Black History Month: Excerpt from “School of Udhra” by Nathaniel Mackey

From School of Udhra

– school of udhra –
    I sit up holding you a
year ago, yearning, let
   go, draw short of eternity,
       allergic to time…
   To be found after waiting
so long but found wanting…
     Toward the end I saw mint
       bloom, bamboo blossom, saw
    the soul off to its alternate
  Acidic juice of a just picked
orange. Acidic sweetness of a
     trumpeter’s kiss. A jug of
        wine, a bag of asafetida,
    full-to-bursting calabash,
turned upside
        All to say the end had come around yet
      again this time for real, planet long
            since about to blow away every
           minute now, clusterbomb canister,
              innocent fist of a child…
Ins and outs on the brink of a
    mending always under assault,
   love allergic to time, mourning
      retreat but with a backward glance,
an over-the-shoulder look says we’re no
                               longer needed.
  An ominous cloudbank woke me with
     a kiss, belief thicker than
   blood but empty…          Blackness
      lighter than breath,
  of a blow turned inside out…
       As if the air extracted an itch
            dug deep in the blood, earth’s
  fitful ruler,     rightful collapse,
        drawn against givens,        abject
           address by what would not
be done
    Weathered raft I saw myself
adrift on.
  Battered wood I dreamt I
drummed on, driven.
Scissored rose, newly braided
    light, slack hoped-for rope
         groped at, unraveled.
                               Braided star
  we no longer saw but remembered,
    threads overlapping the rim
of a sunken world, rocks we
   no longer saw by extinguished,
Namoratunga’s long-tethered
   Breathing smoke left by the gods,
 exit. Scorched earth looked at
with outside eyes, burnt leaf’s
       raffia straw beneath
      coatings of camwood
                           paste. . .
 Saw myself bled, belatedly
   cut, inverted blade
 atop Eshu’s head,
 cloth of an egungun,
   thunder whet the edge
                         of a knife.
       And what love had to do with it
         stuttered, bit its tongue.
        Bided our time, said only wait,
                                       we’d see.
  Tossed-off covers.           King Sunny Ade’s
wet brow.      Four twenties on the dresser
   by the bed. . .
    Cramped egg we might work our
  way out of,    caress reaching in
     to the bones underneath.
                                   Not even
     looking. Even so, see
      Watery light we tried in vain
       to pull away from.       Painted
       disembodied voice. Dramas we
           wooed, invited in but got
      scared of.    Song so black it
my lip…          Tore my throat as I
  walked up Real Street. Raw beginner,
attempt to sing the blues. . .
  Tilted sky, turned earth. Bent wheel, burnt
          Bound I. Insubordinate
Heart and tongue. These two meats, they are the right meat, they are the important meat, and they are the bad meat.
– Alhaji Ibrahim Abdulai
   Bottom lip against my teeth
 like a rock but unsteady,
        “Fa. . .”
as in fox, as in Fon, as in fate.
         Raffia skirt, straw hat, raw youth,
   shimmering leaflight.
  me, made me shed my
    Coarse “cloth” like Legba
 rough skirt.
             Scratched air,
                      lipsmear. . .
 Lizardheaded cane. Human
      Threadless tether, shadowed
early morning eyes, moist
   hair, no pillow. . .
                       Riven lip
         sucked, almost bitten,
                               given back.
       Bones thought broken,
           Endless night now
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schoolofudhraSchool of Udhra takes its title from the Bedouin poetic tradition associated with the seventh-century Arab poet Djamil, the Udhrite school of poets who, “when loving die.” Bedouin tradition, however, is only one of the strands of world revery these poems have recourse to. They obey a “bedouin” impulse of their own-fugitive, moving on, nomadic. Ogo the fox, the Dogon avatar of singleness and unrest, runs throughout, crossing and recrossing divided ground, primal isolate, insistent within the book’s cross-cultural weave.

The poems track variances of union and disunion- social, sexual, mystic, mythic- both formally and in their content. They return rhapsody to its root sense: stitching together. Threads ranging through ancient Egypt, shamanic Siberia, Rastafarian Jamaica, and elsewhere figure in, inflected by conjunctive and disjunctive cadences inspired by jazz, Gnaoua trance-chant, cante jondo, and other musics.


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