Notes on Poetics Regarding Mackey's Song
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Callaloo 23.2 (2000) 572-591



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Notes on Poetics Regarding Mackey's Song

Brent Hayes Edwards


The work of Nathaniel Mackey inheres most insistently in its engagement with music. It records a "research at the interstice" 1 of expressive media, a deliberate and oblique elaboration of Louis Zukofsky's oft-repeated dictum that "poetry may be defined as an order of words that as movement and tone (rhythm and pitch) approaches in varying degrees the wordless art of music as a kind of mathematical limit" (19). This project takes place not simply through a poetics that makes recourse to song, but also through an attention to the ways music, and black music in particular, approaches speech--approximates or aspires to what Mackey terms a "telling inarticulacy," or an "alternate vocality." 2 What is common to black creative expression is not necessarily an emphasis on what we have perhaps too easily come to think of as "orality," but instead an aesthetic imperative to test and break the limits of what can be said. As Mackey puts it: "Everyone talks about the speechlike qualities of instruments as they're played in African-American music. Built into that is some kind of dissatisfaction with--if not critique of--the limits of conventionally articulate speech, verbal speech. One of the reasons the music so often goes over into nonspeech--moaning, humming, shouts, nonsense lyrics, scat--is to say, among other things, that the realm of conventionally articulate speech is not sufficient for saying what needs to be said. We're often making that same assertion in poetry" ("Cante Moro" 86).

This is not a poetics of transcendence, however. It is an inherently self-reflexive mode which is not unrelated to Mackey's own description of Edward Kamau Brathwaite's second trilogy, in that it "both announces the emergence of a new language and acknowledges the impediments to its emergence, going so far as to advance impediment as a constituent of the language's newness" ("Wringing the Word" 734). Mackey's fascination with edges, with extremes, with erosion, with modes of expression that strain against themselves, bears witness to a "research at the interstice" ultimately less involved with the particularities of the media involved (scripture and orature), and more engaged with the task of pressing or distending elements of those mediums (repetition, inflection, timbre, pitch, phrasing, literary structure, orthographics) to bear witness--"eroding witness," as he terms it--to that necessary cohabitation of originality and flaw, mobility and limp, articulation and stammer.

Consider the music that charges this work: the otherworldly falsettos described in Bedouin Hornbook; flamenco's aspiration to a quality of duende, a singing so raspy and gnarled that it is "dark," crouched "at the rim of the wound" and drawing toward "places where forms fuse together into a yearning superior to their visible expression"; the jazz of musicians such as Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton and Yusef Lateef, [End Page 572] marked as much by its uncompromising intellectualism as by its spiritual bent; the Song of the Andoumboulou amongst the Dogon of Mali, a funeral song addressed to flawed, failed precursors of humans. 3 In the poetry, the fiction, and the criticism, we consistently encounter examples of music straining towards speech, or embodying the noise at the edges of articulate expression. 4 Indeed, the convergence between a writing so obsessed by sound and music so drawn to speech might be best understood as a common concern with the limits of voice--its inception, its exhaustion. Voice in all its connotations: as the particular physical apparatus, the ways a throat channels air; as advocacy, "speaking for"; as articulation, joining phonemes into an utterance; as the abstraction of personality, an "individual voice"; even as a disembodiment or haunting, communication from an unseen source. 5 Taking voice as a kind of prism to focus this convergence, it should be clear why issues of transcription, the ways the voice is "troubled" in crossing over between media, seem to attract the most critical energy in Mackey's work. Such trouble marks the "limits of the sayable"; it indicates an insufficiency or dispossession...