Denotation Withered on the Vine

mac-low-cover-225x300154 Forties
by Jackson Mac Low
edited by Anne Tardos
Counterpath Press, October 2012
328 pages / $22  Buy from SPD or Amazon







Mac Low created this book of poems from 1990 to 1999, collecting and editing as he went. He claims to have only edited the caesural spaces; everything else written word after word, as they came to him. The poems feel completely strange and alien, but at the same time intimate; the challenging poems are both alienating and enthralling.

“Jackson Mac Low (September 12, 1922 – December 8, 2004) was an American poet, performance artist, composer and playwright, known to most readers of poetry as a practitioneer(sic) of systematic chance operations and other non-intentional compositional methods in his work…” from Wikipedia.

(I wonder if the writer or editor let practitioneer slip as a portmanteau of pioneer and practitioner.)

Mac Low participated in Fluxus, and his work, like other Fluxers, shows the requisite influence of Cage, Duchamp, and others. However, instead of the performance based art that Mac Low created for Fluxus:

Tree Movie

Select a tree* Set up and focus a movie camera so that the tree fills most of the picture. Turn on the camera and leave it on without moving it for any number of hours. If the camera is about to run out of film, substitute a camera with fresh film. The two cameras may be altered in this way any number of times. Sound recording equipment may be turned on simultaneously with the movie cameras. Beginning at any point in the film, any length of it may be projected at a showing. 
*for the word ‘tree’, one may substitute “mountain”, sea”, “flower”, “lake”, etc.
January 1961 The Bronx (Found at fluxus debris)

Whereas art like this from his Fluxus days tends toward the conceptual, the poems in 154 Forties are lyrical. They are primarily concerned with immediacy and music. As a way of categorizing, where Tree Movie, above, is a performance for the future, in un-rhymed, unmetered prose, the Forties abandon grammar, syntax, indeed, denotation, and instead adopt abstract music.  It works both ways; music is foregrounded because the sense has been, for the most part, left absent. The best demonstration of how these poems can be interpreted and performed can be found here at Counterpath Press. This project includes Mathias Svalina saying “colostomy falafel”, and an all-star lineup including K. Silem Muhammad, Lyn Hejinian, Paul Hoover, Douglas Kearney, Juliana Spahr, and HTML Giant’s own Janice Lee performing most of the Forties.

In this book Mac Low turns language away from denotation, as my title, which is a line from one of the Forties, suggests. The poems sound alien because they are precisely not that; what Mac Low is trying to do is be as immediately human as possible, without adding any intervening or mediating narrative. This is the chance operation of tuned mind and ear listening for the strange in everything and composing spontaneous weird music out of those found sounds. The multitude of voices in these poems coalesce under the careful orchestration of Mac Low: it is not completely chance because there is this organizing constraint or music. The reader can forget that the words are attached to anything, which may be best, because that makes it even more exciting and surprising when from the hypnotic chant-like stanzas emerges a fragment of sense, a sentence, a few words that fit together in recognizable order.

That little bit of recognition is like the sight of land from your lifeboat. Or, the buena vista at the end of a long climb that makes whatever work you’ve done feel worth it. Like that good look, you have to figure out where the hell you are, find some landmarks, and maybe try to contextualize the work among others.

In that way 154 Forties is work; it’s not really pure spectatorial poetic entertainment (I suppose most poetry that gets written about isn’t.) It’s not that the collection is hopeless or hopelessly hard to enjoy; far from it. Just like the compositions by Cage, this work includes a lot of noise and space. It’s ambient instead of directional. The way you will feel about this collection may depend on your proclivity for noise. I would recommend this poetry to someone who enjoys Wolf Eyes, Finnegan’s Wake, Marina Abramovich, and a lot of other things.

While it’s great to hear other people perform these poems, you can also hear Mac Low reading, and briefly discussing, some of the Forties at PennSound. He uses the words “quasi-intentionally” and says that the only thing that he revised were “the caesura; the silences between words.”  Mac Low adopts a loose formal structure and even borrows the idiosyncratic practice of non-orthographic accent marks and caesural spaces from Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “sprung rhythm” in order to convey precisely how they should be read. Ultimately experiencing these poems is in some ways more like reading sheet music than much contemporary verse. Here are the accompanying instructions to give you an idea of what you’re in for:

Caesural spaces = durations of silence and/or prolongations of
final phonemes or syllables:
4 letter spaces [    ] = 1 unstressed syllable;
8 letter spaces [        ] = 1 stressed syllable or beat; 16 letter
spaces [                ] = 2 beats;
none occurs between typographical lines; breath pauses at verse-line
endings ad lib.

Nonorthographic acute accents indicate stresses, not vowel qualities.
Each hyphenated compound is read as one extended word: somewhat more
rapidly than other words but not hurried. [ – ] indicates a
slowed-down compound (each member, one beat). Indented typographical
lines continue verse lines begun above them.
(154 Forties, XIV)

This collection is not going to offer strong narrative threads or even really themes, moods, clear intentions, or messages. But it creates its own kind of epic; there’s even an appropriately lengthy index. The book is 313 pages long. Each one of the 154 poems (coincidentally the same number of the sonnets that Shakespeare wrote as pointed out by Mac Low’s partner and editor Anne Tardos in the introduction) take on the form of “eight stanzas, each composing three rather long verse lines followed by a very long line (typically occupying more than one typographical line) and then a short line.” (154 Forties, XIII) Mac Low is obviously concerned with not just the aesthetic of sound but also that of print; however, where Mallarme, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and visual poetry seems somehow a departure form lyric, and uncreative writing or appropriation can sometimes feel limited by its own concept, these “forties” are enveloping, friendly to all approaches.

This enveloping approach, allowing the ambient into the work, probably feels familiar to most people who have written poetry. Here in 52nd Forty, called “ISELTWALD            TOP OF TREES         DIE DIREKTION,” Mac Low winds up focused on the physical instrument of writing, after orbiting quietly around the Swiss village like a disembodied bird:

PILOT precise       Rolling Ball V5            Extra-Fine       someone-left-ón a huge           faucet

running a bath        cookie-for-the-bóatride          sitting in the sun by Abfahrt Richtung

railway conductor waiting with mústache             five      open compartments

Giessbachbahn Retourbillet eight in each compartment 40 Personen two others
      wáiting-here Dash Betreten der Bahn anlagen ist verboten!

Bahnpolizeigesetz Art. 1 66 Die Direktion

(154 Forties, p.105)

It seems like Mac Low is doing something akin to the curatorial work of Joseph Cornell… or again the ready-mades of people like Duchamp and Beuys. And sometimes, just like when I’m looking at most artworks that are conceptually challenging, I think of this book as a kind of taunt or prank. If Mac Low is saying something, it sounds to me like, “Here’s what an epic looks like in the 1990s. Take it.” In that way it is a very generous work of art.


Leif Haven is a writer living in Oakland, where at least it isn’t raining all the time.

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