Quoting Nathaniel Mackey’s “Sculpted Inscriptions”

I’ve been working on a piece on Nathaniel Mackey–who just published the excellent Blue Fasa (New Directions, 2015) earlier this month–so I had recently gone through some scholarship on his poetry to make sure I’m caught up with the secondary literature (which I haven’t taken a look at since I was in coursework as a grad student.) There’s some interesting new criticism out there–I especially enjoyed Anthony Reed’s treatment of Mackey in Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing (JHU P, 2014)–and I’m pleased to see more people writing about Mackey’s work.

But while reading through various articles and book chapters I was surprised to see the way in which some of Mackey’s poetry was visually presented (and misquoted) in long quotations. For example, this comes from a book chapter in a 2014 volume published by Ashgate:

Nathanial Mackey's 'Song of the Andoumboulou'

I agree that “several fields of action seem to take place at once” as this author is suggesting, but, for Mackey, the page itself is a field of action: his visually distinctive poetry isn’t left-justified, giving it a dynamic look as his heavily enjambed lines snake down the page. “Song of the Andoumboulou: 1,” quoted above as a flush-left construct, actually looks like this in Eroding Witness (1985):

Song of the Andoumboulou 1Song of the Andoumboulou 1_2

Besides missing the irregular indentations and the unmistakable shape of Mackey’s strophes, the chapter’s author misses the capitalization in the word “Sea” and the line break between the words this and thirst in the phrase “Tutor / me, teach me this / thirst.”

I had thought that perhaps this was an isolated incident–maybe a simple copy-editing oversight. But then I saw this chapter from a 2009 study published by Palgrave:

Nathaniel Mackey's Agnostic History

Again, “Song of the Andoumboulou” is presented as if it were a conventionally left-justified poem. The visual shape of “Song of the Andoumboulou: 7”–like “Song of the Andoumboulou: 1”–has, in fact, a jagged left-hand margin:

Song of the Andoumboulou 7

Could it be coincidence that two critics were not being faithful to Mackey’s mise-en-page? I began to think that perhaps they were looking at a different edition of Eroding Witness. Indeed, there is another edition, which is available as an e-text in ProQuest’s Twentieth-Century African American Poetry and Twentieth-Century American Poetry databases. I checked the former, which presents “Song of the Andoumboulou: 7” as such:

from Twentieth-Century African American Poetry

Here, too, we see the removal of all of Mackey’s expressive spacing and deliberate indentations. While I can’t be sure that the two critics I mentioned above relied on this electronic database, it seems like a reasonable possibility. Eroding Witness is currently out of print and the value of having a digitized version that can be readily accessible to scholars and students is clear. But, in any case, I believe that this version of Eroding Witness is severely flawed as the look of the page is a crucial component to Mackey’s poetics.

In a craft essay I wrote called “The Poem and Mise-en-page” I quote from an interesting and relevant response Mackey gave to an interviewer. In talking about how he embeds a sense of the performative within a literary work, Mackey calls attention to his practice of “sculpted inscription”:

The uniform spatial arrangements that most poems are put on the page with—uniform except for the ragged right margin where you have the line breaks—impart or imply a uniformity or a homogeneity to the space the words occupy that is not really there in the way that we speak words and not there in a poem when we hear a poem read or hear a poem spoken, so one of the things going on with the way I put the poem on the page is an attempt to give the sense of a visual dance, a visual rhythm or rhythmicity on the page, and a sense of the poem as it appears on the page as a sculpted inscription.

In ProQuest’s version of Eroding Witness the sense of visual rhythmicity is completely lost; indeed, the transcription and transmediation impose a uniformity or a homogeneity that Mackey so carefully tries to avoid. According to ProQuest’s editorial policy, “The complete text of each poem has been included, and any integral textual images and illustrations have been scanned.” I argue that Mackey’s poetry on the page constitutes an “integral textual image” in its own right–a sculpted score for what Ed Roberson might call an “integral music.”

~ by Michael Leong on June 2, 2015.

2 Responses to “Quoting Nathaniel Mackey’s “Sculpted Inscriptions””

  1. This is very disappointing to see. It feels like a sort of erasure.

    • I don’t want to be a finger-wagging pedant–the point I’m trying to make is subtle enough–but, yes, it does feel to me that an important aesthetic component is being erased…

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