A Brief Note on Jackson Mac Low
I knew Jackson for over 30 years. He was a part of the group of older poets I hung around with: Armand Schwerner, Joel Oppenheimer, Toby Olson, Jerry Rothenberg, Rochelle Owens, George Economou, a few others, the remnant of Paul Blackburn's circle, with most of whom I was more intimate than I ever became with Jackson, who seemed shy of groups, or perhaps preoccupied. He was an abiding, quiet presence, and his erudition was talked about with a degree of awe, though none of the others were slouches in that department. It seemed perfectly natural to ask him for a blurb when I returned to publishing with my first fullsized collection after almost 20 years.
I ran a reading series at the West End Bar, opposite Columbia University, for three years in the early 70s. Jackson read for me several times . He had already published many of the Light Poems and a great deal of other experimental work, and he'd just begun using electronics in performance. It was painful watching him--there was enough equipment for a small rock band but no roadies to help load and unload, though anyone who was around would pitch in. In those days he was also less sure of what to do with all that equiopment than he became in time. But they were memorable, dignified performances.
Years later, when he had begun putting words on oaktag in the most random order he could manage and reading aloud what his eye fell on, he would sit at other people's readings taking notes--harvesting words. I doubt my experience was unique--on a few occasions he sat facing me from a few feet away as I was reading to an audience. His head would be bent over his notepad, but occasionally I would say something that piqued his interest and he would look up as if startled and stare intently, then bend to his pad again and scribble furiously. It was disconcerting--it took an effort not to lose rhythm--but it was also profoundly flattering, as if somehow the words he'd captured had been my own invention.
About six months before he died I was in New York for a visit in preparation for returning permanently, and the two of us were among the readers at a benefit for Chax Press. I hadn't seen Jackson in about a year. For the first time he seemed his age--he chose to read from his chair, and he appeared to be in some discomfort. And he had shrunk, as the old tend to. It was a shocking moment--in the decades I'd known him he had scarcely changed physically, and I realized that I'd always assumed that he'd always be there. But I'd thought the same of Joel and Armand, as well. After the deaths of Armand and a few other friends I told Jerry Rothenberg that I of course accepted that I would die sometime, but that the fact that all others had died was no proof that I would in my turn. Jerry sighed. "The circumstancial evidence accumulates," he said.
Jackson always appeared to find the world a bewildering place, which of
course it is. He left us all those probings of the limits of what was
knowable. In the archive at UCSD are thousands of pages of his work,
waiting for excavation.