's melismatic ttah?" Not knowing why, we looked straight ahead, shrugged our shoulders, popped out fingers, we could dig it, "What's next?"
Later in the poem the song is tightened and recontextualized:
Made us wonder would it ever do differently, all but undone to've been so insisted on, anagrammatic ythm, anagrammatic myth... Autistic. Spat a bitter truth. Maybe misled but if so so be it. Palimpsestic stagger, anagrammatic scat
In an essay in the 1992 issue of Talisman devoted to the writings
of Nathaniel Mackey, Aldon Neilsen explicitly declares that Mackey
"...has begun the work of reading American poetic culture back
through its African past." Indeed, Mackey's work explores and
celebrates this culture's traditions and mythologies which have, over
the past four centuries or so, been forcibly removed from their
original place of standing. By and large, the ancestry Mackey
engages today normally finds itself re-located, at best, only on the
fringes of the conscience of the dominant culture which enacted this
displacement. However, Mackey's tenses, like those of Charles Olson
before him, "are never past but present and future." Again, from
School of Udhra,
Nut's belly bloated with stars corrupt with gods. Beneath our year's new growth of eyelids unlit eyes kept running come strumming the starlight, stroke night's watery locks
Mackey's books are maps of a large region. In them, he transverses
grounds of literal and figurative forests, fields, and sands he knows
well. His work especially displays intricate knowledge of the desert--
its varieties, its mood, its resources. A literary bedouin, Mackey
invokes and channels the desert dwellers who were, for their
cleverness, the descendents of the spirits--the jinns--that inhabit the
world. Mackey has also inherited a Bedouin's expertise over his
camel--its needs and capacities, and the peculiarities and possibilities
of each animal. Above, there is an example of Mackey's movement to
stretch the boundaries of language ("Nathtess's melismatic/ttha?")
while at the same time tying it to something earthly
("anagrammatic/scat"). In another passage from _School of Udhra_, the
word play continues, as do the earthly images of bonding (twinning)
and alienation (tearing):
covered we were and by that touched "I-ness" to "I-ness," inward, wombed inducement arced into "us-ness," otherness, nothingness, Nephthys, Nut... Inductees into the academy of N'ahtt
Those familiar with Mackey's work already know its particular and special place in literature of North America today. Defiant of any simple categorization, his vision is a hybrid of living ethnopoetics and musical and spiritual influences which are deeply rooted in a beleaguered but surviving African continent. These cultures, which inspired Jerome Rothenberg in the PRE-FACE of Technicians of the Sacred to pronounce "Primitive Means Complex," are invoked and serve as inspiration to Mackey, whose most direct literary forbearers would be Brathwaite and Harris. In their revitalization the geopsychic space of Caribbean literature, Harris and Brathwaite have extensively engaged Africa's cultural diaspora. They are writers who recognize an ancestral landscape which involves, as Brathwaite writes in an essay called "Timehri," "...the artist and participants in a journey into the past and hinterland which is at the same time a movement of possession into the present and future." Above all, Mackey has absorbed the cries we hear in jazz and tribal music. Coltrane's and other's horns, Jamaica's Tuff Gong, and the wailings of aboriginal tribes all find themselves as revered ingredients in Mackey's work, growing out of the depths of rich and arid African soil.
1993 was a busy year for Mackey's readers. In addition to the anthology Moment's Notice: Jazz In Poetry & Prose (edited by Mackey with Down Beat editor Art Lange; Coffee House Press, 1993. 373 pp. $17.50), new collections of his poetry (School of Udhra), prose (Djbot Baghostus's Run) and literary history/criticism (Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing) were published. It is notable that all of the books, though technically from different "genres," collectively continue to form a dense sounding of Mackey's larger project which includes Hambone, the literary magazine he edits, "Tanganyika Strut," his radio program, and teaching at the University of California-Santa Cruz. In addition to its romantic and lyric qualities, Mackey's work is an immediate encounter with an intense blending of knowledges, mythology, poetic insight and histories from every continent.
Borrowing a phrase which Mervyn Morris once used to describe the spirit of Jamaican dub poet Mikey Smith, Nathaniel Mackey is "a true revolutionary who has fought the struggle not with bullets or guns but with his own culture, with his own livity." Mackey's prolific labors, his conjugation of myth, mind, history, sound, nomadic text and awareness offer an integral projection and model of what a culturally imaginative and intellectually and devotionally informed poetics entails. Mackey's rebel stance is subtle but runs throughout the work, a voice which calls attention to discontent and unrest, mobilizing an erudite, up-to-date awareness of pervasive racial and cultural inequalities and injustices.
An acknowledgement of the type of psychic training and slavery inflicted upon people today, an indication of their fear of a policed state, occurs at the beginning of a piece called "APRIL IN PARIS," subtitled "The Creaking of the Word: After-the-Fact Lecture/Libretto (Aunt Nancy Version)" in Djbot Baghostus's Run. Jarred Bottle, sitting at a stoplight in Los Angeles at three in the morning, thinks of a quip he'd heard before, "Revolution would never occur in a country whose people stop for traffic lights late at night when there's no one else around." Subsequently, sitting at the intersection, defiantly "deferring to nonexistent traffic," Bottle constructs an exquisite ten- plus page journey of romantic ("...so tenuous a thread could be so binding made for a mystery only moans could address") and musical intrigue (he swears he hears the horns of imaginary cars playing the three chord melody line from Frank Wright's "China"). In the midst of his trance he reconstructs part of the meeting with Aunt Nancy (a member of the Mystic Horn Society), from which he was coming. His work, he explained to her, "would revolve around locale and dislocation, two terms of a continuing obsession he felt not so much prompted as dictated by." Jarred Bottled comes out of his spell, finally, when a policeman approaches him. The section concludes:
The cops would ask him had he been drinking, ask what was the idea of just sitting there. He'd tell them he was a Rastafarian, that he was waiting for the red, yellow, and green lights to come on at the same time. "All this time," he'd explain, "I've been thinking about Paris and China, but it was Ethiopia I was actually headed for." The cops would have no idea what he meant.
Nods to the Rastafarians--those followers of Haile Salassie who believe Ethiopia is Eden, and that blacks will eventually be repatriated to Africa--are steady in both Djbot Baghostus's Run and School of Udhra. In a later rendition of "The Creaking of the Word: After-the-Fact Lecture/Libretto (Lambert Version)," titled "AX ME NOW," Jarred Bottle dreams he is being interrogated in a cell in which newsreel footage of Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia are being projected. He is about to speak when he hears the tenor sax of the Mystic Horn Society's Lambert emerging from a chorus in back of him. The description of the sound Bottle hears echoes the words of Bob Marley's dancehall hit "Small Axe" ("If you are the tall tree/we are are the small axe, sharp and ready/ready to cut you down..."):
Any speaker worth his or her pocomaniacal salt, it seemed to go without saying, "tore" the language or, as he had lately preferred to put it, chopped it up. Jarred Bottle's lecture, that is, took him back to his adopted boyhood in Jamaica. Thus the projections of Italy's invasion of Ethiopia. One of his most vivid and strongest boyhood recollections was the way news of it had fired people up in Kingston. Likenings of it to the crucifixion of Christ by "the said same Romans" rolled off almost every tongue. Lambert's low-to-the-ground inspection of hostile terrain, his pentacostal run, like-wise insisted on prophetic fulfillment, the eventual triumph of Ethiopia, small axe to Mussolini's tall tree.
In "Amma Seru's Hammer's Heated Fall" (School of Udhra) is a place
There, though if other than for reflection none would say, wondering, coming forth, where they'd come from, edgewise informant, small axe, tall tree...At the end of Djbot Baghostus's Run, there is another edition of "The Creaking of the Word: After-the-Fact Lecture/Libretto (Penguin Version)," which carries title "E PO PEN." Jarred Bottle, twinning again, becomes Djbot Baghostus. Baghostus is literally interpreted brother (Ba-) of a ghost (ghostus). A grasshopper beneath his pillow speaks to him "from under it rather than on it, as if put there (eye of Amma, Ogo's food) by a Dogon diviner":
"Tell them you're not from here. Tell them your father is a wealthy man, that he sang with the Ink Spots before they made it big but that nevertheless he's a very wealthy man. Tell the that's why he named you Djbot. Spell it out for them if you have to: d as in dot, j as in jot, b-o-t as in bottle. Tell them it relates to ink, eponymous ink, namesake ink. Tell them you're not from here, even that you're not really here. Tell them it relates to ink, invisible ink. You can never make too much of it. Tell them you're a ghost."
Djbot's father, the "very wealthy man," reads metaphorically as the African pantheon, alive as long as any Greco-Roman tradition or myth. The "invisible ink" is an overt acknowledgement that this tradition is generally unseen by "them," or less discriminated against personages. The passage implies transformation, and suggests an empowerment derived from both the location and dislocation Bottle/Djbot has and will likely continue to experience.
In order to read this work, prepare yourself to face a sometimes unfamiliar orientation and a matrix of references to which most readers with Eurocentric educations are unaccustomed; step into a self rooted in and derived from a people and culture suppressed by a systematically white supremacist literary politic throughout recent history. You will be impressed at the way Mackey is able to make the poetic intellectual and the intellectual poetic, or poetry. As Will Alexander recently said, "think of how many PhDs there are, then look how many Lorcas..." Nathaniel Mackey is one of few who qualifies as both. Somewhere Gertrude Stein said, "when poetry really began it practically included everything." Mackey's writing, which recycles such a theory of poetics, might be read as a communique to an angel of dust, an imaginary I-nity who embodies all that we are proverbially made of.
In Mackey's utopian, mythical city of "Zar" (which, an epigraph tells
us, is "just this side of far"), celebrated in and title of the third and
final section of School of Udhra), we read of a
militant, ritual fist held high, pushed on... and ...the guns of war. Shot god, bitter book turned real. There they might look but that their gone gaze grow there, taken, meaning made at whose expense, twinned or twinless... Twinless, torn within"Zar", and School of Udhra, come to an end with a poem called "Slipped Quadrant," which offers further advices and admonitions:
Rich tense within we called it, would without end, seed within a seed sown elsewhere, somewhere said to've been known as Ttha. Wrought surfaces, putative soul, cheated heart. Shot body borne up to be looked at, learned from, one heretical moment's reprimand... Something a Sufi said in Andalusia. Something said to've been said before. Ominous music made a mumbler's academy, vatic scat, to be alive was to be warned it said...
Mackey's "seed/within a seed sown elsewhere" is a continual seed, a
transplanted seed, a seed of discontent, in favor of creating a better
society, sown into American poetics.
for Ayal al-batn & the Gabila