- The “Mired Sublime” of Nathaniel Mackey’s Song of the Andoumboulou
We are aware of the fact that the changes of our present history are the unseen moments of a massive transformation in civilization, which is the passage from the all-encompassing world of cultural Sameness, effectively imposed by the West, to a pattern of fragmented Diversity, achieved in a no less creative way by the peoples who have today seized their rightful place in the world.— Edouard Glissant
Edouard Glissant’s incisive sentence—which inaugurates a series of essays, first published in 1981, devoted to the possibilities and difficulties of a cross-cultural poetics—registers the rhetorical-political shift from sameness to diversity that structures so many of the current debates over multiculturalism. Although the Martinican poet and critic raises a familiar charge against the West, that it imposed rather than proposed sameness, I want to draw attention to the curative, utopian dimension of Glissant’s diagnosis. Diversity, while fundamentally fragmented, can be “achieved in a no less creative way” than sameness. And it is this curative dimension that opens up one possibility for a cross-cultural poetry and poetics: the representation of the moment, enacted in a text, when traditions cross paths, and sameness yields to diversity to achieve a more rather than less creative encounter.
American literature in this century has witnessed its own series of attempts to produce a cross-cultural epic poem capable of telling the “tale of the tribe”1—a tale including not only American but world history as well. This series of “world-poems” begins with The Cantos of Ezra Pound and continues in Louis Zukofsky’s A, H.D.’s Trilogy and Helen in Egypt, Robert Duncan’s Passages, and, as I will show in this essay, Nathaniel Mackey’s Song of the Andoumboulou. Each of these works, in their own distinct way, holds out the possibility of a utopian vision created in and by poetry. Yet not all of these poems enact the passage from sameness to diversity that marks Glissant’s definition of cross-cultural poetry. Pound’s declaration in The Spirit of Romance that “all ages are contemporaneous” (6) has the unfortunate effect of reducing diversity to a transcendent sameness in the service of an all-encompassing view of world history, an effect all too evident in parts of The Cantos. As Mackey argues in his study of the 20th century American world-poem, “Gassire’s Lute: Robert Duncan’s Vietnam War Poems,” these poems allow for more diversity as we move closer to the present and as they begin to admit the impossibility of composing an all-encompassing tale of the human tribe. This admission, however, does not close the door on the possibility of a world-poem; on the contrary, it opens the door for the kind of creative encounter between cultures that Glissant calls for—an encounter based on the recognition of the irreducible diversity of the disparate cultures that populate the world. Nathaniel Mackey, I contend, achieves just such an encounter in his world-poem, Song of the Andoumboulou.
For the last ten years, Mackey, an African-American writer intent on exploring both sides of the hyphen, has investigated a remarkably wide range of subjects and forms. He has published two full-length volumes of poetry, Eroding Witness and School of Udhra; two volumes of an on-going work of epistolary fiction, Bedouin Hornbook and Djbot Baghostus’s Run; a major collection of essays, Discrepant Engagement; numerous articles on music, literature, and culture, and he has co-edited Moment’s Notice, an anthology of poetry and prose inspired by jazz. Mackey is also the founding editor of the literary journal Hambone, which Eliot Weinberger rightly calls “the main meeting-place for Third World, American minority and white avant-gardists” (232). Yet despite the wide range of subjects and forms his writing undertakes, Mackey’s work almost always gathers around the fact of song. The essays deal with Baraka and the Blues, Creeley and Jazz; the epistolary fiction is comprised of letters from “N,” a member of a jazz band, the Mystic Horn Society; and many of the poems are dedicated to musicians...