To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, December 6, 2018

With Jackson Mac Low: The Light Poems & Other Matters (Personal, Literary, Political) 2003-2004

An Exchange of Emails with Jerome Rothenberg

                                                         Portion of the “light chart” by Jackson Mac Low

01:18 PM 5/31/03 -0700

Dear Jackson --

I'm setting up a workshop for Naropa -- two weeks from now -- and I'm planning some reference to your works & methods as part of that.  It all goes well except that I want to confirm your method for composing the Light Poems and can't locate instructions for that.  The names of light seem to conform to those in my Thesaurus though you might well have used another list, but I'm unsure what followed from that in selecting light names to go with names of those to whom poems are dedicated.  I can guess this and could certainly give them (the students) some kind of modus operandi but I'd prefer that they learned precisely what you were doing.

Anyway, if too much trouble, just ignore this, but a short reply would otherwise be very useful.

Okay, & much love to you and Anne,
as always,


Monday, June 02, 2003 1:03 PM

Hi, Jerry

All the answers to your qq are printed on the last 6 pages of 22 Light Poems, including the list of kinds of light. They're very detailed, with an account of all relevant information as to the making of each poem. (For instance, in making most but by no means all of the poems, I drew the names of kinds of light from my 14-columned list via both the letters in each dedicatee's name and playing cards. It would be much simpler if you could see the lists and descriptions/histories. 

If you have access to a copy of 22 Light Poems, just read those last  6 pages. Youll learn all you'll ever want to know about my makingways. If you do not have access to a copy of the book, I'll have to xerox them and mail them to you. However, I'd rather not risk putting the book in the xerox machine or in the scanner. It wd probably come out ok, but I'd rather not take the chance if it isn't necessary, though I will if you can't locate a copy of the book. The book is well bound, so it'll probably be ok.

No thesaurus had a look-in. I made up most of the light names but sometimes used names already in use. As I say in the first of the 6 pages, "The fact is that I used many different methods, ranging from "pure" systematic chance to spontaneous expression . . . " The  last 3 pages of the book provide a detailed description and history of each light poem's making, etc.

I've made use of extremely complicated and time-consuming writingways for many years. The complications are still present but of different kinds than most of those of the 50s thru the 80s.

Each of the 14 columns of the list of kinds of light accords with one of the 14 different names of denominations of playing cards (ace to king + jokers), and with one of the 14 different letters in Iris and my names. All of the names of kinds of light in the poems begin with letters in our names.

If you can't locate any copy of 22 Light Poems,  I'll  xerox or scan the last 6 pp for you.  Let me know. I'd be surprised if there's no copy in the UCSD library or in your own. If not, I'll copy the 6 last pages of the book and mail them to you. Please email your answer so I'll have enough to time to photocopy the pages. Scanning is possible, but it would be complicated for me to do. I'd have to make photos and relearn how to make pdf files. So photocopying and mailing would be much less time-consuming.

Love to you and Diane from Anne and me. Hope you have a good time in Boulder.


06:27 PM 6/3/03 -0700

Dear Jackson --

Unfortunately my copy of 22 Light Poems "walked" a few years ago, although I do of course remember that there was an account of procedures in considerable detail.  What I'll do first chance -- probably tomorrow -- is see whether the Library's copy is still in place, and if not I'll appeal to David Antin to see if his is.  It also just occurs to me that the internet may also be a source, though they probably can't get it to me in time to serve my needs at Naropa.  But anyway I'm very grateful for your reply and the information you pased along and your willingness to xerox for me, which I'm hopeful and confident will not be necessary.

With much love to you and Anne,


Wednesday, June 04, 2003 7:45 AM

Dear Jerry

I'm afraid that most of my methods except free composition, e.g., the light poem for Spencer, Beate, etc. Holst, require a preliminary preparation such as the huge list of kinds of light. That involved both imagination and looking up kinds of things that could be used etc. to make light (minerals, lamps, etc.).

I used a simpler method that occurs to me (which I never wrote down) which I sometimes used in the 70s.

Choose a kind of object, etc., == any kind of abundant things with names. (E.g., kinds of light.) Then make up instances of that kind of thing and work it into poems. Except for the first Light Poem, I think I simply composed the sentences within which the names of kinds of light appeared. I used the big chart of kinds of light in the 60s and early 70s, but after that I just made them up as I went along. That would be easier for Naropians. They can tell stories and everything else. They can use their imagination (as I had to do when making up the names of kinds of light and how to work them into the poems). The first light poem is (I think) is the only one wherein I simply listed kinds of light as they were given to me from my chart by both playing cards or the letters in people's names or a combo thereof , and a random digit book (or similar means) to determine which item in the column to use in the poem.

Very few if any Naropians wd have the patience and obsessiveness to work as I did in the 50s and 60s. You gotta have the temperament and madness.

I lost my  beautiful chart of kinds of light when someone made off with lots of my archival stuff when they  took care of our loft and our cat while went to Europe. There's a condensed form of the chart in 22 LP, which I've never expanded into its original for again.

Now that I've gotten the bug in my head, I'll probably use our trusty Canon to make copies of the last 6 pp of 22 LP for my own use. But I'm kneedeep in a peculiar poem I've been working at for weeks--materials initially gathered from several widely different sources, but freely edited and revised in many ways. (Lexical words are seldom used in the forms they had in the sources.)

Love to you and Diane


03:29 PM 6/6/03 -0700

Dear Jackson --

Yes, I was over to the library and had the Special Collections people xerox the 6 pages from Light Poems.  My own inclination is also to simplify with students but I would like them to have a sense of the more complicated procedures -- at least a look at them.

I was also very happy to get your other messages -- and especially the poem, which I'm reading with pleasure.

There seems to be no let-up in the work, and the work continues to delight me.

With love to both of you,


P.S. You're right about the Malcolm/Stein New Yorker piece -- not terrific on the poetry (awful in fact) but of considerable interest concerning the mystery of Gertrude's and Alice's survival under those circumstances.  I'm surprised that she doesn't mention the Stein/Toklas grave site at Pere Lachaise -- the usual large memorial stone for Gertrude and an unmarked grave beside it for Alice.  (But that must have been Alice's doing at the end, having survived Gertrude by that many years.)
    The politics I more or less knew about from other sources, and I'm aware too of some of Gertrude's sillier comments.  But the poetry and other writings still knock me out.
Tuesday, June 10, 2003 3:22 PM

Dear Jerry

I'm glad you were able to photocopy the last 6 pages of 22 LP at the UCSD Special collections. They probably know how to do so without damaging the books.

Yes, for information, it's good for them to learn what relatively labor-intensive work so-called chance operations and kindred methods may entail. Also, the ways in which personal choices enter such "impersonal" methods. Even the "strictest" following of given methods has always been for me crisscrossed with artistic choices, often ones made at liminal and subliminal levels. Such was the choice of source texts in my solely chance-operational poems such as those in Stanzas for Iris Lezak.

(Because I trusted the typing from my notebooks by a woman  who seemed very serious (the girl friend of a composer friend of mine), is crammed with typos. A friend and I determined these in the early 70s and made a large bunch of errata cards for the book, but I never had the time or opportunity to publish them. I'm not sure whether they survived the big theft of many of my archives while Anne and I were in Europe in the early 90s, which I didn't realize till Anne and I got together manuscripts, etc., to be sent to UCSD when they bought my archives up to 1993.)

I knew nothing about Stein's and Toklas's politics when I read Malcolm's article. She's a rather philistine ignoramus when it comes to Stein's writings, but I'm glad she somehow ran into Ulla and her work (and Bill Rice's invaluable help--he's an interesting painter). I never heard about Burns before and thus haven't read the book he and Ulla edited.

I'd only heard of previously Fay (my computer doesn't know how to print umlaut-y's or whatever they're called) as a pal of GS. He must have been very agile to have survived even as a collaborator in occupied France since he was gay. (Cocteau, of course, also made it.) Despite all, I'm glad he was there, wreathed in evil, to help G & A. The worst political shock was not that they had a helpful friend who was a collaborator but that G at least was pro-Franco. Reactionary US politics is one thing, but Franco! (Of course I continued to correspond with Pound for a decade after I knew he had been pro-Mussolini and continued to be for years. (He claimed that he wasn't anti-semitic--that he'd "never bitched Louis [Zukofsky] or Mina Loy (Levy) --[almost right] and indeed when Jewish friends of mine visited him in the hospital, he was very cordial. We fell out in a bout '55 when I pushed him on his antisemitism. Up till then I'd decided it was wrong to attack and old man in his paranoia.}

I'm glad you like that curious first poem in my new HSCH (Hartshorne, Stein, Carroll, Hopkins) series--I resubtitled it--it's now HSCH 1 and I'm now at work on HSCH 2 which is quite different in both form and content.

I don't know why I didn't mention Duncan's name in referring to its form, although I think it was only when I'd written most of it that I realized the lineage. Pound of course was also a source of that kind of placement of lines and sentences, but I realize that I'd done all of the basic writing of the poem before I realized wherefrom that kind of text placement entered my writingways. He turned up not only the first day I got to NYC on my 21st birthday [my U of Chi girlfriend met me at the bus station and insisted that I go with her to the apartment of Charles Glen Wallace on Bedford Street. Roger and his erstwhile wife, Marjorie McKee were there and he took over the afternoon in true voluble Duncan fashion--reading from his journals, telling gay jokes that ended with his jumping in the air holding his buttocks, remarking from his journal that Robert Frost was a fairybaiter, etc. (The latter, as well as other shocking remarks RD made then and later, all turned out to be true.)

I visited them with Charles GW a little later when they'd move to an apartment of their own, and then I ran into Charles in the village one night and he told me Charles had died by falling from a friend's window on Leroy St. during a party. Robert also turned out to be a close friend of the woman I lived with for several years in the Village and often visited us. It turned out that Robert's wife had "run away" with my girl friend's husband, so RD and I were "brothers out of law."

And when I began to work with the pacifist-anarchist group that got out the paper Why? (later Resistance) for about a decade, he often turned up at our Saturday discussion meetings (at a Spanish anarchist loft on Broadway between 12th & 13th sts), Robert often showed up until he moved to San Francisco (he'd been born in California). Many of the founders (in 1944 of our group also moved to San Francisco. A few nights ago I attended a concert at Riverside Church in which a daughter of two of the founders--a very fine professional flutist named Diva Goodfriend-Koven--played in some of the pieces.

After Robert moved to SF (about the time that many founders of the A-P group moved there in the late 40s), I only saw him when I was doing readings or lectures in SF. I think the last time I saw him was when he was already ill. He came to either a reading or a talk that I did at Langton St. (or both). Not long before his death, he came to NYC and Quasha wheeled him around in a wheelchair at the Met Museum and Robert called me from there and we talked for a short last time.

Curiously, the last time I spoke to Bob De Niro (father of the actor, who I met when he was a baby in 1944 because his parents [both painters] were friends of the lady I lived with then), I saw him waiting to hail a cab in front of his building on W Broadway and he said "Marjorie McKee (Robert's erstwhile wife] is in town. Bob died not long after that. His son own a lot of Tribeca and just put on a film festival here; he owns the building 2 doors north of ours and I think he still lives in what used to be the top-floor apartment of the man who owned our building when I moved here.

I'm interested in the degree of choice that entered the making of the LPs. And the variety of writingways and subjects. I think that even though many names of kinds of light in most of the early LPs were drawn from my big chart by random-digit and playing-card chance operations, much or all of the text between light names was freely composed. (And most if not all of those light names were made by me.)

I wish I still had the big chart from which I gleaned the  kinds of light when writing many of the LPs (via both random digits and playing cards (That too went with the big theft.) The lists in the book are in a condensed form necessitated by the amount of available space in the back of the 22 LP book. I wrote many LPs after I wrote those 22.

Enough of this.  Are you going to photocopy those pages and hand the copies out to your students?

Love to you and Diane

Another Installment, 2004:

----- Original Message -----
Sent: Friday, October 22, 2004 11:22 AM
Subject: Re: your letter

Dear Jerry

Thanks for your letter. Yes, I tend to ramble when I write letters. It's partly because I've gotten back to writing letters relatively recently. Connections between people we both know or knew, and parts of my past life, come to mind from time to time, and I perhaps foolishly think they may be of interest to friends such as you.

I really don't have much up-to-date news, except  that Anne and I recently lived in Maine off and on--first for a couple of weeks in a place without heat and then for a month or so at Pen and Bob Creeley's (heated adequately by an excellent wood stove), when they moved to Brown to teach. Altogether we lived there for about a month and a half that were not connected with any gigs. We wandered together in woods,  followed long trails, visited nearby towns and restaurants--even bought things we needed at the astonishing L. L. Bean stores--and simply saw whatever there was to see. For us this was quite new. Trips and work--readings and the like--had always been closely and necessarily connected before. That we could go somewhere simply to experience living there was unexpectedly and delightfully new.

My life has almost always moved from one thing to another in unexpected and often accidental ways. For instance, I first met Pound's early poetry in the main library in Chicago when I was in high school. It enchanted me. Many years later, Duncan and I crashed a reading of Williams's  in New York, and after it I asked Williams how Pound was. Soon after that, I heard from Pound directly. Then I corresponded with him for about ten years without pushing him on his anti-Semitism. (I considered it an unfortunate mental aberation.) Finally, I did raise the question,  and at first he denied it. But after I inquired about some of his obviously anti-Semitic passages, his parting words were "You'll do better as Michalovsky than Mac Low."

Why waste your time mentioning this? Why wander away from the present? You probably "could care less" about E. Pound. Why bother to mention that his early writings led me to modern poetry and to many important aspects of my writing career?

I thought that might be interesting to you. I'll try to ramble less in the future.

Love and very best wishes from Anne and me to you both. (She'll get in touch with you directly.) The ability of both of you to go out to see so much of the world impresses me and heartens me.


P.S. I strongly suggest that you find a prominent place for John Clare's poetry and prose in your new book. His wonderful work is all too often given short shrift. (Excuse me if I've mistaken the period your book will cover.)

At 05:04 PM 10/20/04 -0700, you wrote:

Dear Jackson and Anne,

Diane and I were both delighted with your (rambling) letter, Jackson, though I don't have the time at this moment to ramble on in return.  Tomorrow, anyway, I'm heading up to San Francisco and Berkeley for a three-day festival, including an afternoon symposium on translation, but mostly I think to spend time with a few friends there.  I've otherwise been busy making a proposal for the big nineteenth-century book I told you about -- a chance anyway to repossess or to make new many poets and works that always seem to "belong" to someone else, & shouldn't.  I've even started to do my own translations of Goethe -- the antireligious and very sexual ones in the Venice Epigrams, although I'm not only interested in the most transgressive stuff but certainly want to include it.

Presently anyway I'm in an inclusionary mood, which is the other side of doing this kind of book, different from what you once cautioned me about -- having to do books that cut people out.  So I'm wondering if either of you can think of poets or poems that you would like to see included or that you feel might otherwise be overlooked.  Jeffrey Robinson and I will ultimately have to make decisions but I'm curious what others think about Romantics and what I've now started calling postRomantics.  It seems to me that that century was full of new approaches to poetry and NOT exclusively or even mainly of the "expressive" kind.

I'm also wondering, Anne, if you've ever taken a crack at translation, because translation is going to be a principal obstacle to doing this kind of book.  (Or maybe not.)  And I'm wondering too if there are Hungarian poets I should attend to, besides Petrofi I mean, and even with Petrofi the need for good translation is a continuing concern.

I think you left New York before Charles Alexander brought me copies of my new book (A Book of Concealments) and certainly before another new small book (25 Caprichos) arrived from Manuel Brito in Spain.  Let me know anyway and I'll try to get both of them to you, though I don't think I can manage the same with the Picasso book -- my first copy now in hand but I don't know how many are likely to follow.

We'll be going soon to South America -- with Cecilia Vicuna -- so that's another month away: November 11 to December 13.  It seems anyway that I'll be celebrating my birthday in Rio, which seems incredibly romantic although it probably isn't.  And that reminds me, Jackson, to wish you a bonne anniversaire, which I neglected to do in time because I don't in fact really keep track of such things.

It's been raining here for the last three days, and that's very good, coming after 180 dry days, but I'm glad  that it's going to let up tomorrow and let me be in San Francisco in something like dry weather.

We miss you too and look forward to sometime soon in New York.

With much love from both of us,


N.B. Jackson Mac Low died on December 8, 2004, shortly after our final email.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Toward a Poetry & Poetics of the Americas (17): Adah Isaacs Menken, “Sale of Souls,” A Poem with an Accompanying Commentary

[In the transnational assemblage of the Americas (“from origins to present”) that Heriberto Yépez & I are now composing, a range of English-language poetry will be positioned alongside the multiple languages spoken & written on the two American continents.  As with the work of Adah Isaacs Menken, we will also be giving special attention to a number of poets still awaiting recognition in whatever we take to be an American canon or pantheon.  With Menken, as with many others, the continuing neglect has been a matter both of gender & of the innovative & transgressive quality of the work as it appeared in its own time & place.  The possibilities of restoration are now, of course, enormous – in Menken’s case, to see her anew as a towering figure whose poetry moves easily into the ranks of our greatest forerunners. (J.R.)]


Oh, I am wild-wild!
Angels of the weary-hearted, come to thy child.
Spread your white wings over me!
Tenderly, tenderly,
Lovingly, lovingly,
Plead for me, plead for me!


Souls for sale! souls for sale!
Souls for gold! who'll buy?
In the pent-up city, through the wild rush and beat of human hearts, I hear this unceasing,     haunting cry:
Souls for sale! souls for sale!
Through mist and gloom,
Through hate and love,
Through peace and strife,
Through wrong and right,
Through life and death,
The hoarse voice of the world echoes up the cold gray sullen river of life.
On, on, on!
No silence until it shall have reached the solemn sea of God's for ever;
No rest, no sleep;
Waking through the thick gloom of midnight, to hear the damning cry as it mingles and clashes with the rough clang of gold.
Poor Heart, poor Heart,
Alas! I know thy fears.


The hollow echoes that the iron-shod feet of the years throw back on the sea of change still vibrate through the grave-yard of prayers and tears;-
Prayers that fell unanswered,
Tears that followed hopelessly.
But pale Memory comes back through woe and shame and strife, bearing on her dark wings their buried voices;
Like frail helpless barks, they wail through the black sea of the crowded city,
Mournfully, mournfully.


Poor Heart, what do the waves say to thee?
The sunshine laughed on the hill sides.
The link of years that wore a golden look bound me to woman-life by the sweet love of my Eros, and the voice of one who made music to call me mother.
Weak Heart, weak Heart!
Oh, now I reel madly on through clouds and storms and night.
The hills have grown dark,
They lack the grace of my golden-haired child, to climb their steep sides, and bear me their smiles in the blue-eyed violets of our spring-time.
Sad Heart, what do the hills say to thee?
They speak of my Eros, and how happily in the dim discolored hours we dreamed away the glad light, and watched the gray robes of night as she came through the valley, and ascended on her way to the clouds.
Kisses of joy, and kisses of life,
Kisses of heaven, and kisses of earth,
Clinging and clasping white hands;
Mingling of soft tresses;
Murmurings of love, and murmurings of life,
With the warm blood leaping up in joy to answer its music;
The broad shelter of arms wherein dwelt peace and content, so sweet to love.
All, all were mine.
Loving Heart, loving Heart,
Hush the wailing and sobbing voice of the past;
Sleep in thy rivers of the soul,
Poor Heart.


Souls for sale!
The wild cry awoke the god of ambition, that slumbered in the bosom of Eros;
From out the tents he brought forth his shield and spear, to see them smile back at the sun;
Clad in armor, he went forth to the cities of the world, where brave men battle for glory, and souls are bartered for gold.
Weeping and fearing, haggard and barefoot, I clung to him with my fainting child.
Weary miles of land and water lay in their waste around us.
We reached the sea of the city.
Marble towers lifted their proud heads beyond the scope of vision.
Wild music mingled with laughter.
The tramp of hoofs on the iron streets, and the cries of the drowning, and the curses of the damned were all heard in that Babel, where the souls of men can be bought for gold.
All the air seemed dark with evil wings.
And all that was unholy threw their shadows everywhere,
Shadows on the good,
Shadows on the bad,
Shadows on the lowly,
Shadows on the lost!
All tossing upon the tide of rushing, restless destiny;
Upon all things written:
Souls for sale!
Lost Heart, lost Heart!


A soul mantled in glory, and sold to the world;
O horrible sale!
O seal of blood!
Give back my Eros.
His bowstring still sounds on the blast, yet his arrow was broken in the fall.
Oh leave me not on the wreck of this dark-bosomed ship while Eros lies pale on the rocks of the world.
Driven before the furious gale by the surging ocean's strife;
The strong wind lifting up the sounding sail, and whistling through the ropes and masts; waves lash the many-colored sides of the ship, dash her against the oozy rocks.
The strength of old ocean roars.
The low booming of the signal gun is heard above the tempest.
Oh how many years must roll their slow length along my life, ere the land be in sight!
When will the morning dawn?
When will the clouds be light?
When will the storm be hushed?
It is so dark and cold.
Angels of the weary-hearted, come to your child!
Build your white wings around me.
Tenderly, tenderly,
Pity me, pity me.
I have written these wild soul-poems in the stillness of midnight, and when waking to the world the next day, they were to me the deepest mystery.  I could not understand them; did not know but what I ought to laugh at them; feared to publish them, and often submitted them privately to literary friends to tell me if they could see a meaning in their wild intensity.  (A.I.M., from Notes on My Life, 1868)

The power & bright newness of Menken’s writing has been obscured over the years, yet always on the verge of reappearing.  Probably born as Adelaide McCord in Milneburg, Louisiana, or possibly Philomène Croi Théodore or Dolores Adios Los Fiertes in New Orleans, there was an ongoing play of identities: multiple versions of her birth, her parentage, her ethnicity.  Her ongoing art work in that sense was an elaborate self-construction – assertively Jewish in her earlier writings, militantly feminist later on.  As such the work developed a rare female violence & eroticism: “wild soul-poems” in the writing but mirrored as well in her stage presence, an actress who famously played the young male lead in an adaptation of Byron’s poem Mazeppa -- transgendered & shockingly nude (or appearing to be so in flesh-colored tights) as she made her exit from the stage, helpless & strapped astride a “fiery untamed steed.”  (Thus Mark Twain’s 1863 account of it, while quoting Byron.)  This was her principal & very real celebrity, which carried her across America (New York first, then San Francisco) & established her soon thereafter in London & Paris.
            But her formal innovation as a poet, like that of Walt Whitman, whom she knew from the New York café scene of the early 1860s, was in the open/projective/free verse line of her later poetry.  In this she need no longer be viewed as an imitator of Walt but as someone drawing like him from the Bible and Ossian while driven by a very different sense of mind & body.  Nor was she a recluse or an isolate – like Dickinson – but a public person moving in the company of still more public figures – Charles Dickens, to whom her first & only book was dedicated, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, George Sand, & Alexandre Dumas, with the last three of whom she was rumored to have had sexual encounters as well as friendships.  Her book of free-verse poems, Infelicia, published shortly after her early death, caused astonishment & bewilderment, & only now may appear as what it surely was: the emergence of an unfettered woman artist & poet.  In that regard her best known poem, “Judith,” covers a theme celebrated today in painters like Artemisia Gentileschi, Lavinia Fontana. & Elisabetta Sirani but seldom if ever among pre-modern women poets.  Menken’s own cry of independence:

                        O horrible sail!
                        O seal of blood!
                        Give back my Eros!

Or in a feminist essay called Self Defence: “A woman can be strong and free only as men and nations obtain their freedom, viz.: that of showing herself capable of obtaining and holding it.  He who cut the Gordian knot told the whole secret of human success – if the knot will not be unraveled, cut it!”

[As originally published in J. Rothenberg and Jeffrey Robinson, Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, 2009.]