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Grace of the Song

by Black Issues

Grace of the Song

Poetry, at its best, is rich in history interwoven with lore and steeped in musicality. When one experiences such literature, there is no question about what genre he or she is listening to, whether in a group setting or reading alone. Poetry also has an aura of magic, limitless possibilities, and audacity.
Whatsaid Serif, Nathaniel Mackey’s third book of poems, however, is a testament to the magic, possibilities, and audacity of exceedingly noteworthy poetry. Comprising this book are the next 20 installments — numbered 16 through 35 — of “Song of the Andoumboulou.” Mackey’s two previous books, Eroding Witness, and School of Udhra, contained the first 15 installments.
Nevertheless, the opening poem in Whatsaid Serif, “Song of the Andoumboulou: 16,” unfolds with workers searching the sea for Pharaoh’s crypt:

They were dredging
the sea, counting
the sand,pounded
rocks into gravel,
paid a dollar a
sang of the oldest
fish like family,
flamenco strings

These opening lines play off one another like a musical composition. The first four lines each consist of three words. However, in the first three lines, the first two words are monosyllabic and the third word is duosyllabic. There are only one or two stressed syllables in each of the first three lines. In addition, the first four lines have feminine endings. But the fourth line starts the line variation, having five syllables and beginning with a stressed syllable. Yet, this 11-line stanza has three lines that consist of only one word. Also, the typography of this installment seemingly alludes to the scattered searching of the workers.
Moreover, the enjambment leads the reader to believe the searching is endless and possibly tedious. The unpredictable line breaks work like the riffing of jazz. It is the what-sayer that makes this tale complete by participating; he or she is the one witnessing and joining in with the griot.
In “Song of the Andoumboulou: 16,” the persona becomes the griot and the griot becomes the poem and the poem becomes lore. Again, this is that aura of magic, limitless possibilities, and audacity in which Mackey scribes in his own sort of poignancy.
In the second section of this poem, which Mackey separates from the first section with only a single dot, he writes:

In a dark room discussing duende.
they saw or they thought
they saw. An aura he called it,
air, though they choked on
it, smoke bound in leaves,

In this stanza, Mackey incorporates the alliteration of “d” and “t” consonant sounds. In addition, he uses assonance in the “a” vowel sound. Again, the reader experiences the music of Mackey’s poetry. Further, there is visual imagery incorporated, too. Mackey also weaves Spanish into this poem. For example, “duende” translates to “elf,” “goblin,” and “gnome” in English.
Nevertheless, in the closing poem, “Song of the Andoumboulou: 35,” the speaker states:

A last meeting after other last meetings.
  Up what felt
like a stairway a window at
which he sat overlooking
Coast, his eyes’ and the
water’s color the inside
color of green grapes…
A last meeting. Another last
meeting. Now in a mood

In these lines, Mackey relies upon the repetition of “last meeting” to reinforce this tale. The repetition also enhances the music of this poem. Thus, there is a rhythmical progression throughout these 20 installments. In fact, the reader becomes the Song of the Andoumboulou; and it becomes the reader. The song demonstrates the possibility of language; and tonally it is beautiful.
“Song of the Andoumboulou”, whose name comes from a Dogon funeral song, is a very spiritual serial poem. Because the Dogon people are highly spiritual and artistic, one can understand why Mackey’s Whatsaid Serif is structurally artistic and contains a spiritual essence. This poem, however, is a marvelous example of how unusual line breaks can greaten its emotional appeal and turn phrase against phrase. Come witness this brilliant solo. 

— Dr. Lenard D. Moore
Professor of English and Poetry at North Carolina State University, and the author of Desert Storm: A Brief History (1993); Forever Home (1992); and The Open Eye (1985).
He also is the founder and executive director of the Carolina African American
Writers’ Collective.

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