Tony Tost

The opportunity to pay tribute to Jackson Mac Low is an opportunity I relish, even as I find myself unsure as to how to go about doing it. I never had the fortune to meet him, or even to correspond with him, so unlike many others I cannot offer direct testimony to the man’s virtues and generosities. I am also unsure about providing insight into his work as my experiences with it continually provoke a wonder and a delight of which I am unable to pin down critically; it is often this way for me with the poets in whose work I find a complete and unique beauty, poets like Ronald Johnson and Emily Dickinson. While I am continually impressed with the rigor and integrity of Mac Low’s processes and procedures, it is ultimately the products of this rigor in which I find so much that I admire. But I am not in possession of any knowledge by which I can illuminate anyone’s vision of Mac Low. I do hope to pay respect to him.

In the months preceding Mac Low’s death, I was immersed in Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: On Shakespeare, which prompted a number of extended puzzlements on my part concerning that book’s famous thesis centered around Zukofsky’s Shakespearean theme equating the eyes with love, a theme I find echoes of in Olson’s work as well. This concept is compelling to me as I often find myself incapable of the kind of vision that actual (unsentimental) love requires.

Among the events of this period were the kidnappings and beheadings of civilians in Iraq, most affecting to me being the murder of Kim Sun-il of South Korea; after news of his death, I was incapable of viewing the apparently widely-available video of his murder, though I would look at still frames from the moments before he was beheaded. But the video I avoided, not out of respect for the dead but in fear of the reality of it, even as I would lay wide awake for hours at night imagining what that video might sound and look like. Upon news of Sun-il’s kidnapping days earlier I followed his story closely, especially after seeing him desperately plead for his life before a video camera; his situation was unbearably terrifying to me for he found himself in this situation with the knowledge of what had happened to the other victims before him. He knew the language of an orange jump suit and a blindfold in a way those before him didn’t. I found disturbing my inability to follow (see) Kim Sun-il completely down his path, even as I felt I owed it to him to witness his death: I needed to share and carry some of his knowledge, ideally to lessen the perhaps impenetrable spiritual solitude that such a horrifying situation (and horrible knowledge) would bring about.

Also around this period a doe and her fawn would come through the backyard of the house we live in back here in the woods in North Carolina. We get many deer passing through, but this particular fawn I grew intensely fond of; not only did it seem smaller than most of the other fawns its age, it also had a persistent cough. Additionally, it appeared to have only one eye as it had to turn its entire body around in order to see. I could never get close enough to see whether its eye was severely injured or missing, but it was clear that only one was functioning. After not seeing it for several weeks, I noticed a dead fawn in the grass on the side of our road, about a quarter mile from our house. I pulled over to look at it, hoping that it was not “my” fawn; one side of its face was laying down, the other facing up. The side facing up had a normal-looking eye. I would have to lift the fawn’s head and look for its other eye, something I found myself unable to do, less I think from squeamishness about handling a dead animal but mostly just dread. I decided to be satisfied with pretending it wasn’t the fawn from our yard.

I had never written a poem paying tribute to a poet, or commemorating a poet’s passing, until I wrote a brief piece in honor of Jackson Mac Low last December 8th. It was not my intention to write a poem in honor of him, just as months earlier I did not intend to write a poem for Kim Sun-il: in the latter case I found that I was writing such a poem between periods of checking the news of his situation online (I thought I was writing a normal poem). Upon news of Mac Low’s death I turned to copies of his Light Poems and Words nd Ends from Ez that I had previously checked out from the library. The Light Poems of course are beautiful, and moving, as I remembered them to be. Words nd Ends from Ez, however, struck me this time as even more moving as it engaged and celebrated, beautifully and idiosyncratically, the poetry of Pound in an unsentimental manner, working with what’s actually there in the Cantos. I believe it was the juxtaposition of these readings and the beauty resulting from them with my previous self-chastisements that spurred me to compose a brief lyric to try to articulate a fuller vision of things as they manifest themselves in this world, and to also commit myself to a fuller re-engagement with Mac Low’s body of work to see if my intuition that he had succeeded in such a vision is true. The poem below is flawed as it perhaps sentimentalizes my thoughts about Mac Low more than addressing the actuality of his passing. In some ways the first four strophes are a stumbling attempt to just write a poem. When it occurred to me that I was writing the poem either for or about Jackson Mac Low, I immediately wrote the last strophe’s direct statement, which I consider both an anticipation of a truer approach to looking on my part, as well as a recognition of what I am certain is Mac Low’s major role in my path towards that.

late evening/early morning July 20/21, 2005

Sweetness possess us
the plea of an elsewhere
inside the mouth
If the sweetness of occurring
was other than light
a beautiful stopping
that has been reached
These limits
are writing recovery
clarity is a mixture
making it visible
An imaginary circumference
centers the body
I’m pointing towards
a memory
of Jackson Mac Low