Friday, November 17, 2006

Splay Anthem

We were delighted to learn that Nathaniel Mackey's latest poetry volume, Splay Anthem, won the National Book Award for 2006. It's much deserved. Anyone interested in a quick Nathaniel Mackey course should take a look at New American Writing 24 (2006), which is available in bookstores. It contains an extensive interview with the poet by Sarah Rosenthal, the poems "Outer Egypt," "Poem for Don Cherry," "Sound and Sentience," and "Song of the Andoumboulou: 52," and "The Atmosphere is Alive," an excerpt from Bass Cathedral, volume four of From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, a series of letters written by composer/multi-instrumentalist N., founding member of a band known as the Molimo m'Atet. The other volumes are, in sequence, Bedouin Hornbook, Djbot Bahhostus's Run, and Atet A.D.

Here's an excerpt from an essay I wrote about Bedouin Hornbook for an issue of Callaloo (23.2, 2000) focusing on Nate's work. Titled "Pair of Figures for Eshu: Doubling of Consciousness in the Work of Kerry James Marshall and Nathaniel Mackey," it also appears in Fables of Representation (University of Michigan Press, 2004):

In his book of essays, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing, Nathaniel Mackey (1993, 19), coined the term discrepant engagement 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." The word discrepant has it derivation from the root meaning, "to rattle" or "creak" and relates to a weaving block used by the Dogon of West Africa. The base on which the loom sits, the weaving block is called "the creaking of the word" by Dogon weavers. Discrepant engagement is therefore the joining of things that don't fit, a concept that contemporary theory gives the name of aporia, or rift. The term also relates to the dynamics of cross-culturality: the cry of the social "misfit."

As a black poet, scholar, and novelist who draws inspiration from black cultural sources such as vodun as well as from postwar avant-garde writings of Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Amiri Baraka, Mackey is twice an outsider, by birth and by choice. The "creaking of the word" therefore has great potency for him. Discrepancy becomes moral value, a reminder that "not fitting" is morally preferable to a too-easy creolization; it also reminds us that truly creative work tends to be done at the artistic and cultural margin, where "the new" offers resistance to received notions of meaning. It is the point at which Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk offer "noise" rather than music, where the language poets offer dispersive strategies rather than traditional syntax, where Marcel Duchamp offers found objects rather than the artisanship of art. Mackey (1993, 20) writes:

Open form (itself a discrepant, oxymoronic formulation, not unlike William's "variable foot,") is a gesture in the direction of noise. Baraka's valorization of "honking" by rhythm and blues (R&B) saxophonists, [Clarence] Major's "remarkable verb of / things," Duncan's invocation of "disturbance," Creeley's bebop-influenced deviation from expected narrative accents, Olson's insistence that things "keep their proper confusions," his advocacy of "shout" as a corrective to discourse, [Edward Kamau] Braithwaite's "calibanisms," and [Wilson] Harris's "language as omen" all in their distinctive ways validate noise (20).

Quoting Leonard Barrett on the music of the black Caribbean, Mackey reveals a theme central to his thought, that "we detect in the lower beats deep structural dissonance which mirrors the social conflicts within the society" (20). Dissonance is therefore inevitable and even necessary to the advancement of a culture. It is open to the honk and the shout, to processual composition as seen in jazz and experimental poetry, and to the "obliquity and angularity" of Baraka's poetry and the music of Thelonious Monk and Eric Dolphy (43).

Those who express this "deep structural dissonance" are its musicians, poets, and priests. Mackey writes that "Baraka hears a spirit of interrogation and discontent in the most moving of black music, especially that of John Coltrane, whom he calls 'the heaviest spirit'" (43). In Black Music, Baraka notes another heavy spirit: "The hard, driving shouting of James Brown identifies a place and image in America. A people and an energy, harnessed and not harnessed by America. JB is straight out, open, and speaking from the most deeply religious people on this continent" (Jones 1968, 185) John Coltrane and James Brown are described, in effect, as members of a priesthood, their sacred status prefigured by the ring shout ritual. In The Power of Black Music, Samuel A. Floyd, Jr. credits the ring shout (which involved song, dance, and aspects of African ancestor worship) with:

helping to preserve the elements we have come to know as the characterizing and foundational elements of African-American music: calls, cries, and hollers; call-and-response devices; additive rhythms, and polyrhythms; heterophony, pendular thirds, blue notes, bent notes, and elisions; hums, moans, grunts, vocables, and other rhythmic-oral declamations; interjections, and punctuations; off-beat melodic phrasings and parallel intervals and chords; constant repetitions of rhythmic and melodic phrases (from which riffs and vamps would be derived); timbral distortions of various kinds; musical individuality within collectivity; game rivalry; hand clapping, foot patting, and approximations thereof; apart-playing; and the metronomic pulse that underlies all African-American music (6).

Because music has a powerful place in black culture, because drums and other instruments are often heard to speak as voices, and because of the communal nature of the ring shout, the musician, singer, poet, and priest are joined as messengers of spirit possession.

This is exactly the multidisciplinary approach of Mackey's comic epistolary jazz novel-of-ideas, Bedouin Hornbook, which tells the story of a contemporary jazz group that calls itself the "Deconstructive Woodwind Chorus," the "East Bay Dread Ensemble," the "Mystic Horn Society," and finally "Flaunted Fifth." Changes in the group's name represent the discrepancy, or creakiness, that occurs when two cultural influences, the European and African-American, are joined. "N.," the novel's narrator, says, "We thought 'Deconstructive Woodwind Chorus' sounded a little stilted, Euro-cerebral, or (the word Penguin, our oboe player uses) 'deracinated,' so we called ourselves the East Bay Dread Ensemble. We also didn't want people [in Oakland, where they were playing] to know that we were from L.A." (Mackey 1986, 4). Like the many names of Eshu-Elegbara, multiplicity is a feature of the group, nowhere more evident than in the character of Heidi, also known as Aunt Nancy, who plays violin, congas, and tuba. The name Heidi is perhaps the ultimate in Northern European signifiers. Aunt Nancy is a pun on anansi, which means spider in Ghana, as well as the Anancy stories popular in Jamaica known for "introducing a snatch of song at crucial moments" (Roberts 1972, 121). Aunt Nancy even plays the violin like a spider:

The horns . . .conceded the lead voice to the violin throughout the piece. As Aunt Nancy's bow stroked the air (possessed of a bizarre, brooding assurance that it was only a myth one lamented, nothing more), I was struck by the spiderlike dexterity with which she manueuvered its avoidance of the strings. What she did, one might say, is emphasize the dance in the word "avoidance," wrapping all who would listen in the progressive windings of an eventual cocoon . . . .My back stiffened as I sat there, more than slightly alarmed at Aunt Nancy's transformation from buzzing, airborne fly to enticing, equally airborne spider. (Mackey 1986, 121)

Like most of the other instruments the group plays, the violin is of European origin. But Aunt Nancy plays it in a way that transports the music and herself to the realm of African myth. In this, she mirrors the history of African-American music, which has had to negotiate between European instrumentation and scores and African cultural intentions. The song that Aunt Nancy wraps the audience in is, appropriately, "Embraceable You."

The narrator's identity also shifts. Addressing each chapter of the epistolary novel to "Dear Angel of Dust" (a name suggesting the angel of death; the muse; the band's North African singer, Djamilaa, whose voice is haunted by wind and dust; and possibly Ifa divination, an Eshu observation in which dust is employed), the narrator signs each chapter as "N." (narrator) but is also identified as Jarred Bottle, JB (James Brown and a brand of Scotch), Djarred Bottle (a name which pairs him with his lover, Djamilaa), DB, and Flaunted Fifth, also the final name of the band. The name Jarred Bottle relates to the Kongo-derived tradition of the bottle tree, used to protect households by invoking the dead (Thompson 1984, 142). The acronym DB links the narrator to Damballah, the Haitian creole name of the Dahomean "good serpent of the skies" known by the Fon as Da, Dan, and Dan Bada (Thompson 184, 176). Flaunted Fifth, a pun on flatted fifths, or blue notes characteristic of blues and jazz, is one of the book's many significant word pairings, which Mackey calls homologies. The flatted fifth calls attention to itself, flaunts its discrepancy as a product of cultural difference. I will show the thematic importance and extent of these homologies later.

The plot of Mackey's novel is simple, but its thematic patterning and use of motifs are as thick as Aunt Nancy's musical cocoon. Briefly, the plot concerns the travels of a newly formed band that, through practice, finally learns to speak as one, or communally, in an ecstatic, literally earth-shaking performance of the song "Bottomed Out." Following this climax is a denouement describing a lecture, "The Creaking of the Word," delivered by Jarred Bottle, DB's European name, at an academic conference. But this denouement also contains its own climax in which DB mystically and erotically joins Djamilaa, albeit at a physical distance from her. "The Creaking of the Word" is therefore part lecture and part erotic mystical experience. As academic discourse containing expressions like "adequation" and "ventriloquistic truth," the final chapter is Euro-cerebral; as the joining of the twined male and female snakes that comprise Damballah, it depicts the resurrection of one of the "heavy spirits" of Dahomean mythology.

The two main structural patterns in the novel are circularity and coaxiality, the Ouroboric circle and the crossroads. Laid over one another, the circle and the Greek cross create the Kongo cruciform sign of the cosmos called Yowa that signifies "the circular motion of human souls about the circumference of its intersecting lines" as well as "the everlasting continuity of all righteous men and women" (Thompson 1984, 108). The crossroads, or "turn of the path," is "an indelible concept in the Kongo-Atlantic world, as the point of interersection between the ancestors and the living" (109). In the Abakua script known as anaforuana, a modified crossed circle of this kind is the signature of God (Thomson 1989, 113).

DB plays saxello and contrabass bassoon; Penguin, also known as Peixinho, plays oboe; Lambert plays alto and tenor saxophone; and Djamilaa sings in a "sand-anointed voice." However, the instruments they play, like their identities, are constantly subject to change and are described as undergoing rotation. Rotation also describes the pattern in which the band plays DB's series of "Compressed Accompaniments":

I've provided five of them, one for each member of the band, though the assignment of pieces to specific individuals is by no means fixed. The way it works, in fact, makes it so each player gets to recite all five of the Accompaniments in the course of the composition. We've developed a modular approach to improvisation which we call Modular Rotation, an approach which makes use of a number of stations (five in this case) marked off at various points around the playing area. . . .In the course of the performance each player moves from station to station, at each of which he or she recites the particular Accompaniment which "defines" that station. (Mackey 1986, 29-30)

The stations may suggest the stations of the cross in Roman Catholic observance. More importantly, Mackey has established a motif of circularity that joins the rainbow god Damballah, by which Djamilaa and Djarred Bottle are erotically joined; Ouroboros, the worm of death and time that eats its own tail; the group's song "Opposable Thumb at the Water's Edge," associated with primate dexterity and the making of the figa fist by black slaves in Brazil to ward off spells cast against them (48); and a primeval Egyptian creation myth surrounding Temu, known as "The Father of the Gods," who creates the world through an act of masturbation. In the following passage, several of these motifs are conjoined:

Throughout his solo he made abundant use of circular breathing, which in a self-reflected aside he called "an old snake-charmer's trick" at one point, making mention of one K. Gopalakrishna Ouroboros, a nagaswaram player of some repute. (The nagaswaram, he noted, is a South Indian oboe, a double-reed horn just short of three feet long. Its name, translated literarally, means "snakepipe"). (45)

Circularity also joins with creation myth when the narrator recalls a seven-day romance he'd had with a woman in a distant part of the world. He recalls the romance while playing an old standard, "Body and Soul," on a bass clarinet with a group called The Crossroads Choir, whom he is instructed to meet in a secret location. Informed by sorrow and at an emotional crossroads, his playing is especially fruitful:

the last day we'd seen one another now returned, but with a new sense of lingering access--once a day of parting, now a day of repose. I relaxed into such a sense of it, deepening its consolation with a meditation on the number eight. "Upright infinity," I whispered into the horn. It occurred to me now, as though I'd never seen it before, that the eighth note of every octave is a return to the first, both end and beginning. It made me think of Lebe, the last of the eight Dogon ancestors, also said to be the oldest, which would make him the first. I reflected on his having died and become a snake, a fact I referred to with his circular breathing in a run which also brought Ouroboros to mind. (106)

It is through music and memory that the mystical is achieved in the novel's complex thematic figuration. In joining with Djamilaa through sexual fantasy as he holds his "middle leg" or "fifth limb" (193) in the final chapter, DB brings the story full circle by completing the myth of Damballah and recreating the masturbatory, Ouroboric circle by which Temu created the world. Such meditative circularity is parallel to the trance of possession into which lovers, vodun priests, and musicians enter. As she stands at her window, Djamilaa can feel the incestuous touch of her father's hand on her hip. Thus, DB's desire for Djamilaa is received in terms of Djamilaa's own projections, and a "rainbow bridge" suggestive of twined serpents is constructed. As Thompson (1984, 176) observes:

Another animal present in Dahomean art--Da or Dan, the good serpent of the skies--appears not only in Haiti but also in Cuba, and, in mixture with the Yoruba rainbow deity, Oshumare, in Brazil, that is, wherever the Fon and their neighbors arrived as captives . . . .Da combines male and female aspects, and is sometimes represented as a pair of twins. Many are his avatars, but principle among them is Da Ayido Hwedo, the rainbow-serpent . . . In one Dahomean myth. . .Da Ayido Hwedo set up four pillars cast in iron at the four cardinal points of the earth. He did this to hold aloft the sky. And then he twisted around these columns in brilliant spirals of crimson, black, and white to keep the pillars upright in their places.

Damballah, the Haitian word for the serpent of the sky, corresponds with "the Ki-Kongo word for flatheaded rainbow-serpent, ndamba" (177). Ndamba is a word for sleep that puns on the ecstatic love-making of a pair of male and female serpents, "who wrap themselves around a palm tree to carnally unite" (178). It is characteristic of Mackey's irony that DB is arrested for public exposure despite the fact that his erotic dream relates to a sacred cosmology.

Coaxiality in Bedouin Hornbook also occurs as a series of linguistic events (homonyms, puns, and homologies) in which one word is crossed with another like the snakes of Dahomean myth, as follows:

Ascent and assent. "What I'm proposing is that we hear into what has up to now only been overheard (if I can put it that way), that we can awaken resources whereby, for example, assent can be heard to carry undertones or echoes of ascent (accents of assent)" (Mackey 1986, 19). The word assent concerns social agreement in this context, both on the broader social level and among the players of the Mystic Horn Society. Ascent in the context of their music alludes to ecstasy, possession, and flight. Ascent therefore tends to result from a degree of assent among the band's members, their unity in difference. To this dialectic is added the word accent, which applies equally to speech, musical texture, and Mackey's own prose emphases.

Lifted and lofty. This homology emphasizes the potential elitism of the band's "nouveau" music and sources of spiritual inspiration such as "the widespread age-old stilt-dancing traditions of West Africa, where mask-wearing, dancing figures mount a pair of stilts as much as fifteen feet high" (67). The band's "lift-off" or flight into the ethereal has a double nature, one in lofty intellectualism and the other in folk tradition.
'Ni tan and n'itan. The Yoruba words 'ni tan and n'itan, mean, respectively, "related to each other" and "at the thigh." The band has been playing a song called "Meat of My Brother's Thigh," which reminds the narrator of a Yoruba proverb meaning "Kinship does not mean that, because we are entwined, we can thereby rip off each other's thigh" (92). The word entwined and its relation to Damballah iconography is later echoed in an analysis of Rastafarian drumming, in which it is argued that the sound from a particular drum is related "to the noise made by the animal from whose hide the drum's head is made" (113). One drum of a pair, called the repeater, is made from the skin of a female goat; the accompanying bass drum is made from male goatskin. This dialectic extends to African polyrhythmic drumming, which according Roberts (1972, 186), tends to weave (like Aunt Nancy / Anansi the spider) duple and triple rhythms: "Another fundamental aspect of West African music-making, also widespread in Afro-America, is . . . present in the blues and in jazz. This is the tendency to use triple and duple rhythms at the same time, which is arguably the reason for the extensive use of triplets in both blues and jazz."

Desert and dessert. Of the band's playing of "Bottomed Out," their climactic song, N. writes, "It was a pregnant, polysemous triad we three had enacted, compounded of a technical-ecstatic appetite for drought (pronounced 'dez-ert'), a technical-ecstatic blending of abandonment and merit (pronounced 'de-zurt') and a technical-ecstatic jellyroll sense of an ending (pronounced 'di-zurt')" (Mackey 1986, 167). The dialectic is at full triangulation. Desertion is echoed in the book's frequent references to orphans (Djamilaa is one), as well as Mackey's essay "Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol":

Poetic language is language owning up to being an orphan, to its tenuous relationship with the things it ostensibly refers to. This is why in the Kaluli myth [of Papua New Guinea] the origin of music is also the origin of poetic language (Mackey 1993, 234).

The desert is associated with Djamilaa as a native of Mauritania, but it also relates to the quality of her voice: "She dug deep into her desert roots to come up with a desolate, forlorn yet fiercely devotional sound" (Mackey 1986,173). But when she opens her mouth to sing, there is no sound. It is as if "her voice were now anointed in sand" and "she'd been deserted by the future she proposed" (174). The word dessert is in antithesis to the other parts of the dialectic; it suggests the pleasures of hearing Djamilaa's pain-haunted voice. The words technical and ecstatic occupy their own dialectic.

Could and cud. In playing "Aggravated Assent," the left side of Penguin's face bulges at the beginning of each run: "Tied to it as by an umbilical cord of obsession, one stared at the bulge and saw it was made not by Penguin's tongue but by a certain cud his Bedouin 'someone' had left him with. Though one saw this one heard it more as 'could' than as 'cud,' rocked or swayed by the enabling proportion of one's umbilical stare" (171). Later, the audience and band alike chew a "collective 'could'" as they share the music's possibilities.
Thrown and throne. The crossroads of this homonym is that of postmodern dispersion, which Mackey practices as a poet, and erotic authority. Mackey would argue for the necessity of dispersion and difference in attempting juncture; indeed, this is the basis of his theory of discrepant engagement. The distance of DB from Djamilaa in the final chapter, "The Creaking of the Word," make his connection with her all the more desirable:

It was as though Djamilaa, even while playing the horn, threw her voice by way of a boomerang trickster thread. This trickster thread, moreover, was a telepathic tether which tied the two of us to one another, a roundabout, circulatory "soul serenade" . . . .She was my flung partner it seemed, made to fly away from me only to be pulled back once she'd gone as far as our stretched arms would allow. This dance, the mimed ingestion of seperation we enacted, made for a thrown, dislocated intervention . . . .a punning sense of far-flung investiture: thrown = throne. Djamilaa was clearly my Bedouin Queen. (187)

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