Robin Tremblay-McGaw on Nathaniel Mackey's Eroding Witness and Bedouin Hornbook

from Creaking the Word: Epistolary Arrest and Fugitive Run in Nathaniel Mackey's Writing
Robin Tremblay-McGaw

A few years ago, when I wrote my dissertation chapter on Nathaniel Mackey’s work, my claim was that his is a poetics forged between a fugal and fugitive pursuit that constructs an archive as a practice, as a verb. This practice enables a re-membering of the past while it points to a troubled blutopic future, what Graham Lock in Blutopia describes as “one tinged with the blues, an African American visionary future stained with memories” (3), one in which fugitive run is always bound up with impediment, stutter and arrest. This is still my claim; however, in preparation for this conference, rereading Eroding Witness, and Bedouin Hornbook, two of Mackey’s books from the 80s, one poetry (a National Poetry Series Selection), one a fugitive text, the first installment in the ongoing epistolary series From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, I find in Eroding Witness, a relative absence of explicit fugitive run, a fact I’d forgotten or not noticed in the rush of numerous references to and enactments of it in the later work.

Fugitivity, a complicated trope, thematics, and method of composition in both the poetry and the prose, is informed by its history and figures in Mackey’s writing in multiple ways. Fugitivity, a wandering which is connected to the ambiguous (“...the Latin counterpart of “wander about” is ambigere, the verb from which ambiguous derives” [Bedouin Hornbook 157]), is a way “to pursue the nomadic source of one’s affliction” (157) and a “way to ‘catch’ one’s ambiguous ordeal by its infectious roots... with a ... homeopathic ‘wandering about’” (157). Thus, fugitivity is both affliction and cure, connected to the history of the runaway slave, maroon societies and the underground railway. It is also a strategy for trespassing as N, the writer of the letters comprising Bedouin Hornbook, describes: “I confess to a weakness for these amphibious, in-between, both/and advances into a realm which defies categorization, this way of trespassing, so to speak, the line which otherwise divides melody from rhythm, horn from drum and so forth” (138). Thus, fugitivity is connected to an evasion of the law, to an illegal crossing of boundaries. Fugitivity, too, demands “intensity over etiquette” (Hornbook 27) and also suggests the elusive, that which is difficult to grasp or pin down as well as the ephemeral, that which is of passing interest as in fugitive literature.
In Eroding Witness the first seven poems are tied to the edge of the left margin and written in short Creeley-esque lines; with “Ghede Poem,” they begin to stretch, to stride across the page. In this poem, form enacts the mobility associated with the Vodun Loa Ghede, a figure associated with death, the abyss, resurrection and the libido. It is in this poem too, that an edge, “the edge of love’s disappearance,” is marked and reiterated.  In “Ghede” words begin to escape, become fugitives from the tight enclosure of a clipped form and syntax, begin to erode the edge the previous poems had confined themselves to while seeking a different edge, one that in the book’s closing poem, “Dogon Eclipse,” is fraught with the words “caught,” flood,” “bright” “prophetic,” and “unrest.” Here the words go out on a limb, perhaps a phantom limb/line, while they also invoke the historical and traumatic limbs of lynching. Mackey’s two serial poems, poems he seems to have been writing all of his life—“Song of the Andoumboulou” and “mu” –also make their debut in Eroding Witness.
As part of “Song of the Andoumboulou” 6 and 7, the first two “Dear Angel of Dust” letters are included in Eroding Witness and inaugurate a public address to the reader in the form of a “private” prose-based correspondence between “N” and an enigmatic “Angel of Dust.” These letters, appearing in the midst of the lineated poetry around them, are startling, they arrest the reader, stop her in her tracks. In them language, begins to become untethered, to play, to run and slide as in “Don’t you hear something ‘eartical” or “churchical” (some Rastafarian words I’ve picked up lately) in it? A certain arch and/or ache and or ark of duress, the frazzled edge of what remains “unsung?” (54). The linguistic play commencing in the letters contrasts with the way individual words in the rest of Eroding Witness, while resonant, remain arrested, isolated, in place.  I want to go out on a limb and suggest that the prose “Angel of Dust” letters initiate the dizzying and dazzling “creaking of the word” – language’s continual erosion and partiality on the one hand, and on the other, its plenitude, the constitutive excess of noise or creaking—the “compost” that “N” finds in the word “compose” in Bedouin Hornbook.
In an interview with Peter O’Leary, Mackey has said that the Angel of Dust letters developed out of an attempt to unpack his poetry, enabling him “to speak at greater discursive length about the content, the perspectives, the different dispositions that inform the poetry” (Discrepant  298). While they do seem to serve this function, these prose letters, addressed to what is itself nothing if not fugitive—ephemeral, erosive—the Angel of Dust, appear to have incited a practice of “creaking the word, form, genre,” plying language so that it begins to escape its own supposed referential, material bounds; words run apart and into one another in fugitive danger and bliss, at once caught by and freed in a polysemous syncretistic migratory flight.  
“The Creaking of the Word” lecture/libretto that closes Bedouin Hornbook , a book in prose, includes a description of a character called Flaunted Fifth who is pissing and musing in an abandoned field somewhere in LA. Here’s an excerpt:
He noticed the cops in the police car looking his way. The emotional figure he absentmindedly toyed with was given an abruptly ominous edge by the setting sun, the helicopter overhead and the police car circling the block…a panicky rush ran thru him as the cops continued to look his way. He couldn’t help remembering that several black men had been killed by the LA police in recent months, victims of a chokehold (201).

In fact, Hornbook ends with Flaunted Fifth arrested. In fact, black men, then and now, are targets of arrest, incarceration, and murder. Perhaps the asymptotic turn to prose that Mackey makes in the initial Angel of Dust epistles included in Eroding Witness as poems, and which then subsequently appear only in the fugitive prose Broken Bottle series is prompted by the problematic social and aesthetic politics of the 1980s . The present, and the possibility of speaking to and against it, for Mackey, most explicitly finds a home-on-the-run in the prose.
So, what I’d like to close with is the claim that for Mackey, a turn to prose in the 80s, inaugurates a generative fugitive practice that, to use a phrase from the first Angel of Dust letter, “sprouts hoofs,” that acknowledges arrest and also runs, stutters, falters, and runs again with/into/against language, history, form, genre. Mackey continues to write both poetry and what I like to think of as fugitive texts—part letter, part poem, part essay, part liner notes, part criticism—that pursue the edge, these multiple forms leaping the chasms between them, in a continual pursuit of what ends up being a diasporic, post-nationalist imaginary, that re-visits the past and proposes as N does in Bass Cathedral’s closing revision of yet another “ after-the-fact lecture/libretto,”“a truly new world or, if not new, at least distant, far away, far over” (183). 

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