Notes toward understanding Nathaniel Mackey's 'Outer Pradesh'

“Mu,” one of Mackey’s ongoing poems, is based on the idea of giving voice to the elders of the Dogon people of central Mali. In some “Mu” sections the elders channel the souls of disgruntled dead; they bespeak the improperly buried. In an early “Mu” the elders aver: “Memory made us itch” — and proceed to use memory as a means of offering social commentary. This mode has become the model for the poems. In them, commentary derives from a collective social wisdom — knowledge passed from the dead ancestors as a spectral chorus and not from a single voice. So possession is an act of personal vocal transcendence but not of individual identity-through-having. In writing the turning around of conventional values designating possession, Mackey asks us to seek more than ordinarily from life, encouraging us through an emotional aurality to discern our own indignant, disturbed Dogons, or: to wake ourselves up, get more from life. 

Possession indeed is a major issue in this new work, Outer Pradesh (Anomalous Press, 2014; limited edition of one hundred copies). Here Mackey applies the concept of “held-not-had” to relationships of love, and the concept of “I-Insofar” conveys the feeling both of the borderlessness of the body-moving-“outward” and of the tenuousness of identity.

The provincial train moving these people outward is evoked so richly and descriptively that it seems to us to be the specific memories of his characters, and, at the same time, to be the site of an allegory of psychic internal exile.  The people on the train are called a “philosophical posse” (13). The other seats on their train are empty. The train is engineless and driverless, reminding one of a modern history of US writings that have sought cultural directionlessness as a bodily exciting issue of State — William Carlos Williams’s driverless car at the uncontrolled ending of “To Elsie,” a crazy moment of postmodern cultural anthropology; Robert Creeley’s speaker’s existential musings, at the end of a crazy drive reminded to “watch out where you’re going”; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s possession-obsessed American characters crashing on the highway heading outward to Gatsby’s Outer Pradesh on the North Shore. But as has been said of Mackey’s poetry before, these are world people; their striving isn’t the chasing down or denoting of a particularly American Dream but a dream of the world. The characters and the political message are are made on behalf of the human song — what the Dogon elders, channeling the disturbed ancestral dead, have to say to these Indians moving together on a train: have your heads shaved to feel the spiritual benefit of the act but don’t think that the gesture makes a metaphor of cleansing, of spiritual or emotional purity. In a terribly moving scene, we see the “non-allegorical / hair piled up on the floor” (10).

The epigraph for Outer Pradesh is Jean Toomer’s Harlem Renaissance-inspired assertion of modernist open-endedness and generic not-belonging: “There is no end to ‘out’.” In Outer Pradesh Mackey applies this endless outward-going to a romantic exilic experience traveling around or out of India. For the philosophical posse moving outward on the train, it is a pilgrimmage that at all points risks eschewing the cultural here. “Pilgrims’ / dis - / may we discussed, what motion meant, / why / locality reneged” (13).

The “Mu” poems merge — as in Nod House and other collections — with further installments of the ongoing long poem called “Song of the Andoumboulou.” The series continue a narrative (in Outer Pradesh it is this story of the philosophical posse) yet maintain distinct themes, enabling readers to follow them in parallel. The “old-time people” are again in the “Song” sections apparently the Dogon, but the issue in “Song of the Andoumboulou” is particularly words’ limbo, and “Song of the Andoumboulou 89” in this new book is metapoetic — it is about the enterprise of the outward writing recording the journey — whereas “Mu” here remains existential. The posse wonders if language expressing the condition Toomer describes (and which plagued him as a writer) will be redemptive. But the very idea of redemption has been imposed, is a cultural norm the Dogon elders see through: “[W]ords / would be our rescue we’d been / told.” Told by whom? The speaker? Mackey as the dreamer-maker, wished-for-participant? But, crucially, rescue via language is a supreme fiction that will only suffice to move them outward despite, as Creeley’s “I Know Man” (a Black Mountain/theoretical rebuke of Beat outward-driving) would have it, “the darkness [that] surrounds us.” “Believing so braced us,” says the posse’s speaker in Outer Pradesh, “book of the book’s advantage, book of / the word’s leverage” (20). On the train they thumb “the book of not.”

What they and we learn on (and from) this journey is somewhat “Easter Islandish.” A pre-history embodied by “old souls” whom must be heard. From them we might get more out of life. We “brace […] ourselves” for what might be called the desegregation movement in which body and soul learn to avoid becoming the disgruntled dead but learn to hear their warnings. It’s “Brown versus Bardo” (we heard “Board” but also “bard,” the music ur-poet) and we are ever more not “I” but “Insofar-I” and fall “down on all fours” — not an animal stance but that which enacts “laid body’s limb-let transit” and more perfectly hears the music, “[a]n old song / sung out of context,” “each the / other’s inhalation, mere air, / aroma, breath,” “sonic perfume.”  This is the old poetry of mere air, a kind of pure poetry, yet without a whiff of the decontextualized, acultural formalism that has for long typified calls for us to hear it.

The supreme fiction here is finally rendered as this: “‘Moment shall abide’ was / everyone’s gambit” (26). And Mackey’s speaker? In the final poem, movingly, he says: “I was a moment’s novice” (29). We reach no thematic resolution but the last song gives us the most extraordinary and (at the level of the line) the most experimental writing. Just as “[m]oment’s menace ex- / tol[s] the moment,” we hear this question about the location of the ancient orality: “Where / was to was as was was to when, am / bage’s temporizing scat.” Ambage is an indirection. The book’s brilliance lies in its already having proved that temporizing is the truest expressive disposition — jazzy, outward-riding, menacingly smart, open, and wise.