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Whatsaid Serif.

Nathaniel Mackey. Whatsaid Serif. San Francisco: City Lights, 1998, 112 pp. $12.95.

Whatsaid Serif Nathaniel Mackey's third full-length volume of poetry, presents us with twenty-one new installments of the innovative, ongoing serial poem Song of the Andoumboulou, a work whose earlier movements appeared in Mackey's first two books of poetry, Eroding Witness (U of Illinois P, 1985) and School of Udhra (City Lights, 1993). The Andoumboulou are a somewhat shadowy people alluded to in the cosmology of the Dogon people of Mali. Originally dwelling in area later to be settled by the Dogon, the Andoumboulou were small red people, "an earlier, flawed or failed form of human being"--or, as Mackey tends to think of them, "a rough draft of human beings." The Andoumboulou are incomplete, unfinished, and thereby reflect a wider human condition: As Mackey puts it, "the Andoumboulou are in fact us; we're the rough draft." Whatsaid Serif, then, is a book of poems about change, movement, and becoming. Mackey's is not a conventional poetic; he works within the avant-garde tradition of modernist and postmodern ist poetry, in the vein of early Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Clarence Major, or--to deploy the musical analogies of which he himself is fond--in the tradition of cutting-edge jazz players such as Anthony Braxton and Pharoah Sanders. Mackey's poetry is "difficult" for those who demand that poetry present a straightforward record of experience and emotion. But for those willing to follow Mackey's work in its musical twists, cross-cultural swoops, and self-relexive coils, Whatsaid Serif offers an exhilarating ride.

Whatsaid Serif's very title exemplifies Mackey's eclectic poetic practice. Whatsaid evokes that what-sayer storyteller of the Carib-speaking Kalapalo people of Brazil. The what-sayer appears again and again in Whatsaid Serif, sometimes as a questioning figure ("except the what-sayer, / obsessed, asking what. 'Was it a woman / he once was in love with?' 'Was it a lie / he'd long since put it all behind?' "), sometimes as a humorous one ("I was the what-sayer. / Whatever he said I would / say so what"; or, "He said he would say / nothing. I whatever popped into my / head"). Serif is a word of obscure origin, denoting one of those fiddly lines at the top or bottom of a printed letter. Seriff, however, is a variant of Shereef, an Arabic word of deep resonance: It literally means 'noble, glorious,' and denotes a descendant of Muhamet and, by implication, a Muslim priest, the ruler of Morocco or one of his provincial subordinates, a Muslim prince in general, and the chief magistrate of Mecca. In one phrase--Whatsa id Serif--Mackey encompasses cultures Arabic, African, and Brazilian, as well as deeply rooted indigenous narrative practices and the irreducibly graphic nature of writing and, by poststructuralist implication, language itself. (Mackey has spoken of what he sees as "the Dogon emphasis on signs, traces, drawings, 'graphicity.'")

In the poems of Whatsaid Serif, the word itself is migratory, shifting. Everything, in fact, is on the move, for this is a book of passages, of migration, of hejira. The "speaker" of the poems--and his very identity is mobile, evanescent--sits in bars, lounges, and other places of transcience ("the Long / Night Lounge," "Wrack Tavern / Inn of Many Monikers") simultaneously moving ("It was a train we were on / peripatetic tavern we / were in, mind unremittingly elsewhere"). Places shift, as do modes of transportation: "It was a train / in southern Spain we / were on.... It was a train outside Sao / Paulo on our way to Algeciras we / were on.... A train / less of though than of quantum / solace, quantum locale ... train / gotten on in Miami"--Mackey's own birthplace--"long since gone." But "What had been a train was now a / bus between Fez and Tetuan," a bus which shifts bewilderingly back to a train, bus again, and then boat: "Whatever it was it / was a boat we were on, bus we were / on, sat on a train orbiti ng abject / Earth...." The itinerary of this journey--spiritual, cultural, sexual--is one of the imagination rather than of Rand McNally (there are no bus lines, heaven knows, running between Sao Paulo and Algeciras!). The travelers' destination isn't quite clear: It may be the "eventual city known as By-and-By," it may be Zar ("the lazy asymptotic arrival we / glimpsed," also known as "Raz," "Arz," and "Zra"), or it may be some Star, which shifts to "Rast," "Tsar," and, in the title of Whatsaid Serif s second section, "Stra." And throughout this journey, playing from the tape machine or from unnamed sources, there is music--blues music, jazz, Brazilian music, Arabic music--which itself is the motion:

Gnostic sleeper stowed

away on

the boat we rode, runaway sunship, Trane's

namesake music's runaway ghost...


music made us almost weep, wander,

Soon-Come Congress we'd other wise have

been, sung to if not by Lenore by


every which way, on our way


In these shifting names and place-names (Leonore/Eronel, Zar/Raz/Arz/Zra), Mackey further develops the "anagrammatic scat" he first explored in School of Udhra, a reshuffling of letters and phonemes that foregrounds the tangible, graphic nature of the word, even as it evokes the manner in which a master jazz musician will elaborate and improvise on a tune until the "head" is left far behind. Crib becomes "C'rib," and the African American vernacular for one's home merges in an abbreviation for "Carib." The bus on which the speaker rides becomes "B'us," shorthand for 'be us,' which later we learn "was code for buzz." Whatsaid Serif deploys a number of individual words in an almost leitmotific manner, introducing them and reintroducing them in different order and garb: "whatsaid" itself, and its variations--"what-sayer," "say what," and so forth; "stick," which refers to pieces of fiber or hemp before they are made into rope, though Mackey hears much more in a word ("I hear the word stick, I hear the word strik e, I hear the word struck, and I hear the word strict. I hear those words which are not really pronounced in that word, but there are overtones and undertones of those words, harmonics of those words. The word strick, then, is like a musical chord in which these words are otherwise not present are present."); and the "loquat" fruit, which here takes on a range of sexual and gnostic meanings, ranging from the fruit of knowledge of good and evil of Genesis 1 to an extended and hilariously obscene pun on "loquat/low squat."

The speaker of the poems is en route on both a spiritual and cultural hejira and a sexual pursuit. The object of his seduction--or perhaps his seducer, for roles, like everything else, shift continually in this volume--is introduced as "Wide-eyed Anuncia," a portmanteau word containing both the Virgin Mary's annunciation and the spider-trickster figure Ananse. Later she will become "Sophia," Greek for 'knowledge,' and the speaker's pursuit of her will take on increasingly gnostic overtones. Wherever the train-bus-boat-spaceship of Whatsaid Serif and its what-saying passenger are headed, one of the ultimate "asymptotic" goals is knowledge or gnosis, which shows itself in glimpses and erotic flashes, and then disappears again around the bend.

Multiculturalism is enjoying a much-deserved vogue in the academy, with long-overdue attention being paid writers of a vibrant array of once-marginalized groups. One would advance Mackey as something of an exemplary poster poet for multiculturalism, if one did not sense that the term itself, as it's all too often used, does violence to the complex and compelling vision of his poetry. Multiculturalism, that is, too often is simply a code word for spicing up the bland dish of white American writing with a generous dash of non-white color. Mackey's preferred term for his own scholarly studies, whose subjects range from the African American poets Amiri Baraka and Clarence Major, to the Caribbean writers Wilson Harris and Kamau Brathwaite, to the white avantgardists Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, is cross-culturality (as in the title of his Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing [Cambridge UP, 1993]). The term captures, as multiculturalism no longer does, Mackey's sense o f the interpenetration of various cultures, of how musical, mythical, and poetic forms migrate between regions, nations, and races, taking on ever-shifting significances even as they retain the traces of their origins.

This interpenetration is beautifully exemplified in the passages of Whatsaid Serif that explore the theme of the cante moro, or "Moorish song." Federico Garcia Lorca, a poet of immense importance for the "New American Poetry" of the 1960s, traced the roots of his own cante jondo ('deep song') to the marginalized African elements in Spanish music. As the Gypsy singer Manuel Torre told Lorca in 1927, "What you much search for, and find, is the black torso of the Pharoah." What this means, Mackey explains in his essay "Cante Moro," is that "you have to root your voice in fabulous origins, find your voice in the dark, among the dead." The journey of Whatsaid Serif, then, is a journey across cultures, down routes which are as well roots, filiations of musical form, of cultural emotion, and of spiritual experience. The speaker of these poems continually seeks gnosis, knowledge, but that knowledge--never entirely achieved--cannot be the knowledge of some singular place of origin, but must be the knowledge of an epo ch- and world-wide web of intertangled inheritance. As the journey draws near its end (at least for this particular volume of Mackey's work), there is an edge of despair at one's prolonged "waywardness. / atlessness":

Freight of wind and waywardness,

atlessness, drift, Draped and enjambed

hasp of

heaven, short of heaven, moot condolences

coaxed out of stricken wood ...

One senses, however, that Mackey's unique, challenging, and exhilarating journey will continue. Is it not, by its very definition, endless?
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Scroggins, Mark
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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