Nathaniel Mackey's Dogon Elders
PostedFebruary 20, 2014
Nathaniel Mackey's serial poem "Mu" gives voice to the elders of the Dogon tribe of central Mali, who "consume millet beer into which the souls of the disgruntled dead have crept."1 The elders channel the improperly buried, who, according to Mackey, "accost the community with insults and accusations." 2 These accusations— such as the declaration that "the dead are dying of thirst"suggest "not only debts to history or the dead or the past, a neglect of history or the dead or the past, but other non-observances only an alteration of mind might set right." The accusations apply "to the living dead wanting to awake, wanting more life, wanting more from life."3
"Eye on the Scarecrow", the twentieth part of "Mu," situates the voice of the poem in that of the channeling Dogon elders:
Millet beer made
our legs go weak,
our tongues. "The dead,"
said, "are drowning
The focus of this poem, however, is not only on the vocalization of the dead through the elders, but also where the consciousness and agency in the channeling mind go when the spirits infect them. We follow the elders (or is it the ancestors?) into their dream-stupor where they find a "harp-headed ghost whose / head we plucked incessantly."
The idea of the channeled being an instrument—as the head that is something to be plucked like a harp and gives off music—is deliciously complicated by this "ghost" that is being played. Who is playing whom? The elders? The ancestors? When the dead speak through earthly beings, do those channelers become instruments? Is there a parallel game of summoning in the dream-world? The shaping of the head as a harp—concave, indented, like a ruptured skull—further blurs the power structure even as it reinforces the symbolic undercurrents of possession and channeling.
The spirits call out from the mouths of the drunks: "memory made us itch." Other poets who employ channeling in their work, like Kamau Brathwaite, use memory as the locus point for social commentary, and see channeling as a way of interacting with a past disrupted by colonialism. Mackey's speakers may be historically and culturally charged, but here they are in a realm beyond personhood; memory is just an itch to them. After becoming mediums they live
an altered life on an
coast we'd lay washed up
on, instancy and elsewhere
Possession serves as an act of personal and vocal transcendence—the drunken elders gain insight not only through the utterances of the spirits passing through them, but through an expanded selfhood. Mackey, as he asks us to want more out of life, urges us to discover our own indignant Dogons and—by making beautiful poetry—wake ourselves up.
1Splay Anthem, by Nathaniel Mackey (New Directions, 2002), Preface p. xiii.
2Splay Anthem, by Nathaniel Mackey (New Directions, 2002), Preface p. xiv.
3Splay Anthem, by Nathaniel Mackey (New Directions, 2002), Preface p. xiv.
Special thanks to Max Ritvo for his research and writing contributions to this article.