From his first full collection of poetry, Eroding Witness, to his prizewinning 2006 volume, Splay Anthem, Nathaniel Mackey has mined a limited area of inquiry. He has focused primarily on African and Pan-African “survivals” and traces, specifically as they manifest themselves as music, language, and a set of cultural artifacts and symbols (drums, sticks, water, ground, wind, trees, cafés, and ships) that are literally alluring even as they turn into bottomless chasms from which there is no exit. Much like Vergil in Dante’s Inferno (in La divina commedia, c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), the narrator and his various guides and witnesses in Mackey’s works trace the circles of the remainders of a history almost lost to oblivion. The trajectories of the poetry Mackey published became increasingly intertwined from the 1980’s through the first decade of the twenty-first century, narrowing into a finite set of aesthetic, cultural, and philosophical concerns.
Eroding Witness contains four parts: Part 1, a section of independent stand-alone poems, and part 4, the previously published chapbook Septet for the End of Time, frame the work. In the middle sections are the first seven iterations of “Song of the Andoumboulou” as well as the first three parts of “Mu” (which appear only as subtitles); these poems are serial poems that Mackey would later continue. “Song of the Andoumboulou: 5” and “Song of the Andouboulou: 6” contain the first two prosaic “Dear Angel of Dust” letters that would eventually serve as the foundational structural unit of his serial novel, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. Although the poems in Eroding Witness are comparatively accessible (given the increasingly abstract musings of his later work), the dizzying box-within-a-box organization of the book is reflected in the formal and thematic organization of many of the poems. Parataxis, paradox, and contradiction, along with a blurring of the conditional, indicative, and imperative voices are just a few of the rhetorical and logical devices Mackey uses in poems such...
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