My Vocabulary did This To Me

The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer

© 2008 Wesleyan University Press, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian. 504 pp. ISBN: 078-0-8195-6887-8

A Review by Richard Harteis
Believe the Birds: The Poetry of Jack Spice
Reviewed by Richard Harteis

In India once, I was speaking to a group of academics – there are perhaps 100 Ph.D. programs in American literature alone in India, and a professional society just for its caretakers – and the first question that came out of the shoot was the importance of Carribean poetry in American letters. I trotted out the names of the few poets I knew, but in the end had to admit that I only wrote poetry, for better or worse, and did not write about poetry, that everyone had their particular black hole as far as their reading went, and that other than Derek Walcott, I didn’t have a clue how to answer their question. So it was when a friend proposed that I write an appreciation of Jack Spicer and the new (and old) testament edition of his work Wesleyan has just published. How did I miss this guy? Didn’t he live among the legendary Beats? Who was Jack Spicer and why was Wesleyan pulling him into the canon of American letters. What would Harold Bloom think?

Fortunately, the brilliant introduction to Spicer’s collected poems by Gizzi and Killian takes me off the hook a bit: “Spicer was never fully embraced within either the official or counter-culture of his time.” He was in, but not of that world, “a poet who professed an almost monkish practice of dictation, from ‘Martians,’ no less, who rejected what he called ‘”the big lie of the personal.'” Discovering him is like discovering an entirely new planet in our solar system with strange oceans, cloud cover, pocked deserts, glacier mountains. And you don’t have to be gay to explore this new geography (or Jewish to like bagels.) But it helps. His is a world of one night stands and silent longing there on the emerald planet.

As an unattractive gay man, Spicer felt the loneliness, the injustice and homophobia of that period in conservative America, a “blackness alive with itself at the sides of our fires.” A character in a short story of his describing a gay tea dance says, “No one is human that doesn’t feel human. None of us here feel human.” One imagines him on the sidelines, sweaty palms, bad skin, aching to take one of the young beauties onto the floor and into his arms:

Part III: Wet Dream

Downward it plunges through the walls of flesh,
Heart falls
Through lake and cavern under sleep
Deep like an Orpheus
A beating mandolin
Plucking the plectrum of the moon upon its strings,
It sings, it sings, it sings. …

The poetry is filled with such desire, the beautiful heartache of a man looking through a window into a room filled with light and warmth. We have all stood at the window at one time or another, gay or straight. He worked hard to open the window into society, but, in the end, his political activism was so intense and anarchistic, even the emerging gay movement rejected him.

And so, Jack Spicer entered the world of magic attempting to discover the real, to tap into Platonic forms and the tides of our emotions long before the current fashion among novelists. The poems are often a provocative combination of brilliant imagery and abstruse philosophy, William Carlos Williams meets Sybil of Cuma, if you wish. In his “Dialog Between Intellect and Passion,” he writes,

“Passion is alien to intellect
As hot black doves are alien to trees
On which they do not rest –
All are alone. …

“Above your branches every hot black dove
Protests his love
And gathers in great swarms
As darkness comes.”

“Imaginary Elegies” outlines the technique and is a kind of ars poetica:

Poetry, almost blind like a camera
is alive in sight only for a second. Click,
Snap goes the eyelid of the eye before movement
Almost as the word happens. …

When I praise the sun or any bronze god derived from it
Don’t think I wouldn’t rather praise the very tall blond boy
Who ate all my potato-chips at the Red Lizard.
It’s just that I won’t see him when I open my eyes
And I will see the sun.
Things like the sun are always there when the eyes are open
Insistent as breath.
One can only worship
These cold externals for their support of
What is absolutely temporary.
But not so sweet. …”

“Imaginary Elegies” opens with an epigraph ascribed to W.B. Yeats : “All the philosophy a man needs is in Berkeley.” Can Yeats have said that? Whew! I sure want to meet that boy, though. I want to go to the Red Lizard and offer him a glass of white wine and a little afternoon pleasure.

Of course, as I am learning, for Spicer, things are never quite so easy:

Why can’t we sing songs like nightingales? Because we’re not
nightingales and can never become them. The poet has an
arid parch of his reality and the others.
Things desert him. I thought of you as a butterfly tonight with
clipped wings.”

There’s a thought. What would that look like exactly? It would take a very long Ph.D. thesis to do justice to this poet, but humor is one quality Spicer would insist on. As my dear, recently-departed William Meredith has written,

“The cheer
reader my friend, is in the words here, somewhere.
Frankly, I’d like to make you smile.
Words addressing evil won’t turn evil back
But they can give heart.
The cheer is hidden in right words.

Or as Spicer has said, words that could give great heart to struggling graduate students everywhere:

“We must become singers, become entertainers. …. There is more Orpheus in Sophie Tucker than in R.P. Blackmur; we have more to learn from George M Cohan than from John Crowe Ransom.”

In the series of poems called Billy the Kid, poetry becomes “Our Lady.”

Will you dance, Our Lady,
Dead and unexpected?
Billy wants you to dance
Will shoot the heels off your shoes if you don’t dance
Billy Being dead also wants
Fun. “

At times, Spicer’s is a poetry of self loathing, others a sustaining self-confidence as when he dresses down New York, and the New York school of poets in a letter to Allen Joyce: “No one speaks Martian, no one insults people arbitrarily, there is, to put it simply and leave it, no violence of the mind and of the heart, no one screams in the elevator.”

It would take more time and talent than I have to do this poet justice, but as Spicer has written:

“Lucky for us that there are visible things like oceans
Which are always around,
Continuous disciplined adjuncts
To the moment of sight.”

Lucky for us Jack Spicer walked this little earth ball for a moment to help us see. The cliche runs, especially for gay poets who do not have children, that their poetry carries the immortality children are meant to provide. Lucky for us that Wesleyan has chosen to remind us of this wild and beautiful spirit, to keep it flying:

“Time does not finish a poem.
The creeping darkness gather in the west.
Above the giant funhouse and the ghosts
I hear the seagulls call. They’re going west
Toward some great Catalina of a dream
Out where the poem ends.
But does it end?
The birds are still in flight. Believe the birds.”

As for me, “I am going home and eat rose petals,” as
Jack would say.

Richard Harteis’ latest book, LEGACY is a series of elegies for his late partner, the poet William Meredith: He is president of the William Meredith Foundation and lives in West Palm Beach and Uncasville, Connecticut where his home has recently been added to the state registry of historic landmarks. This past summer a film was produced of his memoir, MARATHON.