Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth: Nathaniel Mackey’s “Sound and Sentience”

I wrote before about how limbo is a tangible dance recovery of the phantom limb or broken connection (a tangible made into an intangible) produced by the Atlantic between Africa and the Americas. Poet and writer Nathaniel Mackey also has written about it in his poems and essays, like “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol,” which I recently read in Postmodern American Poetry: The Norton Anthology.  In the essay, Mackey explains that sound and music are proof of the invisible worlds, outside of the physical, tangible world. Essentially, they are ghostly and godly, symbolizing something missing, something broken, or something desired to be expressed (“music encourages us to see that the symbolic is the Orphic, that the symbolic realm is the realm of the orphan” – 665). He relates it to the myth of the muni bird in the Kalui culture of Papa New Guinea. Reading it, I thought of Sionne R. Neely’s essay “Something’s Got a Hold on Me: ‘Lingering Whispers’ of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Ghana” and the notion that these “lingering whispers” are recorded in our bodies (maybe even our DNA) or that we feel them even if they are not physically there. These tie together music, dance, memory, spirit possession rituals and the effect of the transatlantic slave trade. Read Mackey’s poem below:

Sound and Sentience          (read it in form and hear it here)

  —”mu” thirty-second part—

Scales what would once have been
skin… Feathers what would once
have been cloth… There that
claiming heaven raised hell, fraught
sublimity, exits ever more to
A drum’s head it was we walked on,
beats parsed out by ghost feet,
protoghost feet our feet had
become. It was a dream of beaten
beaten air, beaked extravagance,
birds we’d eventually be. Albeit
feeling took flight’s place, flight
familiarity’s run, movement found our
feet, what once had been wood…
stood as one, stung wood’s revival,
“Pinocchio” was on the box. Puppet
run, strung wood, stump trumpet…
Bugled admonition. Spun… It wasn’t
we wandered into, circling wind we
considered moot, a way we had of
running in place… Phantom limbs they
were we ran on, ghost feet that
they were. Nubs that’d once been feet
lost their numbness. Feeling it was
us run… It was feeling’s return we
ran with, irredentist earth beneath
our feet felt good. Irredentist earth
fell away from our feet as we kept
running, ran from day one long before
one, protoghost entourage… Leg anthem
the music intimated. “Spooks” it now
was on the box. We were anything but
there though not elsewhere, rhythmically
elect but loosed even so, earth a
of drums come

ÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝ                  •

It wasn’t puppets we were, strings
tied to what had been wood notwithstanding,
wasn’t we were wood anymore. Runaway
earth abrupt cut from under… Ricochet
and Reach rival names we knew it
Blinked and before we got there were
gone, protoghosthood its own haunt…
So that Run it seemed it was we came to
next, a place, had it been a place, made
whisk, borne-away whatsee, blur… Blent
vista such that splinters reared up
and walked, went remitless… Endless
reconnoiter, endless vex, revisitation.
Endless hoist and hoofbeat limbed on
Comings and goings not gotten over.
Death not gotten over, goings away
glimpsed again had us gone without
going,         on to the heard-about

ÝÝÝÝ    sounded

Speaking of “sound and sentience,” watch this video of C2C and D. Martin’s “Happy,” featuring dancer Story Basquiat. .

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