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

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Toward a Poetry & Poetics of the Americas (28): from Jackson Mac Low’s “Presidents of the United States of America”

                                                           Photograph of Jackson Mac Low by Anne Tardos, 2003

[In the final stages  of composing a new assemblage of North and South American Poetry (“from origins to present”), I became aware again of the current & continuing relevance of Mac Low’s poem from 1963 & the accompanying commentary (below) prepared more recently by myself & Mexican poet Javier Taboada. (j.r.)]

1789    (begun about 15 January 1963)

George Washington never owned a camel
but he looked thru the eyes in his head
with a camel's calm and wary look

Hooks that wd irritate an ox
held his teeth together
and he cd build a fence with his own hands
tho he preferred to go fishing
as anyone else wd
while others did the work for him
for tho he had no camels he had slaves enough
and probably made them toe the mark by keeping an eye on them
 for he wd never have stood for anything fishy


John Adams knew the hand
can be quicker than the eye
& knew that not only fencers & fishermen live by this knowledge

If he kept an ox          
he kept it out of doors in summertime
so the ox cd find his water for himself
& make it where he stood
& find the tasty grass
his teeth cd chew as cud.


Marked by no fence
farther than an eye cd see
beyond the big waters
Thomas Jefferson saw grass enough for myriads of oxen
to grind between their teeth

His farmer hands itched
When he thought of all that vacant land and looked about for a way to hook it in for us       
until something unhooked a window in his head
where the greedy needy teeth & eyes of Napoleon shone
eager for the money which
was Jefferson's bait to catch the Louisiana fish.


source.  J. Mac Low, Representative Works, New York: Roof Books, 1986.

(1) An ongoing involvement with historical matters but expressed most often through lettristic and aleatory (chance) procedures. Always transparent about his methods, Mac Low provides the following note: “The Presidents of the United States of America was composed in January and May1963. Each section is headed by the first inaugural year of a President (from Washington through Fillmore), and its structure of images is that of the Phoenician meanings of the successive letters of the President’s name. … They are:

            A (aleph) ‘ox’               N (nun) ‘fish’
            B (beth) ‘house’)           O (ayin) ‘eye’

(2) Writes critic Charles O. Hartman of the resultant mix of chance composition methods with politically & historically themed poetry – one of Mac Low’s principal achievements: “This procedure puts us into a suspicious relation with the poem’s language (I glimpse a system of meaning lurking behind what I’m reading); just so, the ‘President’ poems concern themselves with the relation between the schoolbook vision of these men and the reality of their slave-holding, politicking, and war-mongering.”
            While the Presidents series ends mid-nineteenth century, the sense of distress & outrage could well carry into the present

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