Mackey, Nathaniel 1947–

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Nathaniel Mackey 1947-

(Full name Nathaniel Ernest Mackey) American poet, novelist, critic, and editor.


Mackey is known for poetry and prose that encompass themes and rhythms from multiple cultures, most notably incorporating the musical qualities and spontaneity of improvisational American jazz. One of his best-known works, Song of the Andoumboulou, is a serial poem that began in his 1985 volume, Eroding Witness, and has been published in subsequent units since then. In his role as longtime editor of the literary journal Hambone, Mackey nurtures innovation and cross-cultural connections in the creative arts by publishing the work of both young and established writers, visual artists, and musicians, spanning a wide spectrum of ethnic traditions. Mackey further develops the relationship between world music and poetry by sharing his knowledge of African American and Third World musical movements through radio broadcasts, lectures, readings, and workshops.


Mackey was born in 1947 in Miami, Florida, and grew up in California. He moved there with his mother and siblings after his parents separated, when Mackey was four years old. Although initially interested in mathematics and science, he developed an interest in reading poetry and in music, especially improvisational jazz. This interest was bolstered and influenced by listening to jazz pioneers like Miles Davis and by his family's involvement in a Baptist church, where Mackey noticed that the response people had to music in a spiritual setting was different than the way they responded in a more formal concert setting. His subsequent perception of the affinity among music, spirituality, and the search for cultural identity became an abiding theme in his poetry and fiction. As he entered Princeton University, Mackey began to take his own writing more seriously and his work was published in some of Princeton's literary magazines. After graduating in 1969 Mackey taught mathematics at a public school in Pasadena, California, then began his doctoral studies in English and American literature at Stanford University. After receiving his doctorate from Stanford in 1975, he taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Southern California before accepting a post at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1979. In 1993 Mackey won the Whiting Writer's Award, and in 2006 he won the National Book Award for poetry for the collection Splay Anthem (2006).


Mackey's poetry does not exhibit a consistent voice or textual style; instead, fragmented, fleeting voices, not unlike instruments heard in improvisational jazz, are used experimentally to produce an effect of complex spontaneity and intertextuality. His first poetry collections are the chapbooks Four for Trane, published in 1978, and Septet for the End of Time, which appeared in 1983. The title of the first volume honors legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, signaling the aesthetics of jazz as a key influence in the poet's work. The second volume draws on a wide spectrum of cultural influences including the Koran, the society of West Africa, and the Pyramid texts of Unas, introducing themes of cross-culturality that are characteristic throughout Mackey's poetry. Eroding Witness (1985) was Mackey's first major collection of poetry. It was a National Poetry Series selection the year it was published. The serial poems "Mu" and Song of the Andoumboulou, for which Mackey has become well known, each began in this volume, which also includes the poet's earliest chapbook works. The "Mu" series continues in Outlantish (1992) and School of Udhra (1993). Song of the Andoumboulou continues in the latter, as well as in Song of the Andoumboulou: 18-20 (1994) and Whatsaid Serif (1998). Splay Anthem extends and intertwines individual poems from both epic series.

Mackey has also published four books of experimental fiction, including Bedouin Hornbook (1986), Djbot Baghostus's Run (1993), Atet, A. D. (2001), and Bass Cathedral (2008). Together, these novels form the From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate series, which focuses on the Mystic Horn Society and is composed of letters written by the jazz composer/musician "N" to the mysterious "Angel of Dust." Mackey has also written two volumes of essays and literary criticism, Discrepant Engagement (1993) and Paracritical Hinge (2005). Throughout Mackey's writings the search for cultural foundations and identity is a recurring theme.


Influenced by the various aesthetics of jazz, world music, and the works of twentieth-century writers like Robert Duncan, William Carlos Williams, Henry Dumas, and Langston Hughes, Mackey's works are regarded as a unique contribution to the tradition of American modernist and postmodernist innovative poetry. Critical discussion has revolved around Mackey's treatment of identity and history, and his blending and juxtaposition of a variety of cultural elements, including music, religion, and geography. Despite the fact that some commentators have labeled his writings difficult and abstract, many scholars commend Mackey's linguistic innovation, praising especially his wordplay, which involves an extensive vocabulary of real words combined with an inventive use of made-up words. In addition, critics have generally applauded his stylistic experimentation, pointing out the unconventional spacing between lines of verse, the jagged and irregular left and right margins, and the frequent use of narrative fragments and repetitive words and phrases that appear in Mackey's work. Acknowledging the complexity of both his fiction and his poetry, other observers have discussed how Mackey reifies language, developing it into a "thing," and how his writings work simultaneously on several different levels and involve multiple layers of meaning.


Four for Trane (poetry) 1978

Septet for the End of Time (poetry) 1983

Eroding Witness (poetry) 1985

*Bedouin Hornbook (novel) 1986

Outlantish: "Mu" Fourth Part-Eleventh Part (poetry) 1992

Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (critical essays) 1993

*Djbot Baghostus's Run (novel) 1993

Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose [coeditor with Art Lange] (poetry and prose) 1993

School of Udhra (poetry) 1993

Song of the Andoumboulou: 18-20 (poetry) 1994

Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25 (recorded poetry) 1995

Whatsaid Serif: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-35 (poetry) 1998

American Poetry: The Twentieth Century. 2 vols. [coeditor with Carolyn Kizer, John Hollander, Robert Hass, and Marjorie Perloff] (poetry) 2000

*Atet, A. D. (novel) 2001

Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews (essays and prose) 2005

Splay Anthem (poetry) 2006

*Bass Cathedral (novel) 2008

*These four novels constitute volumes 1 through 4 of Mackey's fictional epistolary series entitled From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate.


Mark Scroggins (review date 2000)

SOURCE: Scroggins, Mark. Review of Whatsaid Serif, by Nathaniel Mackey. African American Review 34, no. 3 (2000): 555-58.

[In the essay that follows, Scroggins commends the poems in Whatsaid Serif, and suggests that the verses are "about change, movement, and becoming."]

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 and School of Udhra. The Andoumboulou are a somewhat shadowy people alluded to in the cosmology of the Dogon people of Mali. Originally dwelling in an 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 postmodernist 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—Whatsaid 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 Sāo / 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 orbiting 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 Sāo 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; "strick," 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 strike, 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 avant-gardists Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, is cross-culturality (as in the title of his Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing ). The term captures, as multiculturalism no longer does, Mackey's sense of 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 García 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 epoch- 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?

Megan Simpson (essay date winter 2003)

SOURCE: Simpson, Megan. "Trickster Poetics: Multiculturalism and Collectivity in Nathaniel Mackey's Song of the Andoumboulou." MELUS 28, no. 4 (winter 2003): 35-54.

[In the following essay, Simpson suggests that the trickster figure appears throughout the ongoing poem Song of the Andoumboulou—not as a physical presence, but on the level of discourse.]

Over the course of his twenty-five-year publishing career, Nathaniel Mackey has authored five poetry chapbooks and three full-length collections of poetry, including Eroding Witness (selected for the National Poetry Series by Michael Harper, 1985), School of Udhra (1993), and Whatsaid Serif (1998). His work of serial fiction, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, has appeared in two installments to date: Bedouin Hornbook (1986) and Djbot Baghostus's Run (1993). In addition to his creative pursuits, Mackey has established his reputation as a scholar with his book, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (1993), and numerous periodical articles in which he examines the writing he finds most compelling: that of contemporary Caribbean and African American experimental writers such as Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Wilson Harris, and Clarence Major as well as the Black Mountain poets Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley. With Art Lange, Mackey edited the anthology Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose (1993). Born in Miami in 1947, Mackey has taught at the University of California at Santa Cruz since 1979 and continues to edit the journal Hambone.

Mackey works at the intersection of the African American vernacular and Euro-American "open form" poetics, a rich intersection, but one not often recognized as such, and in which we can locate the projects of few other African American poets. Amiri Baraka comes to mind, representing the generation before Mackey, as do a few of the young innovators whose work is often contextualized with that of the "language writers," such as Will Alexander, Erica Hunt, and Harryette Mullen. Although the much-needed critical vocabulary for talking about postmodern African American writing has begun to be developed by scholars such as Aldon Lynn Nielsen in his book Black Chant, contemporary American poetry scholarship and publishing have yet to adequately account for linguistically innovative African American poetry. Thus, placing Mackey's writing in any one literary tradition or context is difficult since his poetry itself is "difficult." But significant critical engagements with Mackey's work have appeared, most notably in a recent special issue of Callaloo (2000) and in Paul Naylor's Poetic Investigations: Singing the Holes in History.

Mackey's ongoing sequence poem, Song of the Andoumboulou, is published to date in more than forty numbered sections, the first seven appearing in 1985 in Eroding Witness. Other installments appear in School of Udhra, and Whatsaid Serif is comprised wholly of Song of the Andoumboulou, sections 16-35, many of which had previously been published in literary journals such as Sulfur, Conjunctions, and apex of the M; subsequent sections continue to appear in Callaloo and other periodical venues. In 1995 Mackey made a CD recording of sections 16-25, entitled Strick, with jazz/world music artists Royal Hartigan and Hafez Modirzadeh. The series is an improvisational work of sometimes jarring dissonance and startling connections, rife with noise and punctuated by deep silences.

The title of the series, Song of the Andoumboulou, refers to a traditional funeral song of the Dogon people of West Africa that invokes what in their complex cosmology is an earlier, flawed form of human being. Mackey was initially inspired, upon hearing a sound recording of the song, not so much by the meaning of its words or to what they refer, but by the harsh and "raspy" texture of the singing itself ("Interview," O'Leary 40). Mackey emulates this rasp in his poetic sequence by means of various formal and stylistic gestures, including radical word play, sonic devices, ragged left and right margins, irregular spacing within and between lines, frequent use of ellipses, repetition, and enigmatic fragments of narrative stitched to one another with what seem to be the sinewy innards of language itself.

Song of the Andoumboulou begins with an epigraph from Marcel Griaule's Conversations with Ogotemmêli, an anthropologist's account of Dogon cosmology and culture garnered through interviews with a single tribal elder, and the first few sections of the series stay close to this particular source in terms of theme and specific references. But the series quickly expands its scope, shifting emphasis and admitting more and different cultural "source" materials as it continually evolves. The various musical, poetic, and cultural elements that find their way into Mackey's sequence include West African myth (Yorubá and Dogon in particular), Haitian deities, voudoun, flamenco, Moroccan and Andalusian influences, Arabic and Islamic traditions, gnosticism, reggae, jazz, and blues.

Most critical assessments treat the series as investigative (of either history, identity, or both); virtually all analyze the implications of the poem's cultural roaming and inclusiveness; and several even hone in on Mackey's apparent interest in collective identity in the work, a theme I too will be taking up in my analysis. But none has traced these aspects of Song of the Andoumboulou to the active presence of a trickster aesthetic, by which I mean writing that privileges and seeks to embody in its formal and thematic gestures the behaviors and effects of the trickster figure found in the folklore of oral cultures throughout the world.

Appearing in the tales and myths of many different and widely separated oral cultures, tricksters nonetheless do share certain common features across cultures. They function as cultural heroes, as in the Native American creation tale in which the trickster coyote is responsible for teaching the "New People" all they need to live and survive (Hyde 8-9), while also challenging the norms and laws of the culture. Indeed, trickster's behavior is at times extremely transgressive, as in the Winnebago trickster cycle in which trickster actually kills a group of children (Hyde 40). Tricksters embody opposites in many different ways and on many different levels. In West African traditions, the spider trickster Anansi of the Ashanti people "speaks the truth by dissembling" and the Fon's trickster Legba "is at once an agent of disruption and an agent of reconciliation" (Pelton 2, 75). A given trickster may behave foolishly in one tale, bravely and wisely in the next. For instance, in a widespread North American Indian tale, Coyote gets his head stuck in an elk skull, then bumbles about until he falls into a river and is washed away (Hyde 39-40). In another story, Coyote cleverly builds a fish trap by designing it to take advantage of the salmon's instinct to swim upstream to spawn (Hyde 18-19). Tricksters almost always serve a mediating function, particularly between the human and divine realms, and their role, among others, is to ensure the survival of their culture (Smith 4). In the Tsimshian Raven cycle, for example, the Raven trickster serves both functions simultaneously when he steals light from heaven to illuminate the previously dark world of the humans (Hyde 25).

No longer relegated to orality, tricksters have extended their territory to include contemporary written literatures, especially works by authors writing from historically marginalized cultural positions. In many such works, including Mackey's, the trickster's allegiance is not so much to one traditionally defined "culture" as it is to cross-culturality itself. Tricksters in these postmodern texts do not always appear as characters or figures; although trickster figures are mentioned in Mackey's Song of the Andoumboulou, the trickster functions in the work primarily on the level of discourse itself, as a kind of trickster discourse. In "Trickster Discourse: Comic Holotropes and Language Games," Chippewa writer Gerald Vizenor defines trickster discourse as that in which the trickster functions as "a semiotic sign" whose narrative functions—the de- ployment of irony, chance, and difference—are better understood through the lens of linguistics than that of sociology (189). Vizenor defines the trickster as "communal signification and a discourse with imagination" and "a language game" in which trickster is "disembodied in a narrative" (87, 196). While for Vizenor trickster discourse is closely associated with narrative expression, it could just as well be engaged in lyric or poetic forms, understood as a particular approach to language use, one which admits and emphasizes trickster's linguistic antics. Here, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is helpful: in identifying the pan-African trickster figure Esu-Elegbara as the central trope of an African American literary and critical tradition, he emphasizes Esu's linguistic abilities, including "the function of interpretation," and his affinity for indeterminacy and figurative language (6).

Mackey knows all about Esu and makes direct reference to him in both his creative and his theoretical/critical writings. In his essay "Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol," Mackey explores the nature of his own intellectual interest in Esu-Elegbara in a discussion of "Legba," by which name Esu is known in Fon-Yorubá folklore. Here, Mackey reads a range of cross-cultural literary and musical gestures—found in writing as diverse as William Carlos Williams' poetry, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and the fiction of Wilson Harris—in terms of Legba's limp ("a play of difference") and his role as one who "presides over gateways, intersections, thresholds, wherever different realms or regions come into contact" (Discrepant 244). Paul Hoover, in his analysis of Mackey's fictional work Bedouin Hornbook, identifies the narrator as well as a character known variously as Heidi (a Northern European? Perhaps the character of the popular children's book? The name a play on "hide"?) and Aunt Nancy (Anansi, the spider of African folklore?) as trickster figures. Hoover finds Mackey himself "playing the trickster for moral purpose" in this work by "conflat[ing] black and white cultural icons" (745). Esu also has a clear presence in Song of the Andoumboulou, in which Mackey makes constant reference to the African and African diaspora cultures in which Esu thrives, and Esu himself is mentioned, though sparingly, in "Song of the Andoumboulou: 12" as Eshu and as Legba in "Song of the Andoumboulou: 13" (School 9, 11).

But how, exactly, does the trickster function in Mackey's Song of the Andoumboulou, and how can our understanding of that work be deepened by exploring this presence? I argue that approaching Mackey's Song of the Andoumboulou as a kind of trickster discourse can enable a deeper understanding of how the poem's disjunctive formal characteristics function in relation to one of the work's central concerns: the possibility of a collective subjectivity that might allow the poem's explorers to partake of the "discrepant engagement" necessary for the realization of a cross-cultural identity, neither essentialist nor assimilationist, but improvisational.

Locating trickster's presence in the work on the level of discourse might profitably begin with a tracing of the operations of the "what-sayer" at play throughout the volume Whatsaid Serif. The what-sayer appears at times as a trickster-like character, whose first appearance in the book is as one "obsessed, asking what" (15). He has a keen interest in language and meaning, pointing always to the limitations of the first and the impossibility of the latter:

            […] "What does ‘Language
         is a fruit of which the
is called chatter’ mean?" he
                             asked […]

But even when the what-sayer appears as an agent, he is not confined to a single character. In "Song of the Andoumboulou: 20," he inhabits the poem's speaker: "I was the what-sayer. / Whatever he said I would / say so what" (22). At other times the what-sayer is not embodied at all: language itself is doing the what-saying, as in the passage in which the speaker is in conversation with an entity identified as "what the book went on to say" (19). As the book's title suggests, what-saying goes on quite well without an agent or specific "what-sayer": things simply get "what-said" by the writing itself; by serif, a printing term derived from the Latin scribere, to write. The word's homonym, seraph, brings to the book's title the implication that writing functions on more than a mundane level and is neither transparent nor unproblematic. The what-sayer trickster is a kind of deconstructive angel, the one who continually challenges, thwarts assertion, perceives the gaps and artifice present in any description or expression, "insisting a story lay / behind the story he complained he / couldn't begin to infer" (38). The what-sayer's task is never done in Song of the Andoumboulou, a text whose principal gestures are juxtaposition, dissonance, contrast, and palimpsest.

One of the most significant effects of these gestures is the bringing together of disparate materials—place names, music, deities, objects, all from a wide range of cultural sources—locating the work in a kind of energy field of cross-cultural contact. One important implication of this gesture is the calling into question of essentialist views of culture. In interviews Mackey has addressed this as a concern in his work, especially regarding "the cultures of marginalized peoples" which "tend to be subjected to oversimplification … made into monolithic and often homogenous entities that in actual fact they are not." Mackey wants to "acknowledge the complexity of black culture," in particular, what he calls "its variousness and its several-sidedness" ("Interview," Foster 59).

Of course in bringing together diverse cultural elements, even if they are mostly from "black" cultures, Mackey not only combines them in new ways, but also shifts contexts, alters, and re-creates these elements. For instance, in "Song of the Andoumboulou: 12," the Osanyin, a group of Voudoun deities, share the page with several Yorubá figures and traditions such as Eshu himself and an egungun, a ritual mascarade performance. These two different traditional cultures are put into relation with one another at the same time that both come in contact with globalism: King Sunny Adé, the Yorubá juju music band leader of Nigeria who became a world famous pop icon in the late twentieth century, shows up in the poem a few lines later. In "Song of the Andoumboulou: 16," Mackey explores the cultural reach of "duende," a kind of unrequited longing most often associated with the work of Spanish poets, by overlaying a discussion of it with references to ancient Islamic artistic expression in the form of "the oud's complaint," and "ya habibi echoing / endlessly […]" (Whatsaid 3, 7). Mackey resists the notion that to recombine elements from disparate sources somehow harms or destabilizes the cultures from which they are culled, for, as he explains, "these traditions—the mythology, the lore—are not being gone to as some kind of fixed, given entity that one then has to have a subservient relationship to. They are active and unfinished; they are subject to change; they are themselves in the process of transformation and transition" ("Interview," O'Leary 35).

Trickster is a steady presence in cultural transformation. But according to Jeanne Rosier Smith, that tricksters are "culture builders" and so appear "at moments of … crisis" does not mean that they restore a disrupted culture to a former ideal state (9). Rather, they "preserve and transform" (emphasis mine), much like a jazz improvisationist (4). What Smith calls "the trickster aesthetic" thus "challenges an ethnocentric view," allowing that no one culture is unmediated, "natural," or whole (11). Mackey does not seem as interested in what gets transformed into what when a culture is in transition as he is in the very fact that such transition is always already ongoing. This gives him permission to extract, combine, and overlay elements from different cultural contexts in his poem. Certainly, in Song of the Andoumboulou, no one culture is central, for the scene of the poem is not only constantly in flux, but cultures, even geographic locations, overlap and inhabit one another.

In "Song of the Andoumboulou: 21," the speaker and his unidentified companions are on a train "in southern Spain" while listening to Brazilian music. They feel themselves to be in two places at once, as if the music

          […] put one
    place atop another,
   Brazil in, air as much of
   it as earth, even more, an ear
      we'd have called inner unexpectedly
      out … Neither all in our
heads nor was the world an array
   random than we'd have
                          thought …
          (Whatsaid 30)

Mackey's poem, in this passage and others, suggests that "the world," including one's cultural location in it, is neither completely random nor completely subjective. Yet whatever order there is in the "array" that becomes apparent to the speaker and his companions seems facilitated by the act of listening to music from one culture while traveling through the physical geography of another. Identity itself, in this context, must be shaped by a similar ongoing reciprocal process of personal and cultural construction and deconstruction. As Andrew Wiget indicates in his overview of Native American trickster tales: "Trickster functions not so much to call cultural categories into question as to demonstrate the artificiality of culture itself. Thus he makes available for discussion the very basis of social order, individual and communal identity" (94).

Individual identity is very much part of the discussion in Song of the Andoumboulou, most notably evident in what Joseph Donahue has termed "the elided first person" (63) that figures so prominently in Song of the Andoumboulou, and which the title of Mackey's first collection, Eroding Witness, posits. Donahue notes that Mackey's avoidance of the grammatical sentence, "the site where actor and acted upon are locked into place," allows him to resist the dualistic logic that defines object in relation to subject (63). In an interview with Edward Foster, Mackey discusses his wariness of the subject/object duality in terms of "the Cartesian separation of the ego from the rest of the world" and his desire to achieve a kind of subjectivity that both avoids and critiques the "I" of Western colonialism (49).

This attempt is everywhere evident in Song of the Andoumboulou, in which, although sentences and clauses do appear, the first person pronoun rarely occupies the subject position in them. Personal agents are often avoided altogether in favor of human expression or utterance itself, as in "Cries of thousands / cut in on the music" (Whatsaid 6). Similarly, the presence of the "I" is often communicated through its absence, as when it is implied rather than stated. Verb phrases without any identified subject, punctuated as complete sentences, often have this effect, such as "Feasted on ghost- / lore, leavings" (Whatsaid 7) and "Sat up sleepless in the Long Night Lounge" (School 13). This particular syntactic pattern is common throughout the series. Another frequently employed technique is to suppress the first person pronoun into modifying structures, so that the self is subordinated, embedded within phrases. The first two stanzas of "Song of the Andoumboulou: 12" rely on this strategy: "Weathered raft I saw myself / adrift on. // Battered wood I dreamt I / drummed on, driven" (School 9). Mackey suppresses the first person not only into modifying noun phrases as in these examples, but also into adverb clauses, as in "Bedouin / glimpse of what once I reach after it / vanishes" (School 12). The self is also frequently present in its possessive or object form, as in "my mouth" or "what held me" (Eroding 40, 48). Thus, the "I" never actually disappears, but its status as a fixed, self-contained independent agent gives way to a self comprised of "communal and collective inheritance" (Mackey, "Interview," Foster 48). In place of the "Bound I," Mackey posits an "Insubordinate / us" (School 10).

This, again, is the province of the trickster, who, according to Vizenor, is "communal signification" (187), and who, according to Smith, "play[s] a central role in the connection of self and culture" (4). When the "culture" in which the trickster functions is an expanded cross-culturality, it becomes possible to "expand" or "widen" subjectivity as well, thus making the self resistant to what Mackey calls "the reduction to a state of non-entity" that often results from the processes of social othering in a hegemonic society ("Interview," Foster 53). The "self" in Mackey's Song of the Andoumboulou is expanded in part as a consequence of traveling through geography, cultures, and history, from Dogon myth to twentieth century American jazz to pre-Islamic North Africa. The series' speaker and his (similarly) unidentified companions might be productively viewed as voyagers or wanderers. In "Song of the Andoumboulou: 20," even when they are in a tavern, they are not still, for it's a "peripatetic tavern." And not only do the wanderers' feet keep moving, but their thoughts, too, run ahead; a "mind unremittingly / elsewhere" is a mind in motion (Whatsaid 22).

Significantly, tricksters are often depicted as itinerant, a condition which enables them to maintain the liminal status necessary to perform their functions of mediation, unification, and transformation (Gates 6, Blaeser 140). But I am not suggesting that the wanderers in Mackey's poem are themselves trickster figures; rather, the poem's trickster discourse is a wandering discourse, continually dislocating and relocating the poem's speaker(s) with its "Rumble underfoot," like a "Train / pulling in, pulling out" (Whatsaid 10). Indeed, it often seems that the geography through which the speaker and his companions (as well as the poem's readers) move is that of discourse itself, the conventions of narrative and storytelling that function to make time a place that can be inhabited momentarily:

  Came now to a place was more
time than place, nonsonant
  music's tipped acquittal,
  long-known place known as
By-and-By …
          (Whatsaid 79)

Song of Andoumboulou wanders formally as well: as a serial poem its boundaries are continually extending and its twists and turns are potentially never ending. It is an open-ended serial whose boundaries permeate and are permeated by other of Mackey's works. For instance, the first letter to Angle of Dust (a series of such letters comprise his epistolary novel Bedouin Hornbook ) appears in Eroding Witness as part of "Song of the Andoumboulou: 7." The continual movement in and of the poem, from place to time to sound, and the "expanded" subjectivity that it implies—the sense that the self is never fixed in a single time or location—seems to facilitate Mackey's poetic quest for what Jeffrey Gray calls "a viable first-person plural identity (622), and what Mackey himself refers to in the poem variously as "two-ness" or "the / we they might've been" (Whatsaid 11, 9).

This quest also includes what Paul Naylor views as Mackey's "poetic investigations" of various cultural valuations of collectivity, from the "Simonians," disciples of Simon Magus who sought "to become we," named in Mackey's epigraph to "Song of the Andoumboulou: 17" (Whatsaid 9) to the "lost twinness" that figures in Dogon cosmology. In his reading of Conversations with Ogotommêli, Mackey discovered that the Andoumboulou were flawed because they resulted from a divine incestuous union, an act which also disrupted the "principle of twin births" which had been originally established by the God Amma and his wife earth with their offspring, the twin spirits Nummo, "inventive beings who construct the world and bring to it the first spoken words" (Griaule 23). The Nummo (though spelled "Nommo") figure in Mackey's Song of the Andoumboulou right from the start of the series in a reference to the first words being brought to earth concealed in a woven garment, a passage in which there is

[…] a longing
to unveil what's underneath,
the Word the Nommo
   put inside the fabric's
woven secret
          (Eroding 40)

The associations between plurality, creativity, and language implied by this religious myth offer resonance to the connections Mackey forges in Song of the Andoumboulou among linguistic experimentation, mysticism, and collective subjectivity.

Mackey not only eschews normative syntax, linked as it is to the Cartesian "I," but also tries to "test and break the limits of what can be said," as Brent Hayes Edwards puts it (572), a gesture which might result in what Mackey himself calls "a telling inarticulacy" (Discrepant 253). Trickster is not only most at home in a borderlands of linguistic indeterminacy and ambiguity, but also is, according to Vizenor, "that wild space over and between sounds, words, sentences and narratives" (196). In Song of the Andoumboulou, Mackey explores this wild space in his reference to words which "pointed / not beside the point though almost," and those which were "wanting not to be / words" (Whatsaid 15, 16): these are trickster words, indeed, mischievously thwarting or resisting the process of signification itself. Mackey seeks instead a "wordless / rapport," and strives toward alternative ways of seeing and knowing (i.e. "the intuitive, the uncanny, the oneiric, the sympathetic, the coincidental, the ecstatic, the intangible, the paradoxical, the oceanic, the quirky, the psychosomatic, the quixotic, the religio-erotic and so on") that Mackey associates with mysticism and Western heterodox traditions (Whatsaid 13-14; "Interview," Naylor 646; "Interview," Foster 49). Consistent with this effort are Mackey's phrases "sophic / belly, sophic butt," which seem less anomalous when we recognize that they embody an attempt on the level of language itself to locate knowledge in the body rather than in a disembodied logos (Whatsaid 19).

That Mackey also seeks "a telling inarticulacy" throughout Song of the Andoumboulou is evidenced by the frequent appearance of various wordless sounds as well as the fragmented, interrupted, incomplete quality to the writing in general. Wordless sounds include non-linguistic expression such as musicality itself, as in the numerous references to song, musical instruments, and musical forms: "endless refrain," "the oud's complaint," "flamenco strings," "Davidic / harp," and so on (Whatsaid 5, 3, 12). Multiple incomplete and indeterminate vocalities can be heard in the series as well, from "Ethiopian moan" and "Cries of thousands" to "Muttering" and "The slight / rub of untongued / voices" (Whatsaid 12, 6, 4; Eroding 46). Non-vocal sounds also proliferate and even speak: "Whoosh" "Flutter spoke / next," "Swirl spoke, so / did whir" (Whatsaid 12, 9, 6).

But it is not so much these frequent references to inarticulacy as the texture of the poem itself that functions as a telling inarticulacy. No sooner than a particular scene, narrative line, image, or syntactic structure begins to develop or become apparent, is it dropped, thwarted, interrupted, or sent suddenly in another direction. Take the following excerpt from "Song of the Andoumboulou: 16," for example:

   Hummed.         "Tell me," so
disdainfully it stung …
   singer beating time with a
      dry stick …

Is the one who hums the same who speaks the quoted imperative? And who feels the sting? We have a partially developed interpersonal interaction, but without complete expressions or identified participants. Ellipses indicate that the exchange continues, but elsewhere, not here in the poem for us to follow. Instead, we are suddenly confronted with a singer, presented in a noun phrase so that narrative action is only implied by the verbal "beating" but not realized or completed. Again ellipses signify a kind of fade-out.

In the next line we enter a narrative already underway; the agent is absent or has been suppressed, and we come in on the finite verb:

                   Feasted on ghost-
lore, leavings, "whither thou
   goest …" In another house
dwelt far beyond sight. That
   they were there, anywhere
                            at all,
      ever the heist it had
always been … […]

Who is feasting, dwelling? Who addresses whom as "thou"? That "ghost" rhymes with "goest" causes the quoted phrase to suggest simultaneously the image of a withered ghost and a wandering, as if whoever is doing the wandering has only a suggested, or ghostly, presence. Indeed, the presences are always elsewhere, "in another house" and "out of sight." It seems uncertain that "they" are anywhere at all, as if they are in fact a kind of "heist," embodying, impossibly, their stolen, and thus absent, selves. "Brute / pointlessness bearing / down," the passage continues, as if in self-reference to the continuous inarticulacy that seems somehow nonetheless to propel the poem onward, from one fragmented expression to the next (Whatsaid 7).

For Mackey, inarticulacy is closely linked to collective subjectivity, as this passage illustrates:

                      A wuh
  sound sounding like dove-warble
    worked his throat, the we
he, she and I were haunted by.
          (Whatsaid 19)

The singular pronouns are "haunted" by a "we," suggesting the individuals are inhabited or possessed by an otherworldly, or at least non-normative, plurality. To be "haunted by" also implies a desire for what is not (yet, perhaps) solidly manifest in daily reality. The grammar of this passage is interesting, too: an independent clause is followed by a noun phrase set off by a comma, i.e. a noun phrase appositive. But what noun in the main clause is the appositive, whose core noun is "we," renaming? According to linguistic convention, it should be "throat," the noun immediately preceding it, in which case "throat," the site of verbal expression, is equated with plural subjectivity. Add to this that the throat is in the process of being "worked" by "a wuh sound," the initial phoneme in the word "we," a "we" that wants to be spoken, is on the verge of being named as such, and we arrive at the implication that from such inarticulacy arises the suggestion of a multivalent, multicultural collectivity, linking linguistic experimentation and creativity with plurality (Whatsaid 12).

No one is more interested in language than trickster. Gates notes that "Much of Esu's literature concerns the origin, the nature, and the function of interpretation and language use ‘above’ that of ordinary language" (6). Trickster's own communal function and multivocality are closely linked to extending and exceeding the capabilities of language. Together these tendencies comprise what Smith sees as "trickster's biggest contribution to the postmodern […] the notion that identity can be multiplicitous and that the deconstruction of a falsely unitary language need not lead to incoherence" (17). While it could be argued that in Song of the Andoumboulou trickster's antics do in fact result in incoherence, in the most literal sense of the word, that incoherence is nonetheless meaningful, an intentional push beyond the bounds of the sayable and the confines of the singular.

Trickster's plurality, indeterminacy, and multivocality are very much features of the mediating function trickster serves, whether that be between "the realm of the gods" and "our human world" (Gates 6), or "between self and other … male and female … real and fantastic … story and audience" (Smith 21). Mackey's trickster discourse allows for boundary crossing on a number of fronts, so that elements that would not normally appear in the same context, do, in what Naylor calls "the representation of the moment … when traditions cross paths, and sameness yields to diversity to achieve a more rather than less creative encounter" (71).

In addition to the cross-cultural blendings and juxtapositions I have already mentioned, Mackey's text also permeates temporal boundaries. The "Remnant of an alternate / life" referred to in "Song of the Andoumboulou: 18" might indicate a kind of historical recovery or at least an encounter in the present with traces of the past (Whatsaid 18). Similarly, encounters with the "obsolete"—including the constant engagement with those most obsolete of beings, the Andoumboulou—in the present of the poem which itself seems to have "Rethought what Andoumboulou / meant," keep the portal open between then and now. Mackey also swings the poem wildly into the future and back again in his play with verb tenses, such as the future past perfect combined with the conjunctive in the lines, "We who will have been / compost could wood be / water" (Whatsaid 27). Consistent with these gestures, time in the poem seems circular, folding back on itself rather than progressing linearly, further blurring the distinction between what was and what is: "Endless night now / ended, / rebegun" (School 11). The circularity is seemingly doubled in this example, with "endless" and "rebegun" functioning simultaneously as redundancy and contradiction.

Another boundary regularly breached in Song of the Andoumboulou is that between the human and the spiritual realms. This boundary is trickster's primary residence, and Esu even walks with a limp, one leg shorter than the other, because "he keeps one anchored in the realm of the gods" (Gates 6). The "chthonic / stir" in "Song of the Andoumboulou: 17" indicates the audible presence of the underworld within the text, whose trickster discourse is itself the "conduit" between these realms (Whatsaid 9). Both the temporal and the spiritual border-crossings such as these that occur throughout the poem have a significant feature in common: the transgressed boundary in both cases is that between the apparent and the hidden, thus admitting elements that conventional western thinking in its insistence on solid distinctions between past and present, the spiritual and the material, and so on, would deem extraneous or divergent.

Giving access to such heterogeneous elements results in what Mackey calls "noise," a positive term for "whatever the signifiying system, in a particular situation, is not intended to transmit" (Discrepant 20). Thus, it is a potentially radical, transformative act to admit this noise. To understand how noise functions in relation to the poem's reach toward collective subjectivity, we must view words such as "Andoumboulou," "chthonic," "Ogun" (a Yorubá diety), "Udhrite" (the adjectival form of Udhra, a pre-Islamic school of poetry) that appear in the poem as neither references nor allusions, but presences. Like the Yorubán egungun mask, which invokes a family's ancestors and thus permits a temporary commingling of the dead with the living (Drewal 175), itself mentioned by Mackey in "Song of the Andoumboulou: 12," the disparate elements brought together in the poem, be they from other times, cultures, or spiritual planes, cohabit in the poem's moment.

Robert Plant Armstrong describes what he terms "syndetic" processes as central to Yorubá culture. While synthesis involves the resolution of opposites, syndesis is marked by "accretion": rather than one meaning giving way to the next, the past to the present, and so on, contradictory meanings and moments add to one another (13). In his analysis of David Bradley's novel The Chaneysville Incident, Edward Pavlić not only argues that "West African syndetic processes are present in contemporary African American culture," but also uses Armstrong's analysis of syndesis to show how Bradley's novel posits a syndetic, "inter-subjective and improvisational" African American identity (167). This idea is easily extended to Mackey's poem, in which the collective subjectivity the poem's travelers seek is certainly syndetic, admitting noise, dissonance, indeterminacy, improvisation. In an interview, Mackey defines improvisation as "a metaphor for … processes of cultural and social revaluation (O'Leary 36), in other words, an interpretive process. Thus, Mackey's Song of the Andoumboulou might be productively viewed as more of a reading than a statement to be read, an engagement with the very process over which the trickster Esu rules, according to Gates: "the uncertainties of explication […] a process that is never-ending and that is dominated by multiplicity" (21).

Reading the poem this way, as a kind of trickster discourse, makes it evident just how complex and, indeed, tricky, is the conception of collective identity posited by it. Mackey's invented word "Ouadada" first appears in "Song of the Andoumboulou: 18" of Whatsaid Serif, where it seems to refer to the first person plural:

               […] Monophysite
  lament, one we, Ouadada, that
we would include, not reduce to us …
He to him, she to her, they to them,
  pronouns, "persons" whether or not we
knew who they were …

Ouadada seems to be "one we," one version of collectivity, which the poem's speaker(s) "would include" but "not reduce" to an "us." It is a we-ness that allows or perhaps requires a certain amount of slippage, remaining evocative and open, inclusive of a range of cultural elements. The origins of the word are unknown, but it contains echoes consistent with the thematics of the poem as well as the poetics of its author: the oud, a North African lute, which already has a pronounced presence in Song of the Andoumboulou, is evoked in the word. Could "dada" be a reference to the European avant garde movement that so privileged nonsense play and has an important place in the lineage of experimental writing in which we must also place Mackey? And what about Ouadda, a city in the Central African Republic? The word "Ouadada" appears variously as a destination of sorts: in "Song of the Andoumboulou: 20" the speakers are "on our way to Ouadada," but uncertain about "when it would / be Ouadada" (Whatsaid 22-23). In "Song of the Andoumboulou: 25," Oudada is simply "sought" (Whatsaid 45). Does Ouadada name a place? A state of being? Certainly the object of a quest, but one that shifts and morphs with each reference. In its third occurrence in "Song of the Andoumboulou: 20," it names a kind of intimate contact or merging with the / an other(s): "the collective kiss we / called Ouadada" (Whatsaid 24).

However difficult it is to achieve or arrive at Ouadada, remaining as it does just out of reach throughout Song of the Andoumboulou, with trickster as guide, readers might begin to participate in the quest, to at least imagine the possibility of a collective cross-cultural identity that would allow "the incorporation of diversities into the psyche" (Ong 7) and thus move beyond the logics of "us and "them" so often underlying current conceptions of literary as well as social multiculturalism.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Robert Plant. The Powers of Presence: Consciousness, Myth, and Affecting Presence. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1981.

Blaeser, Kimberly M. Gerald Vizenor: Writing in the Oral Tradition. Norman OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1996.

Donahue, Joseph. "Sprung Polity: On Nathanial Mackey's Recent Work." Talisman 9 (1992): 62-65.

Drewal, Henry John, John Pemberton III, and Rowland Abiodun. Yorubá: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought. New York: Center for African Art, 1989.

Edwards, Brent Hayes. "Notes on Poetics Regarding Mackey's Song." Callaloo 23.2 (2000): 572-91.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Gray, Jeffrey. "‘Beyond the Letter’: Identity, Song, and Strick." Callaloo 23.2 (2000): 621-39.

Griaule, Marcel. Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. Trans. R. Butler, et al. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.

Hoover, Paul. "Pair of Figures for Eshu …" Callaloo 23.2 (2000): 728-48.

Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York: Farrar, 1998.

Mackey, Nathaniel. Bedouin Hornbook. Lexington KY: Callaloo Fiction Series, 1986.

———. Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1993.

———. Djobot Baghostus's Run. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1993.

———. Eroding Witness. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1984.

———. "An Interview with Nathaniel Mackey." By Edward Foster. Talisman 9 (1992): 48-61.

———. "An Interview with Nathaniel Mackey." By Paul Naylor. Callaloo 23.2 (2000): 645-63.

———. "An Interview with Nathaniel Mackey." By Peter O'Leary. Chicago Review 43.1 (1997): 30-46.

———and Art Lange, eds. Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose. Minneapolis MN: Coffee House, 1993.

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

———. Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25. With Royal Hartigan and Hafez Modirzadeh. Spoken Engine, 7 90807 16252 9, 1995.

———. Whatsaid Serif. San Francisco: City Lights, 1998.

Naylor, Paul. Poetic Investigations: Singing the Holes in History. Evanston IL: Northwestern UP, 1999.

Nielson, Aldon Lynn. Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism. Cambridge UK: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Ong, Walter. "Introduction: On Saying We and Us to Literature." Three American Literatures: Essays in Chicano, Native American, and Asian-American Literature for Teachers of American Literature. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr. New York: MLA, 1982. 3-7.

Pavlić, Edward. "Syndetic Redemption: Above-Underground Emergence in David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident." African American Review 30.2 (1996): 165-84.

Pelton, Robert D. The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980.

Smith, Jeanne Rosier. Writing Tricksters: Mythic Gambols in American Ethnic Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.

Vizenor, Gerald. "Trickster Discourse: Comic Holotropes and Language Games." Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures. Ed. Gerald Vizenor. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1989. 187-211.

Wiget, Andrew. "His Life in His Tail: The Native American Trickster and the Literature of Possibility." Redefining American Literary History. Ed. A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. New York: MLA, 1990. 83-96.

J. Edward Mallot (essay date spring 2004)

SOURCE: Mallot, J. Edward. "Sacrificial Limbs, Lambs, Iambs, and I Ams: Nathaniel Mackey's Mythology of Loss." Contemporary Literature 45, no. 1 (spring 2004): 135-64.

[In this essay, Mallot argues that the multivolume From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate "seems to reject classification of any order, preferring to revel in the possibilities—more than in the full realizations—of a text that offers letters, song lyrics, convoluted diagrams, and accounts of dreams that rattle and hum meanings, a cacophony that somehow sounds correct."]

Perhaps Wilson Harris is right. There are musics which haunt us like a phantom limb. Thus the abrupt breaking off. Therefore the "of course." No more than the ache of some such would-be extension. Still, I'm not so sure anymore. I'm not so sure all this recent insistence of mine on absence isn't couvade after all. (Please don't tell me you told me so.)

          Nathaniel Mackey, Bedouin Hornbook

Nathaniel Mackey's Bedouin Hornbook rejects easy classification, despite the temptation to screw the text into preexisting sets of literary acceptance. There are genres which haunt us, to echo Mackey's protagonist N., like phantom limits; thus the gentle slide into academic pigeonholing, therefore the "of course that's what it is." Poetic in sound and image, the Hornbook is not poetry. While novelesque in narrative scope and concern, the text does not follow the parameters of a conventional novel, opting instead to slip within N.'s ongoing correspondence, a half exchange that, at best, half answers a handful of issues before the book concludes. Mackey himself shies away from referring to his multivolume From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate as "novels," telling Paul Naylor, "For a long time I was uncomfortable with them being called fiction and with the individual volumes being called novels, but I eventually got used to it" ("Interview" [Naylor] 651). To dismiss the argument of genre by claiming the Hornbook an epistolary fiction is to ignore a number of features of this narrative type. First, the lack of authorial intrusion in an epistolary work grants an immediacy of experience with those who "author" the letters, so much so that the reader may suffer from the absence of an omniscient viewpoint; in Mackey's text the question of distance between Mackey himself and the "N." that writes the letters is constantly up for reexamination. Not surprisingly, Mackey offers scant explanation of how to distinguish between N. and Nathaniel: "N. and I have some things in common. We overlap…. Shared experiences. Some shared proclivities" ("Interview" [O'Leary] 46). Second, the tone of the text suggests an interchange of thought between N. and the recipient of the letters, the remarkably ambiguous Angel of Dust, without providing either the Angel's letters or much assurance that interchange is actually taking place. Ultimately, the text seems to reject classification of any order, preferring to revel in the possibilities—more than in the full realizations—of a text that offers letters, song lyrics, convoluted diagrams, and accounts of dreams that rattle and hum meanings, a cacophony that somehow sounds correct.

Joseph Allen, attempting to find a prevailing structure to the multivolume work, argues: "The letters blur boundaries between fiction and theory, narration and critique, presence and absence, music and discourse. N., as well as the reader, must create theoretical cultural fictions to fill the perceived gaps of meaning among the letters" (205). The words demand such an aggressive mode of interpretation, in part, precisely because the Angel remains absent, a felt presence at every turn but with no speaking role. This silence seems appropriate for a text obsessed with absence, challenging its charac- ters to see "what isn't there" and to examine the means by which something is both instantly lost and constantly found. That we feel we have lost something recalls N.'s "ache of some such would-be extension" (Hornbook 1); remove enough layers, however, disentangle enough knots, and the past—or the present, or the memory, or whatever "phantom limbs" we're seeking—may yet be found. Thus the plays on homonyms and synesthetic puns; therefore the "of course" of recognition sudden and sweeping. Interestingly, it is loss that makes possible the slippages between memory and rememory, between death and rebirth, between isolation and communion. This loss is often a transubstantiation of experience that presents metonymy in reincarnated form, as if the spirit of the amputated figure drifts to a new mode, or "plane," of expression.

The suggestion of reality as a palimpsest of planes of possibility—each true at any given moment, with emphasis placed on the gaps between states as much as the states themselves—recalls the "thousand plateaus" model posited by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. All meaning, according to this model, rests on relation, the collision of planes of possibility that erode as they shift past each other. Extraneous factors can complicate or make impossible otherwise desirable connection; in Mackey's case, these factors include distance, language, physicality, social constraints, and death. To "kill off" these constraints allows for more direct communication, and in the Hornbook sacrifice predicates survival. That something has been severed, importantly, does not mean that it remains forever inaccessible, but that it becomes another absent layer in the palimpsest of our existence, a phantom limb or lamb or iamb that replaces the real arm or body or word we knew before. Indeed, the introduction of a phantom limb, physical or textual or otherwise, may strengthen the body as a whole—the Angel of Dust may, arguably, assume a more potent narrative stance in silence; the protagonist may gain more potential with a name that's only a letter.

The plateau model works for Mackey's project in a number of ways. Musically, the model functions as a scale, the evocation of a single note the implication of an entire scale: one hears the note C but infers D, E, and so forth. Meaning is only truly generated either by the acknowledgment of the entire chord or by charting the progression of notes along a scale. Mackey's penchant for adding a capital D to names that begin with J—a device fully exploited in the Hornbook 's sequel, Djbot Baghostus's Run —reflects what can happen when a prior plane is revisited; molecules can shift over time and place, generating an altered past that suffers mediation but, nevertheless, refuses to disappear entirely. As bodies can possess phantom limbs, Mackey's thousand plateaus include phantom planes, levels of meaning and discourse that remain temporarily silent only to reassert themselves later, a percussive undercurrent never heard but always there.

Still, Deleuze and Guattari's plateaus project fails to fully explain Mackey's epistolary enterprise. The original model resembles a stack of parallel planes, but N. finds that his world is not a smooth, regular series of strata. Instead, his sense of order can become complicated by any number of outside pressures, including individual grief, collective infighting, racial discrimination, public rejection, distance, time, and history. These separate problems suggest that the texture of reality is much rougher than in a smooth, striated model, as each of these "outside pressures" can add another "plane" from various angles. The result, for N., is not a stack of planes but a geometric nightmare, a crazy quilt of self and environment. It is perhaps this texture of the problem of loss and recovery that leads Mackey to refer to his work as weaving, as warp and weft seeking a kinship but remaining, simultaneously, discrete threads. If the Hornbook and the Run are, indeed, indicative of a thousand plateaus, one might conclude that these planes intersect each other, complicating the goal of recovery but expanding the potential of something strange and wonderful in its own creaky creation.

Something Lost

The first sentence of Bedouin Hornbook —"You should've heard me in the dream last night" (1)—assumes familiarity with both "you" and "me." In truth, we know neither. It seems shocking—given that the entire volume is written by N., given N.'s tendency to go on and on about himself, betraying his hopes and fears and insecurities, given his apparent project of writing as a kind of intellectual catharsis—how little we actually know about the narrator. One may assume that N. is male, that N. is black, that N. is heterosexual, that N. is part of a jazz-blues band, that N. is somewhat talented; but these "facts" are ultimately only assumptions. We cannot even claim N.'s name. If anything, the Hornbook 's opening words suggest the degree to which the narrator relies on an exchange of discourse, even though that exchange seems undercut by the Angel of Dust's absence. This nonpresence opens a wide variety of possible identities for the letters' recipient. It also places the reader in literary terrain virtually impossible to navigate: we have a writer we do not know, communicating to a blank recipient we neither see nor hear. We have word, but no world; text, but little context.

Furthermore, the relationship between the two is unquestionably complicated. One gathers as much from the opening section alone, which ends with N. edging toward severance:

I'm not at all sure this won't be the last letter you'll receive from me. As much as I hate to say so, this dialogue of ours seems hopelessly enmeshed in the very "ontology of loss" of which you've insisted I disburden myself. I know I've been known to cut you loose be- fore, but this time I think I really mean it. I'll send tapes of the band, of course, but please don't expect anything more in the way of words.

Love, N.


The suggestion of tapes to follow and the closing "Love" should signal that this break may be only temporary, and indeed some ten months later N. will resume contact, opening the Hornbook 's second letter with an apology: "I'm sorry to have taken so long answering your letter, though I'd have thought you'd be the last person to be bothered by those sorts of questions" (4). This will hardly be the first time N. feels compelled to apologize for a lapse in communication; a quick survey of the dated epistles demonstrates that exchange either flowed heavily or hardly at all. Djbot Baghostus's Run begins on a similar note: "Sorry to've taken so long getting back to you. I've been meaning to write for some time but it seems one thing or another has managed to get in the way…. For the time being, though, I prefer not to talk too directly about what I'm doing" (7). While N. frequently apologizes for his failure to connect, later in the Run he'd "begun to wonder why I hadn't heard from you for so long" (48). That N. maintains a dialogue with the Angel is important, for he relies on the Angel as audience and critic. Letters frequently end with a request akin to "Tell me what you think" (Hornbook 16), only to complain in other segments that "(here you can say you told me so again)" (Hornbook 17). At certain points N. clearly feels that the Angel not only misunderstands him but unfairly manipulates his ideas; at other points he feels an absolute affinity: "Thank you for the tape. It's as though we shared a single set of ears. It's not only that I'd already heard the piece you sent (I have the record it's on in fact), but it's the very cut I like most on the album" (Hornbook 138). N. and the Angel even read the same texts simultaneously, pondering the same questions: "I too was puzzled by the passage you point out in Bastide's book" (Run 74).

One could, arguably, infer from the name of his correspondent that N.'s letters are transcripts of drug-induced states, the Angel a muse of abuse that guides his intellectual "trip." That the Angel never speaks, lacks a "name," appears with inconsistent frequency, and is, at times, sworn off by N. suggests that the Angel may reflect an addiction and not an individual. Alternatively, one could just as easily argue that the Angel is a more traditional type of muse, one that creates magic out of dust, visits the recipient of divine art—in this case, N.—and returns to dust at the conclusion of N.'s "song." This would hold particular weight in the context of Mackey's ongoing poetry series Song of the Andoumboulou, where N. confers with the muse during the construction of his songs. Then again, the Angel could stand in for a specific outside friend and critic of Mackey's work, one helpful enough to garner the epithet "angel" while granted anonymity within the published text. The Angel could, obliquely, refer to Mackey's readers, the text then a dialogue with the readership in which Mackey's replies are supplied entirely in advance. Finally, Mackey could be conversing with himself, an example of what he might call "autoconstitutive stress" (Hornbook 61), in which a writer must rely on metadiscourse to make true progress.

Regardless of what self-referentiality might be traced in the letters, Mackey seems to insist that the Angel figure represents a need to reconnect with others, particularly individuals from the past:

I acknowledge in the very first of the Angel of Dust letters … the correspondence, the letter form, the sense of being in conversation with the dead … that one is writing beyond one's self or at least aspiring to write beyond one's self…. You know, in language we inherit the voices of the dead. Language is passed on to us by people who are now in their graves and brings with it access to history, tradition, times and places that are not at all immediate to our own immediate and particular occasion whether we look at it individually and personally or whether we look at it in a more collective way and talk about a specific community.

          ("Interview" [Foster] 54)

The palimpsest that becomes the Angel of Dust—the layers of possibility that refuse to collapse into a simple, static entity—parallels the realms of communication that can and do permeate our daily lives, involving the living and the dead, the seen and the invisible. Curiously, to enter this palimpsest of communication requires both a wandering from the self and a dialogue with others. The latter is usually attained through song; while we may perform a solo, we engage in a tonal affinity by entering a realm of shared sound, playing to an audience that, although sometimes invisible, is always attentive. Mackey opens the Song of the Andoumboulou sessions with a curiously self-reflexive assertion: "The song says the / dead will not / ascend without song" (Eroding Witness 33). Dream sections of the Hornbook, like many of the performances, underscore the notion of songs as séances, either direct or inferred. The coexistence of the there and not there becomes at one point expressed in the musical paraphrasing practice of "dubbing": "In fact, the alternation between absence and availability, the evocation of something there but not there that one gets from ‘dub,’ was very much what Shango seemed to be after—a skeletal promise or a spectral insistence of a sort that the organ seemed to be played by a ghost" (Hornbook 87). In this light, N.'s opening words in the Hornbook might be not only a wishful longing for the Angel's company but a simple statement of fact. If the Angel represents both the dead and the living, who conquer verbal and physical distance to achieve a constant, if not constantly obvious, communion, the figure should have "heard me in the dream last night."

Because the dead seem irrevocably tied to the power of music performance, those who seek to communicate through the conduits of voice and instrument must offer a form of personal sacrifice. Pain bears promise, and N. eventually wonders if the pain in his brow—presumably caused by cowrie shells lodged in his head—is somehow necessary for his music to shine: "Are the attacks a self-sentencing conviction the music fosters and feeds, even if only as the occasion for a reprieve? Are self-sentencing conviction and self-commuting sentence merely symbiotic halves of a self-cycling ordeal? Do I knock myself down in order to be picked up?" (Run 18). The cowrie-shell pains are the latest in a long line of references to pain as the occasion of birth and rebirth, of bodily harm as the mechanism that allows the music and the dead to speak. The image of bloodletting as that which causes the pen to fountain occurs in the Hornbook 's opening letter, where N.'s "thinking hovered around the figure of a cloth-enshrouded, enormously protective Thigh. The needle pricked a vein and what blood flowed out was an ending, the ending of a song I went on to write" (14). The concept of veins as reflective of a continuum, a linearity of music and time, is echoed in the opening chapter of the Run :

In this, of course, he works the vein opened up by such people as Milford Graves, Sunny Murray and Rashied Ali. And by "vein" I mean exactly that, for what he does (or so it seemed to me that night) is insist upon a hemorrhaging, a dilation of one's way of looking at time. What struck me most was his playing's apparently absent yet all the more convincing regard for linearity, his having collapse and consolidation, qualm and quanta, find their way to one another.


A vein opening to allow a song to be heard conveys several messages at once: that both the dead and their song are somehow within us; that their appearance requires some loss, whether of bodily or psychological self, on our part; that music floats above bodies, space, and time. Images of blood and sacrifice become more fully realized in the composition N. entitles "Meat of My Brother's Thigh." The story concerns two brothers starving in the forest. To ensure that his brother can finish the journey, the elder secretly cuts away and serves part of his own thigh. Upon finding their way out, the younger realizes the sacrifice his brother has made and vows to serve him forever (Hornbook 89). Assuming that the elder brother symbolizes those people like Graves, Murray, and Ali as well as writing influences such as Wilson Harris and Amiri Baraka, N./Mackey opens up veins not only to the muse of poetry but to the muses of artistic ancestry as well. Sacrifice pays homage to the past, provides food for the present, and preserves ground for the future.

Barry Powell's work on ancient myths around the world suggests that sacrificial motifs—including castration and circumcision—indicate a transcultural belief that death was a prerequisite to life, that a pruning of the human body generated a smaller, tighter, more productive whole: "[F]or many peoples, sacrifice was necessary to appease the divine powers that ruled the world. Human beings were felt to be in debt to the gods and to the angry ghosts, who had to be bought off at any price. The value of sacrifice was gauged by the pain it caused those who made it" (220-21). Powell concludes, "the continuing fertility of the earth cannot be separated from the inevitable presence of death" (237). Indeed, myths from Greece, Rome, ancient Africa, and pre-Christian Mesopotamia all share, though in variegated forms, rituals of sacrifice, practiced for a multiplicity of ends: to ensure a good harvest, to guarantee success in war, to save mankind. Osiris, an Egyptian god referenced in Mackey's prose, stands as a ready example. He manages to procreate after death; his postmortem, ubiquitous phallus ensures political power for the pharaoh; his coffin grants the world continual prosperity, bought at the expense of Osiris's own death and his wife's grief.

Osiris is not the only African figure to transmit energy and prosperity after death. Mackey's attention to "the creaking of the word" in Marcel Griaule's Conversations with Ogotemmêli reflects an extended, complex relationship between N.'s letters and basic tenets of the Dogon peoples. A number of Ogotemmêli's teachings find echoes in the Hornbook, including the transformation from sacrifice to survival. As Griaule explains:

In all its different forms, whether of consecration, expiation, divination, purification, upholding the invisible or securing salvation for one's self, sacrifice for the Dogon had one unchanging effect—the redistribution of life-force.

But it was not simply a matter of taking a victim's life-force to put it somewhere else, or to increase the life-force of some other being, visible or invisible. The object was rather to create a movement of forces within a circuit composed of the sacrificer, the victim, the altar and the power invoked.


Although the Dogon model presents relatively static representations for the "nouns"—the victim, the altar, and so forth—it still requires rather liquid "verbs" for the magic and message to arise from Griaule's "circuit." Intriguingly, these verbs take the very forms Mackey uses in sections such as "Meat of My Brother's Thigh"—bleeding and speaking. In Dogon rituals of sacrifice, Griaule continues,

At the critical moment, that is to say, when the blood flows, the man utters a prayer, by which he invokes the power, for example the Nummo, and explains what he is doing. The prayer is spoken aloud. It is therefore itself an expulsion of force, which follows the lines of the breath issuing from the speaker's mouth. This force serves, in the first place, to arouse the Nummo and, in the second place, to direct the force that flows from the wounded throat of the victim and pours out on to the altar.


If the sacrificed, sacrificed by, and sacrificed to provide what Griaule terms a "circuit" of transformation, blood and speech provide the conduits by which transformation occurs. Something lost, something gained: Mackey's epistolary works, in a fashion somewhat mysterious and somewhat metafictive, enact the same formula. The Dogon rituals of sacrifice, stripped of their precise, original context, become resurrected in a more universal form, one gained through N.'s willingness to pour out literal and metaphoric blood. In Mackey's interpretation, "[i]t's a transformation":

And it's a case in point of the fact that these traditions—the mythology, the lore—are not being gone to as some kind of fixed, given entity that one then has to have a subservient relationship to. They are active and unfinished; they are subject to change; they are themselves in the process of transformation and transition. They speak to an open and open-ended possibility that the poetics that I've been involved in very much speaks to as well. To see cracks and incompleteness as not only inevitable but opportune.

          ("Interview" [O'Leary] 35)

Within the Hornbook, the something-lost-something-gained equation works in a number of ways. The pain of separation from a loved one becomes the occasion for song. The sacrifice of opening up a vein or "opening up" on a page becomes the catharsis necessary for genuine expression. The missing letters on a wall of graffiti become, for one of N.'s fellow musicians, an "enabling confusion concerning the singular and the plural," a "vacillation between the claims of the one and the counterclaims of the other" (Hornbook 26); for another, this same wall of grammatical errata becomes "an invitation into an area of uncommon sense, and … the dislocations they visited upon so-called proper English were manifestly of an invasive, mediumistic order" (27). That something becomes verbally missing does not diminish the power of the message; if anything, the remaining phonemes and phonics gain areas of potential power, exploring what isn't said by refusing to utter it. This may explain, to some extent, the silence of the Angel; by not allowing the recipient of the letters to reply directly, Mackey may be offering volumes of commentary in its wake. Certainly, the Angel's present nonpresence opens up a number of interpretive options, each expanding the text's ability to "speak."

Harryette Mullen, on the other hand, sees in the Angel's silence a much more politically charged statement, one in which absence is a gesture toward the oppression that has silenced African Americans for generations:

The accumulated images of castration/amputation in Bedouin Hornbook are related to the persistent association of African Americans with both coerced silence and strategic inarticulateness, although what Mackey investigates is the relative stress placed on either articulation or disarticulation as oppositional values within and between cultures. The discursive representation of the African as alogos in Western culture becomes, for Mackey, the background of a series of meditations on music, myth, mastery, and masculinity. Just as the individual seeking through literacy to distinguish himself from the "voiceless" mass learns the value of secrecy and indiscretion … so also the need, within traditional black communities, to shroud African spirituality in secrecy has contributed to the elusiveness, evasiveness, and enigmatic quality of African cultural practices in regard to a Western context of misunderstanding, oppression, and often deliberate distortion.


Like Baraka and Ishmael Reed before him, Mackey engages in occasionally optioned silence and coerced grammar to create an impression that challenges the world order of the word. For Mullen, "The supposed lack of precision associated with aesthetic and spiritual traditions of the African diaspora is transformed into a positive value, rather than a deficit. What might sound like faulty grammar or blurred pronunciation of standard English is … accurate in its signification of a profound difference in world view" (39). Self-sacrifice of word and gesture becomes, for Mackey, more than an outward motive; the cut and the shift stretch toward both cultural and personal bounds, while testing the limits of aesthetic expression. If poetry, according to Mackey's collection of essays Discrepant Engagement, represents "language owning up to being an orphan" (234), it is music that both mourns and heals. Song becomes "wounded kinship's last resort … [it] bears witness to what is left out of that concept of reality, or, if not exactly what, to the fact that something is left out" (232).

One useful exploration of music as an acknowledgment of something lost and something gained can be gleaned from N.'s meditations on the falsetto, a manner of singing in which the primary voice is deliberately muted to allow a higher register to take precedence, as if the lower key is sacrificed to recover it. "What is it in the falsetto," N. asks, "that thins and threatens to abolish the voice but the wear of so much reaching for heaven?" (Hornbook 52). N. begins to think of the falsetto in terms of the moan or shout, two methods of speaking that manage to convey more in their wordlessness than more conventionally articulate methods could accomplish: "Like the moan or the shout, I'm suggesting, the falsetto explores a redemptive, unworded realm—a meta-word, if you will—where the implied critique or the momentary eclipse of the word curiously rescues, restores and renews it: new word, new world" (Hornbook 52). If history, as the Angel suggests, is merely a "manner of speaking," N. could hardly be accused of "trying to out-shout or shut history up" (Hornbook 70); a more complicated politics of voice and message is involved than simply offering a counter- discourse. On a psychological level, to begin, the falsetto reminds us of our other selves, our other avenues of language and song, which were always inside us but rarely outside.

The troubling of the voice precipitated by the invocation of the falsetto echoes a second phantom voice, the duende, defined by Mackey as "a conversation with the dead, intimacy with death and with the dead" ("Cante Moro" 197), one that only occurs when the possibility of death becomes evident. "The word duende," he explains, "means spirit, a kind of gremlin, a gremlinlike, troubling spirit. One of the things that marks the arrival of duende in flamenco singing is a sound of trouble in the voice. The voice becomes troubled. Its eloquence becomes eloquence of another order, a broken, problematic, self-problematizing eloquence" (195). Mackey turns to the work of Federico García Lorca to more fully explain the sacrifice required and potential promised in evoking duende. One section of García Lorca's Deep Song and Other Prose describes a flamenco singer who, although technically sound, fails to truly affect her audience, a limitation she can overcome only by sacrificing tonality for more textual depth:

As though crazy, torn like a medieval weeper, La Niña de los Peines got to her feet, tossed off a big glass of firewater and began to sing with a scorched throat, without voice, without breath or color, but with duende. She was able to kill all the scaffolding of the song and leave way for a furious, enslaving duende, friend of sand winds, who made the listeners rip their clothes with the same rhythm as do the blacks of the Antilles when, in the "lucumí" rite, they huddle in heaps before the statue of Santa Bárbara.

          (45-46; qtd. by Mackey, "Cante Moro" 196)

Mackey elaborates:

Lorca does not so much define duende as grope after it, wrestle with it, evoke it through strain, insist on struggle. He says, for example, that "one must awaken the duende in the remotest mansions of the blood." He says that "the duende loves the rim of the wound" and that it "draws near places where forms fuse together into a yearning superior to their visible expression." He writes, "Each art has a duende different in form and style but their roots all meet in the place where the black sounds of Manuel Torre come from—the essence, the uncontrollable, quivering, common base of wood, sound, canvas, and word."

          ("Cante Moro" 196-97)

Again, concepts of sacrifice find their potency from death itself. Both the literal word and the corporeal body suffer, bleed, even disappear entirely in order to find a modified, more energized form in reincarnation. For Richard Quinn, "Duende appears as the recouping of loss, a re-establishment of multiform collectivity. Absence, loss, limping, and impairment become abundance rather than deficit" (618). In this sense, the "absent" elements of N.'s letters become way stations of physical and psychic potency, generating multiplicity by killing singularity. The abandonment of the static body and word allows a host of tangential relations to sing along; the falsetto and the duende produce not synonyms but symbiosis:

This wooing of another voice, an alternate voice, that is so important to duende has as one of its aspects or analogs in poetry that state of entering the language in such a way that one is into an area of implication, resonance, and connotation that is manifold, many-meaninged, polysemous. One has worked beyond oneself. It is as if the language itself takes over. Something beyond the will, the conscious design or desire of the poet, is active, something that goes beyond univocal, unequivocal control…. Bound reference, univocal meaning, is no solution to the riddle of language.

          ("Cante Moro" 199)

This "riddle" challenges the reader to acknowledge that what is not is part of what is, that the seeming opposite actually reflects teeming homonyms of sound and sense.

In a similar vein, the members of the band discuss the relative worth of searching for a drummer, one that will provide an undercurrent for the others. The men of the group will spend a great deal of time in the Run dreaming of the mystical Djeannine, a shared dream-answer to a shared band problem. Aunt Nancy, on the other hand, argues near the end of the Hornbook that such a search is essentially unnecessary, that percussion is constantly taking place, "that the absence and/or presence of the drum could never be taken literally, that either was also the other as a genetically dislocated aspect of itself. This, she insisted, was the heterodox beauty of our conception, the hybrid (as against ‘highbred’) pedigree of our percussive concept, the resiliency which made such retrieval as Lambert proposed altogether redundant, not to say absurd" (134). Acknowledging that opposites are simply the flip side of "this side," the Run takes up the question of the relationship of opposites, of whether flip side is highly integral to the present state or only occasionally relevant; the inability to decide leaves N. muttering "flipside so near so far" (45) over and over again. What remains clear is that opposites are what make us whole, that absences make the present felt more sincerely, that the past is always with us and will catch up with us over the history of our futures. Sacrifice and pain can make us more acutely aware of what has been lost and what remains to be recovered. This does not mean that N. exhorts his audience to undergo self-mutilation for aesthetic gain, what the Angel calls "a thinly veiled romance of distantiation." Rather, sacrifice symbolizes what N. calls a "‘broken’ claim to connection" (Hornbook 34), a fragmented whole that speaks both to the entire group and to each disjointed member. Here, N. visualizes the collection of parts as a "rickety bridge (sometimes a rickety boat)," the planks claiming at once a kinship with each other and a uniqueness of their own, an object that creaks its group song of longing and together- ness. N. begins to see himself as somehow floating above the texture of the rickety boat: "I felt my anchorlessness as a lack, as an inured, eventually visible pit up from which I floated, looking down on what debris looking into it left" (Hornbook 34). N. has now assumed the role of the book's title—the Bedouin unattached to an overly deterministic sense of place, time, identity, or meaning, a wanderer of art and semantics. What remains to be learned from the Hornbook is the meaning of the title's second word—what information can be gleaned from a hornbook for the wanderer, how that information can be accessed, and whether this "primer" is a self-contained unit or dependent on the reader-wanderer's ability to see what else might be contained. According to Mackey, this process must come from recognizing and reclaiming a sense of the in-between:

The dynamic quality of a tone is a statement of its incompleteness, its will to completion. To hear a tone as dynamic quality, as a direction, a pointing, means hearing at the same time beyond it, beyond it in the direction of its will, and going toward the expected next tone…. We are always between the tones, on the way from tone to tone; our hearing does not remain with the tone, it reaches through it and beyond it.

… (how much does "limb" have to do with "liminal"?)

          (Hornbook 15-16)

Something Gained

Consistently, Bedouin Hornbook and Djbot Baghostus's Run present music as a tiered process of becoming—even in repeated performances of the same piece—rather than a fixed, static identity. Little wonder that music is commonly referred to as arrangement; the argument, according to N.'s band, is that the process of moving the molecules of music gives each note an electric, temporal charge, one that gains its strength only in relation to other notes. The musicians draw this conclusion when they read John Miller Chernoff's African Rhythm and African Sensibility:

[Aunt Nancy's] preoccupation with "absence" and "presence" (more exactly with a coupling or a structured cohabiting of one with the other) no doubt recognized its pedigree in such passages as this: "The music is perhaps best considered as an arrangement of gaps where one may add a rhythm, rather than as a dense pattern of sound. In the conflict of the rhythms, it is the space between the notes from which the dynamic tension comes, and it is the silence which constitutes the musical form as much as does the sound" (Chernoff's emphasis).

I was even more struck by the point the book makes to the effect that polyrhythmic drumming implies an absent, additional rhythm, a furtive beat one's listening supplies or one's dancing echoes.

          (Hornbook 144-45)

But while "[p]olyrhythmicity accents absence" (Hornbook 145), it's absence that makes polyrythmicity possible, a symbiosis of sound and silence that allows each to exploit its individual power. The silences are golden, pregnant pauses that generate possibilities for the next note. Chernoff argues in his groundbreaking study that well-constructed rhythms in African music deliberately contain "absence" in order to foster a more collective "presence": "A good rhythm, if it is to enhance itself, should both fill a gap in the other rhythms and create an emptiness that may be similarly filled" (114). If another performer fails to fill this gap, the audience may do so themselves; in fact, "[i]n African music, it is the listener or dancer who has to supply the beat: the listener must be actively engaged in making sense of the music" (50). Everything in African music, from participants to rhythms to individual notes, gains its power only in the context of everything (and everyone) around it; gaps are not losses but invitations. Thus the "plane" each musical note occupies can never gain full autonomy, but merely a relational reality by means of the other notes; we may think we hear a single note but always mentally register an entire chord.

Mackey illustrates his chord-within-a-note concept at various points in the Run, as band members and audiences suddenly awake to the realization that repetition has birthed multiplicity. One example concerns Frank Wright, who performs "a tuneless, ultra-out wall of sound (no head, no recognizable structure), a raucous, free-for-all cacophony which at times had the feel of an assault" (61). During the intermission, Aunt Nancy asks him to play "China":

[He] said, "No problem." The second set, however, went just like the first, equally tuneless, equally nonstop, equally without a head or a recognizable structure, coming nowhere near the melody line of "China." The one difference was that about forty-five minutes into the set Wright let the tenor fall from his mouth and hang by its strap, cupped his hands in front of his mouth like a megaphone and yelled, "China! China! China!" He then took the tenor back to his mouth for another twenty or so no-letup minutes of squeaks, honks, moans, growls and screeches.


Wright's composition, like all song, encloses every song within its invisible range; the audience may only hear certain notes but unconsciously recognizes the continuum of music as a piece unfolds. For Jarred Bottle, the chord of sound also includes place and sex: his girlfriend has recently become infatuated with a woman named China. That he and Aunt Nancy are composing a piece entitled "Not Here, No There" speaks to the world of difference—and, at other moments, the absolute irrelevancy—of tones and places. We hear a single note, but synesthetically we experience a world. Wright's performance reverberates in N.'s monotonous "letter to the world" near the close of the Run :

I began by playing the same note, C, over and over again, a back-to-basics move or approach by way of which I underscored my start from scratch. I jumped octaves and varied placement and duration but the only note I played was C. I played it long, I played it short, I played it staccato, I played it spaced, I played it soft, I played it loud. C was my letter to the world.

The world's reply was at first a cool one, almost no reply at all.


"The world" follows by bringing out, en masse, 3-D glasses to wear, the answer to N.'s single tone (although expressed in a chord of possible expressions) a chord of their own. The communion is not, importantly, a one-to-one correspondence, but an addition—or, more accurately, a recognition—of a simultaneous, parallel plane of thought.

Literary critics have already begun to theorize Mackey's works as systems of multiple planes; Adalaide Morris, for example, considers his writing "stereoscopic," "that is, like the optical instrument which creates three-dimensional illusions by bringing into a single focus photographs of the same scene taken from slightly different angles. The flash of depth—the stereoscopic moment—occurs in the instant the viewer's eye makes one picture out of two or more angles" (749). Somewhat similarly, David C. Kress suggests that Mackey's works again and again concern "the potential multiplicity of thought" (765) and the process of "becoming" (766). Kress even turns briefly to Deleuze and Guattari, who emphasize the vast promise of the rhizome (775). Indeed, the French philosophers' own multivolume project, entitled Capitalism and Schizophrenia, shares much more with Mackey's prose than what Kress's analysis affords. A Thousand Plateaus opens, appropriately, with what appears to be a schizophrenic musical composition, a scale of jagged lines and wild loops that run over the page. Deleuze and Guattari's gesture speaks not only to the incompleteness of any one note in a chord of possible meanings but to the essential notion of movement along notes as that which generates meaning, a meaning constantly bound to notions of relativity. The crazy arcs and vectors that seem to distort the scale actually give it clarity, explaining the messy process of becoming, the journey to realization that music embraces. Each note, each horizontal bar of the scale represents a mode of thinking; meaning is generated in the space between the two. The French philosophers verbally describe their project as a study of plateaus of engagement:

For example, a book composed of chapters has culmination and termination points. What takes place in a book composed instead of plateaus that communicate with one another across microfissures, as in a brain? We call a "plateau" any multiplicity connected to other multiplicities by superficial underground stems in such a way as to form or extend a rhizome. We are writing this book as a rhizome. It is composed of plateaus…. Each morning we would wake up, and each of us would ask himself what plateau he was going to tackle, writing five lines here, ten there. We had hallucinatory experiences, we watched lines leave one plateau and proceed to another like columns of tiny ants. We made circles of convergence. Each plateau can be read starting anywhere and can be related to any other plateau.


Translator Brian Massumi, in somewhat similarly convoluted fashion, explains:

In Deleuze and Guattari, a plateau is reached when circumstances combine to bring an activity to a pitch of intensity that is not automatically dissipated in a climax. The heightening of energies is sustained long enough to leave a kind of afterimage of its dynamism that can be reactivated or injected into other activities, creating a fabric of intensive states between which any number of connecting routes could exist. Each section of A Thousand Plateaus tries to combine conceptual bricks in such a way as to construct this kind of intensive state of thought. The way the combination is made is an example of what Deleuze and Guattari call consistency—not in the sense of a homogeneity, but as a holding together of disparate elements.


In other words, plateaus symbolize modes in rhizome-like fashion, bringing us out of our static, incomplete sensations to more holistic forms of understanding.

In this context, it is highly appropriate for the jazz function of Mackey's text—the literal performances, the almost-connections between characters' dreams and desires, the constant invocations of call and response that infuse song with interpretive power—to become such a powerful motif; each performer, each dreamer provides another "plane" in what stretches toward a concept of the "holistic text." Each call, aware of its own incompleteness, asks for the response of a different, but related, plane, an opposition to deconstruct and reconstruct its own signification. Thus jazz soloists are expected not to repeat the exact melody, but to generate an altered same, a repetition with a difference. Thus N. seems entirely right to contribute only a "body and soul" murmuring to the Crossroads Choir performance; thus an audience can truly reply to a persistent C with 3-D glasses. The call and the response, while eroding past each other as planes and eroding each other as "witnesses," make the counterpoints that much more resilient. N. demonstrates the process early in the Hornbook :

"I don't know you but I know your father. I don't know your father but I know your father's father. I don't know your father's father but I know your father's grandfather. I don't know your father's grandfather but I know your grandfather's grandfather. I don't know your grandfather's grandfather but I know your great-great-grandfather's father. I don't know your great-great-grandfather's father but I know your great-great-grandfather's grandfather. I don't know your great-great-grandfather's grandfather but I know your great-grandfather's great-great grandfather. I don't know your great-grandfather's great-great-grandfather but I know your great-great-grandfather's great-great-grandfather …" And so on.

I was after something similar. Not so much a stutter in any precise sense of the term as a curve of articulation which whenever it asserted would instantly qualify, even contradict itself. That sense of a receding, self-correcting withdrawal into a cave of ancestors I found immensely attractive, a curious borderline stance between the compelling and the merely compulsive.


In the sense of "a thousand plateaus," N. here has called and responded to history, both as an individual and as part of a collective; each plane of possibility not only "erodes" the plane before but also completes it. The plateaus of prose invite both the performers within and the readers without to add their own plane, to participate in not so much a group stutter as a collective harmony, to add a limb to our societal phantom limp. Even the reader becomes implicated in the process of this universal enterprise, expected not to unlock all of Mackey's meanings but to produce a new plane in his/her own interpretive experience. The improvisation of "China" seems a failure only to those who insist that meaning resides in only one plane of thinking at one time; in truth China is a place and all places, a woman and all women, a song and all songs.

Our inclination should be to instinctively reach beyond any one understanding of China, to constantly stretch toward other plateaus. Our minds should be desperate for the counterpoints of both-and, acknowledging that either-or is a notion passé and pointless; our hands should be desperate for thumbs, oppositions that make the fingers work. N. elaborates on the motif of the hand and the thumb as an essential plane of counterpoint in his piece entitled "Opposable Thumb at the Water's Edge":

Its basic theme I'd put this way: Graspability is a self-incriminating thirst utterly native to every hand, an indigenous court from which only the drowned hope to win an acquittal. The piece makes use of two triadic phrases which I call utility riffs: "whatever beginnings go back to" and "an exegetic refusal to be done with desire." These generate a subtheme which could be put as follows: Thirst is by its nature unquenchable, the blue lips of a muse whose refusals roughen our throats with duende.

          (Hornbook 43)

In a reply that is somehow both magical and inevitable, Penguin produces what N. calls "an extraordinary occurrence":

At that point Penguin (whom I'd vaguely noticed fingering an imaginary horn towards the end of the piece, and who, by the time I finished, had taken his oboe from its case, inserted the mouthpiece and wet the reeds with his tongue and lips) embarked on a solo in which he held forth on what he said was a rapport he sensed—"a shadowy congress" he called it—between Opposable Thumb and an extremely ancient, primeval Egyptian god by the name of Temu. In the course of his solo he presented an impressive, all but overwhelming rush of corroborative data.

          (Hornbook 44)

Not to be silenced, Aunt Nancy and Djamilaa begin to "play" a critique of phallocentricity—not countered effectively at all by Lambert's suggestion of the hand as a vulva enclosing the thumb / phallus—and produce "a symbiosis from which every horizon [that] had fallen away sought to extend itself" (Hornbook 49). In light of Deleuze and Guattari's planes of meaning, the opposition of the thumb becomes the necessity for discourse, any one avenue of approach only a start. It may be for this reason that the Run emphasizes that "have not" is, in essence, "halve not" (11)—a warning not to threaten the totality by disparaging any contributing singularity, a call to accept the completeness of being.

The Run often "breaks down" any seeming unit into dissected elements, to generate an accordion out of a single plane. Djamilaa begins this process in relating the search for a name to the striated meanings of a dream:

"Speaking of names though," Djamilaa added after a pause, "the dream I dreamt last night had a strange tripartite power. It was able to 1) name without announcing or announce in such a way that to announce was to show, 2) show in such a way that to show was to tell, and 3) tell in such a way as to dictate its own reception, dictate and read itself at the same time."


Djamilaa offers her audience three planes of interpretation, each relying on a different mode of thought; the movement from one plane to another rests, in large part, on "verbing" from one to the other, on sacrificing the prior method of analysis, on stripping the self of the stasis of that thought process and recovering its traces in the next level. The tripartite method also allows for the certainty that, while dream, dreamer, and Djamilaa's audience may be working with the same materials or the same terms, their individual planes remain composed of separate elements, of dissimilar proclivities. Hence the need for telling "in such a way as to dictate its own reception"; hence Mackey's insistence that N. is neither the reader nor himself, but a figure "we overlap." Reception counts for as much as production in Mackey's world, unleashing the terrifying possibility that, even if we were all to understand the usefulness of the "thousand plateaus" model, we would not see or use the same multiplicity in the same way.

This conclusion finds further support within the context of Djamilaa's dream, appropriately subtitled "Synaesthetic Serenade." The record playing is "Pennies from Heaven," but the dream-character Penny "could've sworn they were chanting, ‘Penny's from heaven’" (Run 39). Unlike the playful, chordal qualities of homonyms that N. normally employs, the distinction here becomes almost ominous: "Penny had warned him against confusing the girl with the song he assumed she inspired, against the presumption of any across-the-board equation. She'd said it before and she'd say itagain: PENNY'S wasn't the same as PENNIES. PENNY'S meant PENNY IS. PENNIES meant PENNY AIN'T. The difference was one her life depended on" (40). The consequences of slippage become critical, begetting contradictory interpretations that strike to the heart of Penny's self-perception and Othered-reception. One choice among a sound plane of homonyms requires a move to another plane in a different system and in an opposite direction, and for Penny herself the implications seem far more than merely semantic.

Djamilaa's dream continues to add at least three other planes to the "pennies" homonym. The speaker introduces a chord of temporality: "Penny's was indeed a dance of near collapse and last-minute recovery, a felt advance beyond impairment and limitation which amounted to a meeting of the here-and-now with the hereafter" (Run 41-42). She utilizes a second word chord:

Again the door hinges creaked. Penny's dance, the implied wind insisted, rested on a tenuous, tottering "chord" in which like-sounding


"notes" were all sounded at once. EMPOWERMENT made for rickety,


resilient limbs, each of which appeared stilted, possessed of a studied awkwardness; each of which, while crippled, was itself a crutch.


Finally, Djamilaa experiences a chord of emotion: "What I felt was a lulling, alarming blend of complacency and pleasure—comforting and disconcerting at the same time. Never even in a dream had I thought death would be so playful, yet death, I reflected nonchalantly, was obviously what this was" (42). The full song of her dream, then, is composed of at least four planes of analysis, each its own instrument and related to the others. Movement along and among planes, so widely and wildly demonstrated in the Hornbook, becomes in the Run only part of what's actually going on in the meaning of meaning, for any single set of plateaus is extended and compressed, dictating and dictated by other sets. Where the Hornbook often stretches one layer of meaning into an entire accordion, the Run reveals more of the according to.

A possible model of this new paradigm occurs on page 109 of the Run, a "Suspect-Symmetrical Structure of Misconceptual Seed's Parallactic Dispatch"…. At first glance, the diagram may seem to resemble the plateaus model, allowing one to move in a variety of ways from one plane involving "Misconceived Root (Pampas)" and "Buenos Aires" and a second that includes "Circumstantial Ground (Silverlake)" and "Elysian Park." But the diagonal vectors that connect these highly ambiguous plateaus suggest visually that longing not only moves one between planes but establishes its own striation of planes that stretch vertically. This complements the apparently more "established" horizontal lines and results in the circle of "Esq/Est," itself characterized by simultaneous movement to and from the center vertically, back and forth horizontally. Even more frustratingly, the outward posts of the diagrams are all their own striated systems, such as the "demonic he/she/it" of "Implied Horizon." Finally, the inability of any set of parallel lines to be constantly "dotted" or "straight" refuses the observer any chance to establish a hierarchy among systems; one does not know where to begin or how to proceed. Given Mackey's ongoing textual conversation with contemporary jazz, "Suspect-Symmetrical Structure" might well be a reply to composer Anthony Braxton, whose compositions are "titled" by geometric diagrams. Early in his career, Braxton began assigning visual representations to particular sounds, a synesthetic process he has called "conceptual grafting" (Lock 3). The idea was to consider space and sound together; hence Braxton has described his Composition 96 as "an attempt to integrate horizontal structural formings into the forward space of the music" (Lock 4). By Composition 160, Braxton's vision had become even more complicated, "Moving out of the science space and more into the poetic space. I'm no longer interested in a definition of music that's only in one space" (Lock 1). Mackey's diagram, in contrast, presents a structure too convoluted to prove effective. Not surprisingly, N. himself asks whether any structure is "anything but an after-the-fact heuristic seed, a misleading, misconceptual sleep inside which to walk is to begin to wake up? Like it or not, we're marked by whatever window we look thru. The stigmata, luckily, turn out not to be static" (Run 108).

One may argue, given the nightmarish quality of the diagram, whether the movement of stigmata is, indeed, lucky. N. seems quite reasonable, however, to point out the impossibility of locking a text into any closed schema. As richly complex as Deleuze and Guattari's model may be, as much as it illuminates Mackey's prose, the entirety of the text refuses to support it; too many factors, stemming from too many sources, stretching in too many directions, will not allow one single set of planes to contain the whole. For that matter, any conformity to form strikes N. as a twofold threat. First, there exists the danger of intellectually diminishing returns; "[o]ne way to state it would be to say that I'm troubled by the apparent fatalism intrinsic to form, the threat of a conservatism the centralness of ‘form’ to ‘conformity’ seems to imply" (Hornbook 77). All meanings, past and future, tend to collapse into a master-view of text; in this context, N.'s letters and the world in which he lives lose their unpredictability and vitality. The point of textual sacrifice, of course, is to kill the interpretive self of these stifling demands for structural sameness. Second, and perhaps more damaging, the pressure to re-form, but not reform, pushes everything that refuses to fit into the silences of marginalia. This tendency is condemned quite early in the Hornbook, as a crowd in a record shop demands that N.'s band recontextualize its aims within "the whole culture," allowing music listeners to appropriately assign their contributions a rightful place. "All I can say," Aunt Nancy replies, "is that the culture you're calling ‘whole’ has yet to assume itself to be so except at the expense of a whole lot of other folks, except by presuming that what they were up to could be ignored at no great loss" (12). Othered expressions become either stifled or silenced entirely. In the case of the thousand plateaus, Aunt Nancy's argument bears some truth; one must, after all, decide where to begin with the model, what direction the connecting tangents will travel and what single narrative might emerge in the end. "What," asks N., "could free the future from every flat, formulaic ‘outcome,’ from its own investment in the contested shape of an otherness disfigured by its excursion thru the world?" (Hornbook 100).

If one is still to use Deleuze and Guattari's model, one might begin with the acknowledgment that any one "flat, formulaic" set of plateaus is merely a single set—that a host of competing factors and complicated agendas, each with its own strata, function at cross-purposes, resulting in a multidimensional arrangement of meanings across time, space, words, and peoples. One example of this modified model can be seen in a dance group's performance:

Aunt Nancy, as we watched the dancers go thru their routine, whispered into my ear that she was struck by the interplay and the counterpoint between the upward thrust of the surrounding buildings and the dancers' answering exploration of horizontality, their insistence, variegated as it was, on "getting down." I in fact had been similarly struck, had taken note of the same thing.

          (Run 110-11)

The reader immediately notices the performative matrix that brings together the horizontality of the dancers and the verticality of the buildings but somehow refuses to connect them. Instead, the upness and the acrossness of the competing sets of planes seem to suggest, if anything, a texture, a tapestry of threads of individuality and intentionality.

As Mackey asserts in Discrepant Engagement, "Creative kinship and the lines of affinity it effects are much more complex, jagged, and indissociable than the totalizing pretensions of canon formation tend to acknowledge" (3). The title of his collection of essays, he explains, comes from Wilson Harris:

It is an expression coined in reference to practices that, in the interest of opening presumably closed orders of identity and signification, accent fissure, fracture, incongruity, the rickety, imperfect fit between word and world. Such practices highlight—indeed inhabit—discrepancy, engage rather than seek to ignore it. Recalling the derivation of the word discrepant from a root meaning "to rattle, creak," I relate discrepant engagement to the name the Dogon of West Africa give their weaving block, the base on which the loom they weave upon sits. They call it the "creaking of the word." It is the noise upon which the word is based, the discrepant foundation of all coherence and articulation, of the purchase upon the world fabrication affords. Discrepant engagement, rather than suppressing or seeking to silence that noise, acknowledges it.


N. spends a fair amount of time in the Hornbook trying to come to terms with the creaking of the Word, and even plans a speech on the topic: "The sense I get from this is that a) we can't help but be involved in fabrication, b) a case can be made for leaving loose ends loose, and c) we find ourselves caught in a rickety confession no matter what" (Hornbook 116). Our commitment—however willing or unwilling—to participating in the fabrication, to compulsive confessions and loose ends that refuse to fit, is twofold. First, we are all speakers and spoken to, all bound to a process of communication that seeks enough commonality to keep "Pennies" from "Penny's." But regardless of the breadth of our worldview, our struggles for accommodation, our models of complexity, someone or something will slip away, while exceptions will permeate inward. Second, we are all subject to the mythologies and mysteries of loss, rendering our lives not realms of solid experience but webs of connections and fissures; "[w]e not only can but should speak of ‘loss’ or, to avoid, quotation marks notwithstanding, any such inkling of self-pity, speak of absence as unavoidably an inherence in the texture of things (dreamseed, habitual cloth)" (Eroding Witness 50).

Mark Scroggins remarks in his work on Septet for the End of Time that a number of factors threaten to erode the variety of witnesses in Mackey's work, each potentially seen as pressing down on the warp and the weft that give us identity while locking us within it. The self in Mackey's projects, Scroggins argues, is "an eroding witness": "the self can recognize its cultural, spiritual roots only as eroding traces in the works of others, and that recognizing self is in turn eroded, like the figure on the cover of Bedouin Hornbook, by the forces of history, change, distance, and time itself" (44). He later elaborates:

The speakers of these poems wake up again and again, not from dreams to waking "reality," but from dreams to dreams, from one order of language to another—from an order of music to that of its mythic equivalent, and back again, from an order of death to life-in-death and death-in-life … the orders of reality—orders which are as much spiritual as they are historical—are embodied and embraced in the culturally structured orders of speech. While these speakers may desire to awaken from the "nightmare" of history, their repeated awakenings are a reiteration of the self's utter entanglement in the network of cultural traces that constitute it.


By the time the reader meets N., he has already well acknowledged the "network of cultural traces" that compose his own life; further, he is already on his way to recognizing the specific forces—time, space, history, and so forth—that constitute his subject position. Where N. succeeds is his awareness of two concepts: first, that significance is almost defiantly relational, verb-al, stubbornly refusing to hold the same meaning for all people at all times. The trick lies in inhabiting the fissures between planes, in seeing meaning as what happens in the cracks. Somewhere between two similar words—for example, "card" and "cord"—is the precise point of distinction between the two, the electrical charge that gives both their individual potency; somewhere within "cord" is a chord, an entire realm of sound and sense, silence and nonsense. Second, a wide range of elements threatens the stability and the success of our lives, leaving us with a life-cloth that lacks certain fibers, that speaks to its own incompleteness. The key lies in understanding the pressures on warp and weft, the absences that bring us power as well as loss. Gaps become places to invent, to lament, to howl; external pressures beget expressions of grief and belief.

Mackey insists in his essay "Other: From Noun to Verb" that linguistic riffs and shifts merely echo the "grammar" of life that defines and confines our existence:

But a revolution of the word can be only a beginning. It initiates a break while remaining overshadowed by the conditions it seeks to go beyond. The shadow such conditions cast makes for a brooding humor that straddles laughter and lament, allows no easy, unequivocal foothold in either. Oppositional speech is only partly oppositional. Cramp and obstruction have to do with it as well.


In other words, the pressures of warp and weft are a highly intricate matrix of directional pressures, each with their own agendas but often working together to make us fixed, static, marginalized "nouns." Thus the need to "highlight the dynamics of agency and attribution by way of which otherness is brought about and maintained, the fact that other is something people do, more importantly a verb than an adjective or a noun" (51). Weaving, on a societal scale, can serve to bind any marginalized person or people within the centralized confines of power, economics, or artistic categorization. On an individual scale, however, the creaking that the word always allows—the interstices and fissures that make any fabric, literal or societal, a breathable, permeable structure—permits the artist the potential of reply, of producing a "difficult" or even "unreadable" work that both cuts against the conventional grain and argues that that grain is, for the marginalized, both "difficult" and "unreadable" itself. Thus the staunch resistance to academic typecasting, therefore the "of course that's what it's not." Mackey and fellow writers may resort to sacrificial limbs to lament sacrificial lambs, to kill the sense of iamb to recover the I Am.

Works Cited

Allen, Joseph. "Nathaniel Mackey's Unit Structures." Black Orpheus: Music in African American Fiction from the Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison. Ed. Saadi A. Simawe. New York: Garland, 2000. 205-29.

Chernoff, John Miller. African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

García Lorca, Federico. Deep Song and Other Prose. Ed. and trans. Christopher Maurer. 1975. New York: New Directions, 1980.

Griaule, Marcel. Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. London: Oxford UP, 1965.

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

Lock, Graham. Liner Notes. Anthony Braxton: Willisau (Quartet) 1991. Hat Hut Records Ltd, 2002.

Mackey, Nathaniel. Bedouin Hornbook. Callaloo Fiction Ser. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1986.

———. "Cante Moro." Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies. Ed. Adalaide Morris. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997. 194-212.

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

———. Djbot Baghostus's Run. New American Fiction 29. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1993.

———. Eroding Witness. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1985.

———. "An Interview with Nathaniel Mackey." Conducted by Edward Foster. Talisman 9 (1992): 48-61.

———. "An Interview with Nathaniel Mackey." Conducted by Paul Naylor. Callaloo 23 (2000): 645-63.

———. "An Interview with Nathaniel Mackey." Conducted by Peter O'Leary. Chicago Review 43.1 (1997): 30-46.

———. "Other: From Noun to Verb." Representations 39 (1992): 51-70.

Massumi, Brian. "Translator's Foreword: Pleasures of Philosophy." Deleuze and Guattari ix-xv.

Morris, Adalaide. "Angles of Incidence/Angels of Dust: Operatic Tilt in the Poetics of H.D. and Nathaniel Mackey." Callaloo 23 (2000): 749-64.

Mullen, Harryette. "Phantom Pain: Nathaniel Mackey's Bedouin Hornbook." Talisman 9 (1992): 37-43.

Powell, Barry B. Classical Myth. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1998.

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

Scroggins, Mark. "The Master of Speech and Speech Itself: Nathaniel Mackey's ‘Septet for the End of Time.’" Talisman 9 (1992): 44-47.



Gray, Jeffrey. "Travel and Difference: Lyn Hejinian and Nathaniel Mackey." In Mastery's End: Travel and Postwar American Poetry, pp. 212-33. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005.

Discusses the travel poems of Hejinian and Mackey, asserting that the verse of both writers chronicles "the expedition to locate an elusive and estranged identity."

Hoover, Paul. "Pair of Figures for Eshu: Doubling of Consciousness in the Work of Kerry James Marshall and Nathaniel Mackey." In Fables of Representation: Essays, pp. 26-55. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

Explores the theme of "double consciousness" in Mackey's Bedouin Hornbook and in the paintings of Kerry James Marshall.

Lavery, Matthew A. "The Ontogeny and Phylogeny of Mackey's Song of the Andoumboulou." African American Review 38, no. 4 (winter 2004): 683-94.

Considers how in Mackey's poetry, especially in the serial poem The Song of the Andoumboulou, the author conducts an "anthromorphism of language into a physical form, bringing it into the world as a thing, as a human body."

Zamsky, Robert L. "A Poetics of Radical Musicality: Nathaniel Mackey's ‘-Mu’ Series." Arizona Quarterly 62, no. 1 (spring 2006): 113-40.

Centers on the significance of the relationship between musicality and poetics in Mackey's writings, in particular in the "Mu" series.

Additional coverage of Mackey's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 153; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 114; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 6, 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 169; Literature Resource Center; and Poetry Criticism, Vol. 49.

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Mackey, Nathaniel 1947–

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