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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Nathaniel Mackey, Nod House

Nod House: A frog pond, Erzulie’s perfume, the poem I’m about to read invokes orgasmic ecstasies, evokes wave after musky wave, transported creatures not knowing their sex without feeling between their own legs. Frogs are deeply spermatic, odiferous, amphibian, “loves amphibious hush” Nathaniel Mackey writes (4), “frogs in a nearby / pond / infiltrating sleep” (5). Voicing gnosis, “we lost our bodies in, /  sound alone / survived” (9). Nod House voices the tensions between acknowledged and necessary sensual existence and inert stone, a voicing necessarily associated with the modalities of the jazz traditions in which Mackey is so expert, radio host, author of Moment’s Notice, and now he incites followers on Facebook to visit the jazz archives in honor of the birthdays of the multitudinous truly great musicians. In “Song of the Andoumboulou 62,”  it’s the most transcendent Sun Ra who is invoked. “Hoarse arkestral flutes laid a / rug of water (13).

He writes with memories of skipping flat stones out onto the tidal current. When I stand on the Pebble Beach of my ancestral island, the tide rush pulls the small stones out from under my feet. Balance affected, I lose equilibrium. I skip flat stone 3, 4 hops into the Western Way, a reach of the Atlantic, fetching dolphins and whales from Mount Desert Rock, “flat spun with could barely keep our feet” (13). These pebbles are found in the garland of flat disks depending from Kali’s chest. They are heads. Skipping stones are heads, “our own heads between finger and thumbs as if ours to throw” (15) –“as if ours” because the words are spoken in a trance state, a state in which, according to the anthropologists, one is neither one’s self or other (Victor Turner, Richard Schechner, “ghost moment, proof it lay / else- / where / prod.” A “cement sky” (10) in “Song of the Andoumboulou 62,” a world of flattened expectations. In one of my past lives, I gathered beach stones to pave the walkways of colonial Boston.

As well as flat stones, the journeying Andoumboulou appear as sticks, in the city of trance and redemption, a world like that of Voudon, organized around the “poto mitan,” at the crossroads, adding upward and downward to the cardinal directions. In the last poem of Nod House but one, “Anouman Sandrofia,” I find the crossroads bird, like the gallows’ bird. I am transported by a chorus, horns, contra bass of a stringed instrument, “guitar clang” (137). Multiple puns omnipresent thwart transcendence for all the headlong rush of gruff choruses, “bone we picked and picked at” (140 ). “Song of the Andoumboulou 85” voices “without sound sound’s immanence” (142). The line is thematic to gnosticism’s immaterial materiality. “Stick’s sublimity sent us reeling, a we that wasn’t we against one that was” (142). The object of poetry is to speak for an “a-we” in my reading of Kamau Brathwaite in “Letter Sycorax.”

Everyone limped, walked with a cane,” Legba, or Mackey himself as he prowled the halls at a recent academic conference. “Syllabic run was more alive that we / were, bass clack bugling disaster, brute sun outside the / nod / house door” (146), among the last phrases of Nod House. The lines snake down the page, dancing, marching chorus. Like Jazz the origin is in the blues and further back Africa. The poetics are projective some say. A fully imagined mythopoeia, always expanding, underlies the world these lines embody. In what follows my intention is to pay close attention to Mackey’s line.

“Blue Anuncia’s Bird Lute (after Bob Thompson).” The opening phrase “bedless” positions the reader on the journey that led to Bethlehem, Bedlam. Is this a false analogy on my part? In Bob Thompson’s Expulsion and Nativity (1964), the Virgin is blue, Mackey’s Blue Anuncia. The poem (40-42 of Nod House), seemingly an independent, free standing text, shares many properties with the serial poems mu and Song of the Andoumboulou. The multitudinous Andoumboulou travel toward a resolution that is not quite fully human, hardly divine. “Bedless trek / she saw them embarked on,” presents the travel of Joseph and Mary as cognate with that of the proto-human Andoumboulou. “Choked / earth they were strewn across” points to Dogon originary Sahel. It could be the journey of Joseph and Mary through Egypt. The “yet to-be world / on the tips of their tongues, / each in the other’s … indigent kin” points to the frequent moments of almost realization, swiftly reversed, the usual forward motion of Mackey’s poetry, forward and back, “lapsed earth.” An incestuous twinning of forces seems distinctive of the Andouboulou’s emergence, a future for which they prepare, for which I believe it’s the poet’s desire to prepares us, although that day fails again and again to arrive, often amounts to a momentary buzz. Suzanne C├ęsaire writes somewhere of a poetry written purposefully for the not yet born. Mackey shares this mission, in Nod House and elsewhere both in serial poetry and his neo-baroque fiction, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate.

It strikes me that the white reader who has no gospel tradition, like myself, has to reckon with the importance of the Nativity so evident in Thompson’s painting and honored here in Mackey’s poem. Renaissance motifs are present, both in Thompson’s miming of Piero della Francesca and Mackey’s evocation of “lute’s neck gooseneck.” Even the Immaculate Conception, “Lithe body had at / by one that wasn’t there, hers in  / the // his and her ghost house, near / … .” These lines resonate with the concept “nod house” (otherwise difficult to clarify); for what is a “nod house’ unless it is a reference to place of waking dreams. A tribal dreaming space? The holistic fabric of Mackey’s poetry is inarguable. When I nod, I drift off.

The quote just given, positioning the word “the” as it does, a hook at the end of stanza-like structure illustrates a quality of Mackey’s prosody, that affects my ear and how it has learned to read. Short lines of one word (here “the” and in sequence “again…”, “floor-“, “on”, etc.), placed at the far right margin instigate the forward motion of the poems amid variations and reversals. The terminus ad quem is symbolized by a one word line in the left margin at the end of the poem (a pattern often repeated), the last word hurrying the reader forward, here “thru.” The technique provides a stitching together of material otherwise cut into two, three, or four line segments, these individual lines frequently enjambing.  

Many of Thompson’s images contain a generally rust colored patch of pubic hair. So with the Virgin, “patch of hair / parting / the dark welcoming heaven” mimes this grace note. It is a grace note found elsewhere in Nod House, independent of Thompson’s painting, intimate and sensuous contact among Andoumboulou of mixed and otherwise configured sexes. These are moments of transcendence, for all the bad rap that transcendence has among devotees of the postmodern. “Hand  assessing / her leg mounting skyward … / Wonderment winged but /with/ legs held, hard to miss  what it / meant.” The words are weighted with the materiality (physical sensuality) of what I have called the “immanent sublime.” The artist’s embrace is finally “indelicate” – that indelicacy, amid multiple resonances, being a quality that Mackey shares with Thompson and a grammatical honesty found throughout his work.

 Don Wellman

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ewa Chrusciel, Contraband of Hoopoe

Ewa Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn 2014) has an architectonic feel that I associate with baroque music. Repeating figures, hoopoes are found in Africa, Asia and Europe. They are found in Leviticus 11:13–19 where their detestable taste is decried. They are found in Sufi literature and throughout this book, where a hoopoe nestled in the chest is the poet’s immigrant heart. “The hoopoe is the dybbuk messenger chattering under my bra” (13). A sausage is also held close to her heart, “transcontinental dowry,” emblematic of Poland (14). Threads of Hoopoes from biblical sources (Solomon and Sheba) to fables invented for nonce effect synthesize an intriguing unity of construction. Appearances of unity and deep coherences are often found in different registers, humorous postmodern campiness often at odds with deep coherences addressed to the human condition, not here. Contraband of Hoopoe works in both registers. The proposition, “What illness springs from a lost place?” (“Prayer Before Flight” 44) is answer by means of litanies, catalog responses, intoning the names of immigrants to Ellis Island. An example, “Ann Anderson from Denmark takes a sheet used only during / deliveries. Her sheet a shroud of the womb. It springs birth. It is her / legacy” (47). The unique long line with multiple caesuras and the emphases constructed in this manner, is compelling. Smuggling is used as a theme related to immigration. “Smuggling has to do with metonymies” (35). Hence the power of lists and documentary fragments. “Irene gets permission to work in the Warsaw Ghetto as / a plumber. She smuggles babies in her tool box, and carries larger children in her sack out of the Warsaw Ghetto” (56). Repetition too is prayerful, “The large Blue Dress took Matisse endless versions, / repeated rubbings out of / the areas of paint, etching / sinuous lines—“ (“Prayer” 54). Lyrical moments amid the long-line recitatives, aspects of Chrusciel’s composition by ear. Most human to me in Contraband of Hoopoe is the solitude that gives form to distinctly immigrant emotions, “The hoopoe is a solitary bird yet has enormous filial devotion” (80). I feel a religious hush, amidst witticisms, “Is our soul involved in the hoopoe dispatch? / What kind of diplomacy is required to smuggle the self into Infinity?” (80). It turns out that there is nothing easy or of a nonce nature about identification with the hoopoe. The hoopoe is the dislocated soul of a dead ancestor.
Donald Wellman

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Tyrone Williams, Adventures of Pi

Tyrone Williams is a philosophical poet, “down home” or even “homely” in a familiar sense. He is honest about everyday experience in itinerant America, “The houses into which we move, / The houses in which we move our bodies, / Remove the histories of our skins” (29). This discomfort is also mine. It pervades Adventures of Pi (Dos Madres 2011).

Williams’s mind is a machine; his soul is generous. He recycles and repurposes what he has read, joining the postmodern with lessons from unexceptional daily experience. I find Deleuze and Disneyland, Benjamin in Hollywood, Adorno in a used car lot. Adventures of Pi is populated with automotive embodiments and disappointments: Escorts, Tempos, Mavericks, Cobras, Dodges, Benzes, BMWs; the loves and disappointments associated with driving, tired and weary, sad or drunk. The economics that force a man in particular to identify with his car is thematic to this particular version of America. I think of Ronald Johnson and his “Terraplane” where the singer returning home from prison just knows things in his world have gone terribly badly for him in his absence. “Death Drive” sums this theme: “There’s a car inside a man / and on his own he cannot work it out” (70). Melancholy and recognition of compromised manhood are central to the American psyche. There’s an effort not to bleed-out, a resolve. “Death Drive” ends “Accompanied by the strumming of the windshield wipers / he is singing a song to the sky // And his song is pouring from him / hemophiliac…”

Maybe there’s a child in the back seat, humming. I also hear Williams’s deep reading of Russell Atkins. The largely underappreciated Cleveland poet, Atkin’s is a subject of Detroit-born Williams’s study in multiple senses. Reading Atkins enables Williams to muster and impart his own wise and melancholic perceptions. In Atkins, I hear that “strumming,” so hypnotic to Williams. In “While Waiting for a Friend to Come Visit a Friend” (courtesy of Aldon Nielsen and Lauri Ramey’s Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone), Atkins writes:

the attendant keeps watch, watching

that abrupt wild geranium grow a bat’s ears

sardine flowers, moon’s eggs,

stomach guitar (13)

Multiple echoes of lessons learned from the scored speech and wisdom of Russell Atkins inform the pages of The Adventures of Pi, for instance “White Girl” (13) or “Hallucinogenic Toreador” (45) where I found these lines:

of the painting nor a poem about the postcard or the painting or a

postcard or a painting                    zebras leap

over red                               blue white                          house stamp

west                      south

                below                   dateline                               blue

tribes from the north spread down and out as tributaries to the south-

west territory of the moor (by way of S. Petersburg descendants).

Beyond the riddle and humor of “what is red and white?” reading zebras, there are moors / Moors? And of course, St Petersburg is in Florida. The field of associations in open.

An omnivorous reader, absorbing tonalities and thematics, during the summer of 2014, Williams graced the pages of Jacket 2 with multiple short reviews of the works of contemporary, post-language poets. Concerning recent work by Julian Brolaski, he wrote, “Usage begets and outpaces grammatical and syntactical rules.” This statement applies as well to Williams’s own poetry as it does to the metropolitan imagery of Brolaski.  “Brolaski and the metropolitan imaginary,” Aug. 22, 2014.

The concluding poem of The Adventures of Pi gathers together many grammatical loose ends. Many poems end with a flourish: “no end to spectacle in the theater of cruelty // I’ll be waiting for you in the cardiology wing” (76).  The failure of love to redeem echoes through multiple tender poems. “And I knew we’d never talk about the night / we tried to pretend we could fall sleep / in each other’s arms” (“Collage: Cross-Country Skier / Hannibal’s Son” 28). There’s a false note here. Hanno, a Carthaginian hero, perhaps Hannibal’s son, is mentioned by Ezra Pound in “Canto 40.”Is Williams following Pound in order to acknowledge the place of the African in the roster of heroic achievement? That’s hardly necessary. Perhaps for reasons similar to those that lead Kamau Brathwaite to mention Pound and Basil Bunting in “Letter Sycorax” (Middle Passages). In any case, Hanno by reason of his periplum along the West coast of Africa counts as one of Pound’s hero/mapmakers.

Today the search for heroes of any sort only leads to fascism. That’s my private Brechtian morality. Boundaries, rather than resolving too often complicate human needs. In a snowstorm “white dotted lines are useless.” The image comes from “Border Clashes” (25-27). The poet his been to Canada. Returning to Detroit, he is challenged by the “flashing licenses and teeth” of the border agent. In a club, he experiences “the sweat of  a hundred / worlds, the sweet and sour stench / of bargain-brand soap.” He is mindful of a couple that “had been found dead / in each other’s arms: / murder-suicide.” The poem concludes, self-medicated with booze, as the working classes have always done, “We weave our ways home, / as best we can, / in lanes of our own making” (25-27). It’s best to suspend our individual judgments and listen and reflect as Williams does on the commonalities of our human experience.
Donald Wellman