Toward a poetry and 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.
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 and continuing relevance of Mac Low’s poem and the accompanying commentary prepared earlier by myself and 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 camels 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 Jeffersons bait to catch the Louisiana fish.





SOURCE. Representative Works, Jackson Mac Low (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 May 1963. 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 and 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 series ends mid-nineteenth century, the sense of distress and outrage could well carry into the present.