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The ontogeny and phylogeny of Mackey's song of the Andoumboulou (1).

"The thought of Being guards the word and fulfills its functions in such guardianship, namely care for the use of language. Out of long guarded speechlessness and the careful clarification of the field thus cleared, comes the utterance of tire thinker. Of like origin is the naming of the poet ... since poetry and thinking are most purely alike in their care of the word."--Heidegger

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent."--Wittgenstein
 "What does 'Language
 is a fruit of which the
 is called chatter' mean?"

asks one of Nathaniel Mackey's pre-Dogon, pre-human Andoumboulou travelers of his companions as they
 sat in Wrack Tavern, Inn
 of Many Monikers, Long Night Lounge....
 "The flesh eloquence," I put
 in, "the seed good sense," added
 what the book went on to say.
 But he dwelt on "skin," having
 sat so
 long and said only, "So," rattled
 by wisdom's visit, bits of glass
 puncturing his lips as he spoke. ("Song 19" 104) (2)

If the asker pays a price for his "wisdom"--"bits of glass/puncturing his lips"--it seems to some he has been had. How is one to make sense of the koanesque enlightenment of his companions? Pretty sounding phrases, but is there a coherence to be gleaned from "The flesh eloquence" and "the seed good sense"?

The asker finds some sense of his own on the entrance of a female counterpart:
 "Sophic thigh," he asserted,
 belly, sophic butt...."
 sway he found himself taken out
 by, entranced by her impudent
 midriff plump lower lip, caress
 of his neck, calling
 "the apple of her eye." (104-05)

Though for the reader uninitiated in either the Andoumboulou's flawed world of abortive language or in Mackey's poetics, these answers are only slightly more understandable than the question itself; for both the migrant Andoumboulou and the experimental Mackey the answer is wrought in the body.

Mackey's poetry, particularly The Song of the Andoumboulou (hereafter Song), a sequenced, on-going epic about a pre-figuration of human beings from West Dogon mythology, addresses the anthropomorphism of language into a physical form, bringing it into the world as a thing, as a human body. And readers who know a rumba beat is being laid down on the other side of sound proof glass when they see the "sophic sway" of rumba dancers, those same readers can pierce Mackey's language only when they feel the music it lays down. The laying down of this music--or this "wind," as Mackey names it throughout Song--from breath to text is the reification of language to body, the ink on the page being as really real as the skin that chatters for the Andoumboulou. This process, this reification, this writing is imperfect and flawed, but meaning emerges in the errors, in what Mackey persistently theorizes as textual "creakiness." The answer is beyond words; it is lost in human utterance; it is something to be determined as a trace from human existence--or, in Mackey's words from "Song 23," "As of a life sought/beyond the letter" (73). Thus the body, or the book/text, becomes the starting point, often unreliable, in our quest for "wisdom," not the authorized dispenser of it. (3)

I. An Explosion of Stammers

In this essay, I want to situate Mackey within the contemporary poetic geography and to understand his place as influenced by and influencing contemporary poetry. To achieve this, I will look at how his poetry is emblematic of the tradition of avant-garde American poetry of the last half-century, and by extension, of American poetry in general. To consider Mackey's "ontogeny" is to gain some understanding of the "phylum" of contemporary avant-garde poetics--a classification that seeks to move ahead of the intellectual/academic necessity of definition so that any, once established, becomes outdated. It is precisely because of the mutability of language that the very need to render language as a body is necessary. Without something to reify a thought, it is condemned to remain simply mute and ineffectual. Instead, Mackey maximizes the opportunity to make his poetry about the real world to the same degree that he focuses on bringing it into the real world.

The "real world"-ness of Mackey's poetry participates in poetic traditions of earlier years of the twentieth century. Brent Edwards has linked what he calls the figure of the stammer in Song to the poetry of William Carlos Williams: "What resonates most noticeably with Song of the Andoumboulou is Williams's recourse to a formal device, the graphic depiction of the break in the poem, the stammer marked by the dots across the page. For the major formal shift between the poems is another book, there's this 'under-the-line' book ..." (578-79). Mackey manifests this notion of word into text/body in "Song #10":
 Baited lip. Love's lawless
 jaw. Said, "I love you," loaded
 a pointed gun. Burnt rugs needed
 only a spark, spoken, ember.
 Spilled ink. (5)

Mackey's poetry also self-consciously acknowledges what Edwards terms a "stammer." While his need to reify the spoken into the body is too compelling for Mackey to deny, the transition is plagued with problems that interfere with the representational capabilities of language. First, there is the problem of translating the spoken, and particularly the "flawed" spoken like a stammer, to some graphic form. The second is the possibility of graphic misrepresentation, or a graphic stammer. Indeed, Jeffrey Gray has read in Song "an obsession," "a concern with books that are illegible, blank, or unobtainable" (628). The imperfections of language/body/text are consistent tropes that Mackey deploys throughout Song, as in "Song 12": "And what love had to do with it/stuttered, bit its tongue" (9), and "Bottom lip against my teeth/like a rock but unsteady,/stutters,/'Fa ...'/as in fox, as in Fon, as in fate" (11). In these lines the stutter not only prevents an easy oral retransmission--what might be argued as the primary purpose of text--but also allows for multiple interpretations, "as in fox, as in Fon, as in fate." Mackey leaves the uttered phoneme so incomplete that it opens up (at least) three variants. Referring to an aphasic tendency to open up to disparate cultural references, Andrew Mossin notes, "Narrative is immediately problematized, as the speaking subject emerges in halting, stammered lines from imaged particulars of a discretely displayed scene" (548). So Mackey might be said to be attempting to represent a broken, "unreadable" text, or to see brokenness as essential to cohering meaning out of a text.

"Song 12," cited above, opens with an epigram from Alhaji Ibrahim Abdulai: "Heart and tongue. These two meats, they are the right meat, they are the important meat, and they are the bad meat" (11). If one understands at this point what makes the tongue--the source of the verbal, but importantly, the physical source of the verbal--bad, one may wonder as to what exactly redeems it, makes it a "good meat." Mackey pursues another element of orality, of the tongue, to which he regularly refers throughout the poem as "meat." He brings this alternate orality out in "Song 23":
 Neither having gone nor not having
 gone, hovered, book if it
 was a
 book, thought wicked with wing-stir,
 imminent sting.... It was the book
 of having once been there we
 thumbed, all wish to go back
 let go, the what-sayer,
 north, insisting a story lay
 behind the story he complained he
 couldn't begin to infer.... (75)

The "wicked wing-stir"--evoking images of flight central to Mackey's poetics--the book's hovering, its being neither here nor there prevents the speaker and his companions from comprehending the book, or even from realizing that a book exists. This section also invokes one of the epic's most important, if ambiguous personalities, the "what-sayer." (4) Located "farther/ north," the what-sayer is able to overcome the lack of coherence in the text to perceive that "a story lay/behind the story." But what is that principle of the tongue to which the what-sayer is attuned that allows this figure to comprehend that story? The passage continues:
 Beginningless book thought to've
 unrolled endlessly, more scroll
 than book, talismanic strum.
 As if all want were in his holding
 a note only a half-beat
 another he was now calling love
 a big rope, sing less what
 he did than sihg, anagrammic sigh.... (76)

Mackey equates the what-sayer to the story within the "beginningless book," though he never altogether clarifies whether this figure is an embodiment of the book's meaning, or a figure outside of the text who is able to make sense of it. In any case, the what-sayer's contributions to the voyage of the Andoumboulou are "tongued." But the what-sayer avoids both the problems of transmission of the spoken and the transmission of the textual (from the "beginningless book") to the oral; he avoids, then, those problems that the other Andoumboulou. He uses a different orality, a "talismanic strum," a "holding/a note only a half-beat longer." Here the trope of music, perhaps Mackey's most notable feature, enters as a force that resolves the indeterminacies of the book. The what-sayer is not free of multiple interpretations, as there is some question as to whether he 'sihged' or 'sighed'--note the direct reference to the poem's textuality here, "anagrammic"--but the speaker seems to acknowledge that the what-sayer is able to alter her (5) message by altering the tempo of the song, or the duration of the notes that compose it.

II. "Strickly" Music

Mackey infuses the text with music to provide a device by which the reader may resolve the various indeterminacies posed by the embodiment of language. This project does not simply occur on the page, however. Together with musicians Royal Hartigan and Hafez Modirzadeh, Mackey has also created what Gray accurately refers to as a "phonotext" (623) of Song in the 1995, Spoken Engine CD version of the poem, performed with (significantly, not to) music, Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25. Musical infusion occurs through the body, several bodies, in fact: Mackey's lips, tongue, throat, lungs, and so on and the multiple musical instruments of Hartigan and Modirzadeh. Such multiple instrumentality further confounds the notion of the poem's embodiment as a written text. Gray points to the difficulty of retransmitting Strick, a performance based on and to a text: "Approaching Strick as a phonotext unfortunately requires a certain violence in quoting. It would be awkward to respect written lineation at some times and to ignore it at others" (623). This observation does not, however, so much challenge the notion of embodying the text as it does indicate that the text can exist in multiple bodies. This same multiplicity of bodies is the resolution that music affords the Andoumboulou in the Wrack Tavern at "Song 19," with which I began this essay. Consider how Mackey "resolves" that song by creating a multiplicity of meanings through music:
 ... uninevitable
 who, asked his name, gave only his
 middle, "Music," mask made of
 wind, of wrack, by which if
 by wind it meant soul it meant
 salvage (106)

How, then, is the text in anyway "salvaged" if music creates not a cohesive body but a doppelganger? Mackey addresses this issue himself in "Song 44":
 A region of hills it was we came
 to next. Horns blew the book we
 rode skyward. Parallactic Hinge
 was an alternate book.... It
 was a
 book we would've, had we been
 able, moved on into Albert's
 principality, rung. Putative
 realm, unanswered
 prayer.... What, if not
 it was was a balcony's
 railing broken free
 of, the sound of
 Portuguese guitar....

The commonality of the dual texts allows for either to be understandable, and for each to be distinguishable as itself, the one legible by the what-sayer and Parallactic Hinge. The speaker in the above section is one of the Andoumboulou; he can obviously distinguish Parallactic Hinge as an "alternate book." Gray summarizes by noting that Song is in many ways "an important version of our accustomed perception of music as formal and combinatory and literature as mimetic and referential" (621). In effect alteriority is the message of the poem, and music is how Mackey conveys that message. In "Cante Moro," Mackey explains, "One of the reasons the music so often goes over into nonspeech--moaning, humming, shouts, nonsense lyrics, scat--is to say, among other things, that the realm of conventionally articulate speech is not sufficient for saying what needs to be said. We are often making that same assertion in poetry" (qtd. in Edwards 572). His gift lies in bringing together these two modes of challenging the limits of conventional speech, musicality, and multiplicity.

Mackey achieves this effect not only in his poetry and his analytical and contemplative prose, but he also provides a description of this technique in his original fiction, particularly in Djbot Baghostus's Run, the second of his serial From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. In the story, three men and two women, members of a band, launch a search for a percussionist. For one interview, the male band members wait with "an applicant," SunStick, also a male, for the females--Djamilaa and Aunt Nancy--to arrive. The novel's narrator, one of the male members "of many monikers" (including Jared Bottle and Djbot Baghostus) but titling himself simply "N," relates the following events in letters:
 After about five or ten more minutes
 Djamilaa and Aunt Nancy walked in
 together. We knew there was something
 up as soon as we saw them....
 The two of them seemed rather
 remote, an odd blend of mystical and
 businesslike. In fact, once they'd
 walked across the room to where we
 stood they handed each of us a business
 card ...--still no greetings, no
 words, not so much as a grunt having
 passed among us. The cards bore the
 inscription "Halve Not, Will

Aunt Nancy and Djamilaa go on to support their demand for an even gender divide in the band by infusing it with the music of two Kashmiri drums, called "nots." Critic David Kress explains, "The combination of the nots and the complete-though-partial audible-yet-absent beat strikes N. as a form of objection on the part of the women, a threat of their secession from the band" (772). In the narrative that follows this scene, Mackey constructs an instrumental performance that is then aided and abetted by singing, as Djamilaa begins a version of Nancy Wilson's "China" (10-12, 16-17). Ultimately, the musical performance "clarifies" the textual one, not by explaining it, but by duplicating it in a medium that allows the significance of the words to be folded into the identities of Aunt Nancy and Djamilaa. This "folding into" is so complete that Aunt Nancy and Djamilaa no longer remain discrete, but are instead blended into the multiple, echoic identity, with Nancy Wilson, or "Ain't Nancy."

Throughout Mackey's poetry, as a device reifying (rather than grounding) speech and music in a body, music resolves the confusion that exists between multiple interpretations, not by locating them in a particular text, but by transisting the multiplicity of texts into a pseudo-Platonic "third man," an alternate body. Consider how music, though bound by the speaker's physical form, serves as a unification of his voice with the voice of "someone else" in "Song 15":
 ....Stick-figure truth,
 Sang with a cricket caught inside my
 Stuck tongue I sucked singing thru
 cracks in a falling wall. Maybe my
 own, maybe someone else's. (19)

That the music is doubly "embodied"--a cricket located inside the speaker's throat--is the cause of the speaker's conflation of himself with the other, the section's "falling wall." In "Song 40," music is depicted as a unifying force that inhabits disparate bodies: "eyes/ears, nostrils, mouths holes in/our heads a stray breeze made flutes/of" (504). Mackey bases (he might say "basses") the Song of the Andoumboulou in musical bodies and, throughout, expands on the reification of music so much so that it is not limited to physical human form. In "Song 44," music becomes the "name" of a geographical rather than biological body, "Onset of/horns like a long-sought/landing, acoustical bank/we/ suddenly stood upon./Parched floor we fell/out across, crazed" (512). It is in this last appearance, music as geographic body, that what might loosely be called the "plot" of the poem is constructed. Gray explains that the action of Song and of Strick is "most simply, the narrative of a journey across desert spaces, a journey in which layers of voices, histories, and melodies replace chronology as a way of organizing time" (621). Here, insomuch as music is equated with time, it is suffused with dimension through presence. The "layers of voices, histories, and melodies" allow the Andoumboulou to occupy space and, hence, to be conflated with location, space, geographical body.

But the multiplicity of these voices, these melodies, this music seems to confound location in any singularity, whether it is meaning or space. If music is to be conflated with location insofar as it is the vehicle by which the Anboumboulou inhabit, it must be conflated with each space they inhabit. Thus, while the travelers of the poem are grounded, this grounding is not specific; it is multiple. The resulting paradox--being both here (perhaps "hear") and there at the same time--becomes the central point of Mackey's poetry. (6)

Mackey acknowledges this paradox as problems of location and of naming bodies--and places--throughout Song. In "Song 40":
 ....Lag anthem
 suffused every corner, music
 the he she saw, we the escaping
 they, calling out names no where
 arrive would answer to, nowhere the
 we'd shout (505)

The problem of place naming presents further problems to the Andoumboulou insofar as the names themselves are places, inhabited only to be lost, or "Frequently the travelers realize they haven't moved. In fact, at the precise moment of expressing that determination not to be 'turned around,' they are turned around" (Gray 625).

Becoming turned around is the direct result of an ambivalence about the meanings of words, or, more precisely in many cases phonemes, that I have argued Mackey uses music--either in a performative union with music on or off the page or, in a less immediate sense, to resolve with the musicality of language (scansion, rhythm, and so on) within the text itself. (7) So how is becoming turned around a resolution; to where are the travelers and the reader being directed? Mackey provides an answer at "Song 24":
 Asked had he been hit he
 answered yes. Ouab'da he
 called it as if it was a
 place, made-up name he
 made mean "beat with clubs,
 what as-if there was long
 since fallen away. It was
 a place brought boots
 to the ribs, batons to the
 Ouab'da he called it, said it
 was a place, knew, if not already,
 he'd be hit....
 Split lift,
 sat ravished, overtaken,
 overwhelmed ...
 he named it, said it was a
 never to go back
there again (80) (8)

The embodiment here is of history, and it is the bodies of the Andoumboulou that are most definitely threatened by this "turning around." Their indeterminate location is perceived as a threat to life and limb--their physicality, their narrative, their history--that has already been violated. Hence the bulk of the Andoumboulou, "we the dismembered," identify with their beaten compatriot of "Song 24." The text and sound of the place names blend into each other, and this musical symmetricality also relates them to reality: "Ouar" pronounced "war" (and "war" specified later in "Song 25") and "Ouadada'--"we-dada"--and "Ouagadou"--"wag-a-do"--tying into "Ouagadou D.C." (and its obvious corollary in our world) of "Song 25":
 Tarred birds' wings. End-of-the-world
 augury, new world omen....
 First blood sweet to the tongue,
 bitter going down. Tenuous.
 Ouagadou D.C.
 Mothered in blood, on blood
 big beyond limit. Said of its
 demise we welcomed it ..." (82).

These elements--embodiment of language that may be a word or a story or a history or, by extension, a culture, music as resolution, and phonemic paradox--produce meaning not only in their correspondence to "pretextuality," they are but also "meaningful" as sociohistorical commentary.

III. Chanting Down, Halve-Steppin', and Losin' It

This sociohistorical commentary undergirds all of Mackey's work. But why does he express so complexly an idea so accessible? Paul Naylor's apt characterization of Mackey's poetic commentary as "the many impasses of postmodernity" (500) calls to mind the intricate, and often historical nature of contemporary sociopolitical conundra. As Mossin explains, Mackey's "stance in both the poetry and criticism reveals the reserved, historically contingent position of deeply self-conscious utterance--a practice in which longing for the manifold pleasures and powers of Orphic song exists in uneasy tandem with discursive participation in the material realities of live-out-thought" (545). Mackey does see song as Orphically empowering, but while he suggests that music can help us "chant down" quotidian oppressions (and that this "chanting" can express the outrage of the oppressed), he stops short of suggesting that song alone constitutes a discursive method by which social problems can be resolved. That, at least, he has left up to the reader.

In prose Mackey seems to use this paradoxical harmonious-dissonance to go even farther, to stipulate how musical resolution of indeterminacy constitutes a complete discussion of complex real-life situations. In Djbot Bhagustus's Run, for example, the women characters' commentary on gender equity not only convinces their male counterparts but is also utterly cogent from any perspective. Kress describes the effect of the performance: "The nay's and not's insistence speaks of a possibility that argument closes-off-from in advance, whereas groundless grounding presents alternatives not directly to exclusion, but to argument, and so to proof. Absence, then, more descriptive than rational brings about--or at least points to--the possibility of a reconciliatory embrace which argument, since it always leads (or heads) rather than participates in, cannot directly initiate" (773). In line with Kress's embodying--"embrace," "heads"--of the power of "groundless grounding," Quinn equates this feature of alternative to argumentation with Mackey's use of the "phantom limb" (615). Quinn continues with political commentary:
 The supposed absent, the "phantom
 limb" as a mark of lameness and of
 prior dismemberment, appears as both
 a critique of unjust power and a mark
 of empowerment transformed into
 dance. The limb/p mediates between
 the articulate and inarticulate, presence
 and absence, rationality and irrationality,
 inside and outside ... these
 are records of the world that "word
 did rise up from" before human meddling
 codified and split it into binaries,
 a reflexive reminder of loss. The aural
 oscillation and phantom limb, improvisation
 and absence, work to dismantle
 duality while constructing a matrix
 of a richer, processual and shared origin.

Actually, Quinn's discussion responds to Mackey's own theoretical discussions of the trope of loss. He addresses "Senses of music" (231) in "Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol," reprinted in his collection of essays Discrepant Engagement. This essay takes its title from two other texts; Steven Feld's Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression, and Victor Zuckerkandl's Sound and Symbol. Mackey explains that he wants to "work Sound and Sentiment together with Sound and Symbol in such a way that the latter's metaphysical accent aids and is in turn abetted by the former's emphasis on the social meaning of sound" (234). He goes to the heart of loss when he says, "You notice that it's black music that I'm talking about, a music whose 'critique of our concept of reality' is notoriously a critique of social reality, a critique of social arrangement in which, because of racism, one finds oneself deprived of community and kinship, cut off." In "Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol," Mackey pursues this abandonment/disfiguration as the source of poetry, and, in effect, poetic coherence, in his retelling of the Kaluli "muni bird" myth that conflates the genesis of the poetic with familial abandonment/ disfiguration.

IV. Iconicity and Dichotomy

While it is a critical commonplace to remark that Mackey's work is a highly stratified and deeply complex political commentary, I want to read Mackey's work not as an "edge" in the architecture of contemporary poetry but rather as a tangible surfacing of it. Arguably, Mackey's "ontogeny" helps to define the vagueness of contemporary poetry, its "phylogeny," for all Mackey's own work on the fringe.

Paul Hoover notes, "As a black poet, scholar, and novelist who draws inspiration from black cultural sources such as vodun as well as from postwar avant-garde writings of Robert Duncan, Charles Olsen, and Amiri Baraka, Mackey is twice an outsider, by birth and by choice" (737). Hoover makes further claims about the marginalization of avant-gardism in general, and Mackey by extension: "In general, postmodern poetry opposes the centrist values of unity, significance, linearity, expressiveness, and a heightened, even heroic, portrayal of the bourgeois self and its concerns" (xxvii). He traces the development of this opposition in a range of institutions from the Beat movement and the Language poets to performance poetry and the Black Mountain School. While each pursues "opposition to centrism," Hoover suggests that they all do so, motivated by an oblique interaction with each other. In an interview with Christopher Funkhouser, Mackey muses about his poetic "lineage" and identifies himself with the Black Mountain School, which takes its impetus from the Modernist tradition. These influences demonstrate the power of avant-gardism.

Furthermore, Mackey's work assumes greater stature in an American poetic geography when we consider its influences from outside of a strictly poetic pantheon. For example, in the Funkhouser interview Mackey cites Baraka as an influence--and thereby ties himself to groups of Confessional and even Expressivist poets.

Thus, Mackey's project enables an important perspective from which to read other US poetry. For example, his reification of language has generated criticism in recent years, especially from other avant-garde poets. Notably, Charles Bernstein's recent collection of essays, Close Listening: poetry and the performed word, discusses isochrony, the multiplicity of language that results from the performance of poetry--either by various readers or by a "vocally flawed" performer--and its resultant plural "metaphysical," or embodied, nature. Bernstein explains:
 A poem understood as a performative
 event and not merely as a textual entity
 refuses the originality of the written
 document in favor of "the plural
 event" of the work.... To speak of the
 poem in performance is, then, to overthrow
 the idea of the poem as a fixed,
 stable, finite linguistic object; it is to
 deny the poem its self-presence and its
 unity. Thus, while performance
 emphasizes the material presence of
 the poem, and of the performer, it at
 the same time denies the unitary presence
 of the poem, which is to say its
 metaphysical unity. (9)

Thus, claims Bernstein, performativity necessitates that a poem's language, since a meaning can be determined, perform its meaning rather than present it. Bernstein sees that performance requires a body, either the body of the performer (as in Strick) or the text as a "script," which allows multiple physical readings. As Mackey's work exemplifies, this multiplicity is reified in a (phono)text or performance. Bernstein further posits that "In performance, meter is eclipsed by isochrony--the unwritten tempo (rhythmic, cyclical, overlapping) whose beat is audible in the performance as distinct from the text.... Insofar as the performed work is granted a reciprocal status to the text, isochrony becomes a dominant prosodic element" (14-15). (9)

This analysis not only demonstrates why the "reification" of language is necessary in all poetry, but it also explicates Mackey's frequent deployment of multiplicity and embodying.

A direct influence on Mackey's work, Olsen's theory of Projective verse confronts not only the problem of synthesizing diverse metaphysical and ontological issues into a language that can perform them (Bernstein's "iconicity") but also the issue of isochrony by presenting a method of both composition and reading that represents the inherent musicality of poetry on the page. Thus, Olsen makes his famous claim that poetry works in two parts: "the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE/the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE" (616). This dichotomy is sourced in the embodiment of language into print. Olsen explains that Projective verse is to be contrasted with:
 The NON-Projective
 (or what a French critic calls "closed"
 verse, that verse which print bred and
 which is pretty much what we have
 had, in English & American, and have
 still got, despite the work of Pound
 and Williams. (613) (10)

Linking this project to Pound and Williams as he does, Olsen suggests that these issues (and the dichotomies that they encapsulate: oral/scribal, spontaneous/studied, or, as Donald Allen perceived it, raw/cooked) are central to the project of all contemporary poetries that follow them. (11)

In addition, Mackey uses music to cohere multiplicity. Inasmuch as dichotomies play a significant role in contemporary poetry, and plurality is inescapable as an effect of the tension between them, one element of contemporary poetics must be a consciousness about resolving that plurality into meaning. Mackey, as I have argued, suggests music as a cohering device, and in this effort is not alone. Not only is music an essential component, as a formal influence or as theme, of much modern and contemporary poetry--Hughes, Baraka, even O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died" come to mind--but also its historical commingling with poetry has received considerable critical attention. In fact, one of the more significant critical developments in the study of the history of poetics of the first half of the twentieth century is Albert Bates Lord's and Milman Parry's theory of Oral Traditional Literature, which takes up nearly all of the central terms of the present analysis. (12) Consider Lord's discussion of the function of repetition to release an inherent plurality in the performance of Homeric epics:
 There came a time in Homeric scholarship
 when it was not sufficient to
 speak of the "repetitions" in Homer, of
 the stock epithets," of the "epic
 cliches" and "stereotyped phrases."
 Such terms were either too vague or
 too restricted.... The result was a definition
 of the "formula" as "a group of
 words which is regularly employed
 under the same metrical conditions to
 express a given essential idea." ...
 [Milman] Parry's definition broadens
 "formula" to include within its scope
 more than repeated epithets. (30)

V. Coda

Mackey's coherence, or "creation," of meaning from language's plurality necessarily imbricates with that meaning an additional political commentary. This commentary is constituted by and comments on plurality. Hoover celebrates Mackey's "conscious decision to play one kind of cultural vision against another, resulting in heightened awareness not only of identity but, also of the power of the syncretic act. Double-consciousness becomes 'second sight,' a virtue of panoramic imagination" (746-47). Similarly, Mossin acknowledges the way "form and function" overlap as political critique in Mackey's work: "Mackey's contribution finally must be judged along this continuum of revisionary urgency and speculative critique. His 'vatic scat' is itself a position of strength within the poetry, even as it revivifies the problematic nature of a poetics invested in the propositions of a post-humanist praxis." (559). (13) Mackey's most important insight, then, transports readers into the universal nature of contemporary poetry. For all the similarities between poets, aesthetic and ideological, every poet of real merit in the contemporary period has had to acknowledge that the act of writing, no less than the writing the act produces, is a political statement, the politics often apparent in the form writing takes. All contemporary hermeneutical theories relate semiotics to power structures. To conclude, I focus briefly on one of these hermeneutical theories, not to privilege its conclusions but because of its specific attention to form.

In Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson argues that the entirety of our culture might be understood in terms of surface structures; he argues that "What replaces [depth models] is for the most part a conception of practices, discourses, and textual play ...; let it suffice now to observe that here too depth is replaced by surface, or by multiple surfaces (what is often called intertextuality is in that sense no longer a matter of depth)" (12). One need not agree with all of Jameson's (often highly problematic) conclusions to see the importance of this line of theorizing, which addresses issues of materiality and the productive forces that affect the way contemporary poetics deals with language constructs as a whole. (Thus, a coda to Bernstein and Olsen discussed above.) Jameson's tracing of ways that one may understand the contemporary period as "surfaced" over "depthed" by examining the qualities of individual "modernist" works and how their individual characteristics have become open to reproduction in subsequent culture (16) return us to Mackey's "Halve Not, Will Travel" scene in Djbot Baghostus's Run. (14) Mackey appropriates used "constructs" like Nancy Wilson's "China"--in order to 'fashion a representation of our own current experience.' This effort can also be seen in Mackey's poetry, though it might be referred to as "song as the product of ensemble" (Naylor 500). Significantly, Mackey provides one example of how contemporary criticism sees form itself as political and ideological, particular political overtones of content notwithstanding.

Finally, let me summarize the multiple projects of the poetry of Nathaniel Mackey, projects emblematic of American contemporary poetry and poetics. Besides his fervent invocation of the necessity of cohering language, which cannot be seen as grounded in referentiality to anything "real," in some sort of other, "real" artifice, there is his astute shaping of that artifice according to a device that coheres language's multiplicity (what, in a specific discursive format, might be called its diachrony), no less than the inevitability of this coherence resulting in political commentary. Mackey's conciseness and precision not only place him in critical evaluations of the current "scene" but also signify (on) trends that might be seen as defining (sometimes inscrutable, other times similitudinous) contemporary poetries. Looking at how elements of this specific poet's work develop out of and reside within a tradition that spawns widely divergent poetries also helps to ground understandings of "our historicity," and provide a basis for future poets to examine the limitations of language in ways we could not imagine. (15)


(1.) That "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" is the notion of Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, who posited the theory as an attempt to explain the process of gestation, the development of a human fetus, for example, reenacting, in a sense, human evolution (see Haeckel's Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century). I use this derivative fully aware of its scientific invalidity, and with the knowledge that attacks against its appropriation for fallacious Nazi eugenics programs in the last century do not invalidate the interesting perspective that this phrase espouses. Its very invalidity suggests its propriety for approaching the topic of this essay. Though the theory has been shown to be naive, it calls to my mind two of the essential terms I will consider: an individual's development through a specific cultural tradition, and that individual's ability to make manifest the nature of the tradition. See, for instance, "Haeckel's Embryo's continued," in Science 5381:281 (28 Aug. 1998).

(2.) Because of the long length of Song--approximately 50 songs varying in length from a rough estimate of 100 lines each and spanning three books and several periodicals--scholars referencing it customarily cite song number and page number, rather than line numbers, and I will as well.

(3.) Most of my discussion up to this point has been inspired by a special issue of Callaloo (23.2, 2000). That special issue analyzes and pays homage to the avant-garde author, whom many consider under-read today.

(4.) For a more detailed analysis of the what-sayer's role in the poem, see Naylor 594.

(5.) Or his? Mackey does not specify the figure's gender, nor specify whether the embodied what-sayer has gender at all.

(6.) Various scholars have acknowledged the existence of this paradox in one way or another. Edwards, appropriately locating Mackey's technique in other music of African traditions, particularly African American, notes that "it is as though the momentum of the music--its transport in every sense--demands it be taken up again, and taken elsewhere" (584). Naylor offers: "Mackey's poems enact a constant movement, an ecstatic movement, across the thresholds between spatial and temporal, historical and social locations, between senses of identity and gender, between states of dreaming and waking. The what-sayer wanders nomadically among these states, never quite arriving or leaving, a liminal narrator of and in a liminal tale" (594).

(7.) In "Resisting the Law," Anastasopoulos suggests another "unifying device" in Mackey's work--the dream vision.

(8.) Mackey follows this answer with another at "Song 25" (81).

(9.) That there is a noting here of how Ron Silliman's poetics, which differs considerably from Mackey's, has the same roots--in Whitman via Williams via Olsen--as Mackey's own, provides further rationale for arguing that the disparate schools of postmodern avant-gardism are not loosely connected. Note also political sympathies between the two.

(10.) Olsen clearly was not the first to engage the question of how to prevent the oral aspects of poetry from being subjected to written constraints. And without listing exhaustively the influential poets prior to Olsen who have tackled this issue, I cite two: Dante (see his "Letter to Can Grande") and William Carlos Williams whose I Wanted to Write a Poem discusses his search for the variable foot: "From the beginning I knew that the American language must shape the pattern; later I rejected the word language and spoke of the American idiom--this was a better word than language, less academic, more identified with speech" (65).

(11.) See the introduction to Hoover's Anthology for a look at "The Battle of the Anthologies," which he suggests led to many of the problematic elements of classifying the postmodern in poetry. Note also, Mackey's reference to Allen's anthology, New American Poetry, in paragraph six of the Funkhouser interview.

(12.) This theory has wide-ranging implications, considering its use in literature, history, media studies, even the burgeoning field of "conversation analysis."

(13.) Mossin continues: "In the 'trashed ecstasy' that remains among these poems' most incisive after-effects, Mackey suggests that each new attempt to claim a place of visionary witness and ecstatic union must exist in uneasy alliance with other, more difficult recognitions. Insofar as totalities are rejected in favor of contingent particularities, transcendence in favor of well-traversed limits, the poem likewise offer themselves as provisional, intentionally reticent account of 'Bound I. Insubordinate/ Us'" (559). Mossin quotes from Mackey's School of Udhra (10).

(14.) For another interesting discussion of the effects of productive forces on art (particularly visual art), one that influenced Jameson, in fact, see Walter Benjamin's Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

(15.) Mossin provides a restatement of similar ideas in "Discrepant Subjectivity" (538), by quoting Wilson Harris's The Womb of Space: "An art that subsists on evolution and alchemy acquires a concreteness of vision in its multi-pigmented arc that runs deeper and also wider than the scope of a realism that seems both naturally fated and blind to the mystery of reality. It incurs at times a terrifying weight and weightlessness to reflect a measure of human spirit of responsibility in the shock of past and future events. Alchemisation of elements may appear anthropomorphic, but its impulse is towards an exposure of partial natures that masquerade as a universe of total fact" (71).

Works Cited

Anastasopoulos, Dmitri. "Resisting the Law: Nathaniel Mackey's Djbot Baghostus's Run." Callaloo 23 (2000): 784-95. Bernstein, Charles, ed. Close listening: poetry and the performed word. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Coolidge, Clark. "Brill." Space. 1970. Rpt in Postmodern American Poetry. 370.

Edwards, Brent Hayes. "Notes On Poetics Regarding Nathaniel Mackey's Song." Callaloo 23 (2000): 572-91.

Funkhouser, Christopher. "An Interview with Nathaniel Mackey." Callaloo 18 (1995).

Gray, Jeffrey. "'Beyond the Letter': Identity, Song, and Strick." Callaloo 23 (2000): 621-39.

Haeckel, Ernst Heinrich. Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century. London: Watts, 1903.

Harris, Wilson. The Womb of Space. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983.

Heidegger, Martin. Existence and Being. 2nd ed. London: Vision P, 1956.

Hoover, Paul. "Pair of Figures of Eshu: Doubling of Consciousness in the Work of Kerry James Marshall and Nathaniel Mackey." Callaloo 23 (2000): 728-48.

--, ed. Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. New York: Norton, 1994.

Jackendoff, Ray. Languages of the Mind: essays on mental representation. Cambridge: MIT P, 1992.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Kearney, Richard. Modern Movements in European Philosophy. 2nd ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 1994.

Kenny, Anthony, Ed. The Wittgenstein Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Kress, David C. "Middle Voice Moves in Nathaniel Mackey's Djbot Baghostus's Run." Callaloo 23 (2000): 765-83.

Levin, Harry. "Introduction to The Singer of Tales." Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1960.

Lord, Albert Bates. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1960.

Mackey, Nathaniel. Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

--. Djbot Baghostus's Run. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon P, 1993.

--. School of Udhra. San Francisco: City Lights, 1993.

--. "Song of the Andoumboulou: 19." The World 49 (1994): 104-06.

--. "Song of the Andoumboulou: 23, 24, & 25." Sulfur 34 (1994): 77-80.

Mossin, Andrew. "Unveiling Expectancy: Nathaniel Mackey, Robert Duncan, and the Formation of Discrepant Subjectivity." Callaloo 23 (2000): 538-62.

Naylor, Paul. "'Some Ecstatic Elsewhere': Nathaniel Mackey's Whatsaid Serif." Callaloo 23 (2000): 592-605.

Olsen, Charles. "Projective Verse." Poetry New York. 1950. Rpt. in Postmodern American Poetry. 613-12.

Quinn, Richard. "The Creak of Categories: Nathaniel Mackey's Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25." Callaloo 23 (2000): 608-20.

Williams, William Carlos. I Wanted to Write a Poem. New York: New Directions, 1978.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. C. K. Ogden. London: Kegan Paul, 1922.

Matthew A. Lavery is currently studying philosophy and literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. His interdisciplinary interests also include composition theory. This paper originated in Lavery's final year at Seton Hall University. The author would like to thank Jeffrey Gray, whose direction of this project was fundamental from the earliest stages, and Angela Weisl and Mary McAleer Baikun, whose careful reading and eager advice was fundamental throughout the final stages.
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Author:Lavery, Matthew A.
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Date:Dec 22, 2004
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