Sunday, January 2, 2011

Aimless Reading: The M's, Part 7.2 (Jackson Mac Low)

Mac Low, Jackson
Representative Works: 1938-1985


I think I got this when I worked at the Segue Foundation, though it is also possible I bought it at Talking Leaves...Books. I seem to have a memory that the former is true and that it went out of print for a while and that because of this fact many of my Buffalo classmates could not get this particular title when Jackson came to town. I guess we'll never know.

It is inscribed thus:

Best wishes to Michael

Jackson (Mac Low)

NYC 10/9/97

"Milwaukee comes to mind."


I think Jackson may have spaced out a little when he wrote "NYC," because he autographed this in Buffalo. As I mentioned in a previous post, he performed with live musical accompaniment (provided by Mike Basinski, Don Metz and others) at Hallwalls during his 1997 visit.

Before the reading, he realized that he didn't have copies of several of the pieces they intended to perform. He asked the audience if anyone had a copy of Representative Works: 1938-1985, which I happened to have with me. I loaned it to him for the performance and then asked him to sign it afterward.

The other reference, in quotes, to Milwaukee, took me a while to figure out. I didn't realize at the time Jackson had the habit of choosing random quotations from his poems and writing them out as part of his autograph. About a year later, while a re-read the book, I discovered that the line had came from one of his famous "Light Poems."

Strange: my memory was slightly off on that one. I had what I thought was a fairly specific memory about discovering that the line came from the Light Poem dedicated to Paul Blackburn. I also remember telling this to Elaine Equi, who happened to be in town at the time. I said it felt kind of eerie that Jackson randomly chose a line from one of my favorite poems. Elaine responded that perhaps because I had read the poem so many times, the wear in the book spine might have actually led him to the poem. So it wasn't quite so random.

A quick fact check leads me to the discovery that it comes from a different Light Poem altogether: "3rd Light Poem: For Spencer Holst, Beate Wheeler, and Sebastian Holst -- 12 June 1962." I guess I must have said to Elaine that I found it eerie he chose a poem from my favorite group of his poems -- something along those lines.

Actually, the Light Poems are some of my favorite poems by any poet. I wish somebody would publish the Complete Light Poems some day. Now that would be something.

from Representative Works: 1938-1985

56th Light Poem: For Gretchen Berger--29 November 1978

From Gretchen's "G" I get a green light. I go ahead.
The first Light Poem in nearly a year -- I hope it really is the 56th.
If there is another in some notebook or folder,
it's the one that's going to get its number changed, not this one.
This is the 56th Light Poem, & I'm 56 years old.
I was 56 September 12th. Time has passed. I'm older now.

I sit at the back of the loft, typing on a little low table,
since it's too cold to type at my desk by the middle west window
          whose cracks I stuffed with Mortite caulking yesterday.
It'll be warmer, I hope, after Mordecai covers that window with plastic.
Until then I'll type out here, surrounded by papers, dictionaries,
file folders, notebooks, Coronamatic cartridges.
Is this the word "Coronomatic"'s first appearance in verse?

Would Eliot have allowed "Coronamatic" in his verse?
If so, under what circumstances?
Would he only have written it ironically or satirically?
Can you imagine "Coronamatic"
in one of the Four Quartets?
Can you guess how Eliot crept into this Light Poem at this point?

Relucence of the Four Quartets illuminates this verse
because I reread most of the group the other day.
A reviewer of Helen Garner's new book on them mentions a line
dropped from the New York edition--probably through printer's error--
that Gardner's recovered--which shows some critics are useful,
It's the real 20th line of "Little Gidding."

He begins: "Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,/Suspended in time,...
...the hedgerow/Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation."

Then that first strophe ends with three lines, not two.
Where was the middle line lost, here or in London or between?
Did someone who thought it useless drop it on purpose?
"Where is the summer, unimaginable
Summer beyond sense, the inapprehensible
Zero summer?"

Could Eliot have dropped that line on purpose
while he was correcting the New York proofs?
A major shift in meaning occurs from "the unimaginable
Summer beyond sense, the inapprehensible/Zero summer"
to "the unimaginable/Zero summer":
the words left out imply another view of the nature of things.

As if electric-arc light had replaced
"The brief sun" that "flames the ice, on ponds and ditches,...
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon"--
or tungsten light, the "glow more intense than blaze of branch,
          or brazier,"
that "Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire"!

Why do I care so much that Eliot's line was left out
when a chart & two random digits lead to the light of a clutch lamp
"(an arc-lamp in which the upper carbon
is adjusted automatically by a clutch)"--
fortuitously connecting with the "electric-arc light" above,
though there could've been an absolute disconnection?

How much of the halcyon light of the poet's mind
was lost when someone working in electric-lamp light
forgot to set that line--& no one caught it?
Why do words implying an alien philosophy
move me more than--I was going to say "nova light"--
but how do I know how I'd feel if I saw a real nova--not just a photo?

The light of poet's baffling light.
It doesn't depend on what the poet thinks--or even what he feels!
That extra light that gave Housman goose bumps
comes from somewhere beyond or underneath
thought or emotion or will or taste or sense:
a radiation only known through words.

That glow can be snuffed out
by burning a book or slitting a throat
or sleepily nodding in a stuffy composing room,
but coming from somewhere more arcane
than an exploding star whose light spans light-years,
it momentarily arcs a rainbow through existence.

                              29 November 1978
                              New York


(Note from MK: my edition of Eliot's complete poems does NOT include the missing line mentioned in the poem.)

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