Whatever it was we were
on. Wherever it was
we were. Elsewhere was
elsewhere, always. . . No way
we'd end up there. . .
—Whatsaid Serif, 84
In a 1998 interview with Nathaniel Mackey, Brent Cunningham asks about the many references to place in his work, specifically in Africa and the Caribbean, and whether he has been to those regions. Mackey goes on to reply:
I went to the Bahamas a few years back, in the mid-eighties. One of the reasons I was interested in going to the Bahamas is that I have family lineage that goes back to the Bahamas. My father, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone, was actually Bahamanian. His mother and father were from the Bahamas. They went to the Canal Zone, as did many West Indians, to work on the canal. I remember talk of the Bahamas and of Bahamians from my childhood, growing up in Miami, and after, when we moved to California.1
Earlier in the interview, Mackey talks about the lack of explicit autobiographical reference in his work, a topic that may have eased the way for this account of historical, or even ancestral, circumstance. I had read the interview before but recently was drawn back to it. I remembered certain remarks on travel, but having lived in Panama for some months, the above passage struck me as it hadn't on first reading. The experience of rereading it, from a different place, at a different time, seems akin to what Mackey mentions about the shifting quality of location in his work: "It's hard to see it for what it is because it's layered or refracted or brought into some kind of play with multiplicity" (322). Here also in Panama, speaking of multiplicity, I've been translating late poems of Du Fu written in Hunan, a province of China where I lived some years ago—poems that mark one after another the hopes and frustrations of travel.
Mackey states that his first time traveling abroad was in 1975, a trip that included a week in Morocco. Since then, he hadn't been back. But the experience, he says, resurfaces in his work:
A lot of Whatsaid Serif comes from my experience of travel and gets transposed in various ways. That's the term I've seized upon in recent months to talk about that concern: transposition. It's a word that speaks to those kinds of complications, one's fulfillments and disappointments as a traveler. It's finding out that you had an appointment other than the one you thought you had.... That disappointing travel experience in 1975 is one of the places that the figures out of North Africa come from, all that concern with the Bedouin and the desert. Some of that is me revisiting that experience, keeping appointments I only come to see later. (325)
Transposition, then, in the sense of being moved across, placed elsewhere. The disappointment in experience becomes an appointment in writing. But for Mackey it's not a matter so much of writing about such frustration than of being haunted by it:
One of the things I had to deal with was a romance of travel that I had absorbed, which the traveling didn’t live up to. I was quite disappointed. It has figured into, I think, a lot of the concern with location, locus, and dislocation that comes into my writing, the sense of itineracy that is increasingly accented, say, in Whatsaid Serif, where tropes of vehicular movement—bus, boat, train—recur and senses of arrival and/or frustrated arrival are articulated over and over again. (325)
Such frustration becomes not the subject of the poem but one factor in the broader concern with travel, a concern itself splintered into the various senses of "location, locus ... dislocation."
In his preface to Splay Anthem (2006), Mackey writes of the Dogon funeral rites that at a certain point
Song subside[s], [and a] lone voice eulogizes the deceased, reciting his genealogy, bestowing praise, listing all the places where he set foot while alive, a spiral around the surrounding countryside. Antelope-horn trumpets blast and bleat when the listing ends, marking the entry of the deceased into the other life ....1
This occurs during the song of the Andoumboulou, a 1956 recording of which Mackey took as the title of one of his two ongoing serial poems. About the second of the two, "Mu," Mackey writes:
The places named in the song of the Andoumboulou, set foot on by the deceased while alive but lost or taken away by death, could be called 'Mu.' Any longingly imagined, mourned or remembered place, time, state, or condition can be called 'Mu.' (x)
Mackey's serial poems partake of that space of recitation that follows song. They exist as echo, both subsequent to and desirous of the fuller resonance that precedes them. And yet this space of recitation is itself followed by a moment of non-vocal music, when the "Antelope-horn trumpets blast and bleat," as though the more subdued, recited language were only holding at bay, or building up to, an expression of pure music.
Within that echoic space, the poems are not situated in the places named, but in the activity of naming itself. As Mackey writes in Whatsaid Serif, "No known locale / though names accrue" (18). Or again:
don't go there, they said,
no sooner said they they were
there, albeit there defied location. . .
The locale, the location, that builds here, that asserts itself as animate presence, is the poem itself, or, again, the ongoing activity of it, entwined and braided with its pair. The poems move, but more by language than actual arrival anywhere:
Sought movement, markers of
movement, tongues numb with
not having moved. . .
It is this emphasis on the spirit, on the animacy of language itself, that seems to efface—or to make porous, implicate, open to echo—the individual self. In the greater order of the poem, the self is only one aspect among others. And if anything, reading Whatsaid Serif and other of Mackey's books of poetry, what is most audible is the sense of ancestry, the persistent echo of other voices and other travels, either unrealized or yearned for, yet to be.
image: from the University of Arizona Poetry Center
1 Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 324.
2 Splay Anthem (New Directions, 2006), ix.