Nathaniel Mackey Analysis

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Nathaniel Mackey Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

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

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 as “Dream Thief” (“That what/ they think/ undoes/ the lures/ does nothing”), “Capricorn Rising” (“Life after life each like it/ was endlessly yet/ to arrive yet/ already there, a/ thin bread of duress”), and “Song of the Andoumboulou: 3” (“She kept to one side of/ my talk/ like a man, to/ herself”).

School of Udhra

School of Udhra contains “Song of the Andoumboulou: 8-15” and the fourth through eleventh parts of the “Mu” poems. Mackey broadens his structural devices even as his poems amplify the themes evident in his first book: The “Zar” section features poems on the themes of musical and verbal atonality and the “Outlandish” section contains poems on spiritual and cultural wandering. Mackey’s use of space to stagger stanzas of texts and thus to emphasize momentary impasses and transitional borders of muteness, dumbness, and blindness turns sections of the book into an irregular chessboard. This improvisational play of blank space and text is mirrored at the grammatical level by the proliferation of anagrams that are ungrammatical only within the English language (for example, “Alphabet of Ahtt”). The resulting distortion serves as a brief portal, a fleeting glimpse, of what has been “almost” lost and what is yet to “possibly” come with the social, cultural, and spiritual spheres of what is, at present, “human” activity.

Whatsaid Serif

Whatsaid Serif contains only “Song of the Andoumboulou” poems. The poems in the first section, “Strick” (“Song of the Andoumboulou: 16-25”), were read to the accompaniment of world and jazz music and recorded for a compact disc in 1995. The second section, “Stra” (“Song of the Andoumboulou: 26-35”), features...

(The entire section is 899 words.)