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Some Ecstatic Elsewhere
Peter O'Leary

Nathaniel Mackey with Royal Hartigan & Hafez Modirzadeh
Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25
Spoken Engine Co., 1995

The first sounds of the "chthonic stir" we hear are flamenco strummings and burr-throated singing, "raspy as night." Nathaniel Mackey looks onto a band of gypsies on the shore: "They were dredging/ the sea," while an otherworldly percussive sough draws us off-shore, out of time, to watch the eerie, weary work of gypsies "counting the sand." In a compellingly repetitive monotone, Mackey then draws out a map of the world of flamenco, the world that drives his poetry:

      Some
      ecstatic elsewhere's
      advocacy strummed,
      unsung, lost inside
      the oud's complaint...
      The same cry taken
      up in Cairo, Cordoba,
      north
      Red Sea near Nagfa,
      Muharraq, necks cut
      with the edge
      of a
      broken cup...

The oud is the instrument, according to the Encyclopedia of Islam, at the heart of the Islamic people. The land of this people is evoked by the places in Egypt where oud music might be strummed, sounding out its complaint. Flamenco is the music of some ecstatic elsewhere, the Andalusia of Cordoba, as noted for the gruff vocal qualities its singers strive after as for the proficiency of the plucking and strumming of its guitarist.

We are in the thicket of associations Mackey in a sense untangles, then weaves tightly back together. Andalusia harbored Islam in the Middle Ages: oud-music, whose techniques reach as far east as Pakistan, had its presence there, a presence resounded in the cante jondoö"deep song";or better, cante moroöthe "Moorish song" that registers an African presence as well, and so evokes the other side of the Mediterranean. The deep song is significant to Mackey because it involves duende, the longing that has no object, but more importantly: "It is something troubling. It has to do with deep trouble." The sound of duende, at least as it is sung in "flamenco's gnostic moan," is the sound that comes from a throat cut with the edge of a broken cup.

It would be enough to hear Mackey read his way through these poems with his clipped but uniformly rhythmic reading voice. But Strick lets readers listen in on an unusually fruitful collaboration. Mackey is paired up with percussionist Royal Hartigan - who plays an array of instruments; the jazz player's drum kit is one small portion - and with reedist Hafez Modirzadeh, likewise playing many instruments: tenor saxophone, flute, nay, zorna, suling, and punji. The effect is to enhance what is already present in Mackey's reading and propose a new possible meaning. Take "Song of the Andoumboulou: 16," subtitled cante moro. As Mackey reads lines about a flamenco singer as "burr-throat/ threnodist..." and about being "In a dark room/ discussing duende," Hartigan employs a set of Chinese opera drums, clappers, and cymbals toward establishing a dramatic, Noh-like ambiance. And all the while Modirzadeh is evincing a "gruff alterity" from his saxophone, vocalizing a scream that buzzes through the reed and gets slightly stifled in the mouthpiece. As such, we get less a performance of Mackey's poetry-which would be like a dramatic reading of the script of the poem-than a three-dimensional aural text of the poem.

Or take what happens in "Song of the Andoumboulou: 18." The poem is polyglot, traversing continents and time with references to gypsies in Egypt, the Andoumboulou, the "inept," "failed creation" of Ogo, the Pale Fox of Dogon mythology, an "Ethiopian moan," the voudou lwa Ogun, and "the Long Night Lounge" that begins the poem, evoking American jazz and its onetime late-night culture. All of these varied references are highlights of an otherness Mackey strives to describe, never more succinctly as when he says:

      Gnostic stranger
      I embraced as though it
      was me I embraced...
      Was.

The gnosis of Mackey's cross-cultural otherness is elaborated in Hartigan's insistent patterns beat out on the donno, described in the CD liner-notes as a West African string tension, double-headed, hourglass shaped drum. Hartigan emphasizes the West African milieu of Mackey's poem with his playing, syncopating his beat with a similar cross-culturality: Hartigan - a white man - comes to the donno by way of his own experiences in the Long Night Lounge of jazz. Modirzadeh confounds this cross-cultural weave with his own wild thread, improvising a soothing melody on the suling, which is an Indonesian bamboo flute used in degung music. Degung is to traditional Indonesian gamelan music what jazz is to classical music: stripped down, more flexible, amenable to amazing improvization. Modirzadeh's suling is aberrant yet stitched into the whole. In a sense, it is a further figuration of the haunting, duende-laden croak of the flamenco singer, or the funerary song of the andoumboulou itself:

      Sound
      raveling sound calling itself
      eternity. No known locale
      though names accrue.

       

       

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