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Jack Spicer

Peter Gizzi : Afterword (excerpt) to
Jack Spicer's Vancouver Lecture 3
( June 17, 1965 )
Textual Mirroring 


This piece is about five printed pages long.


Mirror makers know the secret - one does not make a mirror to resemble a person, one brings a person to the mirror.

- Jack Spicer, Admonitions

MIRRORING is the most pervasive device of Spicer's poetic practice, from the early poems of One Night Stand to the last line of his last poem. The mirroring properties of "The Song of the Bird in the Loins," with its reiterated stanza, heighten the drama of composition, as does the terrifying amplification and reversal of "The Scrollwork on the Casket," in which the hammering on one side of a casket is echoed with a hammering on the other side. This mirroring enacts a play - a drama - between materiality and invisibility, the lines and what's between them. Reversal is all that distinguishes a reflected image from a "real" one, and Spicer's dedications further complicate this mirroring, as for instance the "Ode for Walt Whitman" reflects Whitman through Lorca to Stephen Jonas, and the poem becomes almost funhouse-like in its structure as it enacts the shared experience of a dark game of reversals. Mirroring is the central trope of After Lorca, and Admonitions is a book whose declared aim is mirror-making (Admonitions, 55). In both books, each poem is a mirror or "translation" meant to implicate, capture, or seduce a particular reader.


      As Spicer writes in Lorca's fake introduction to the book, the poems mimic or mirror Lorca's early style, so the mirror is already double. "Homage to Creeley" contains a number of repeated lines, one poem that is repeated in its entirety, as well as a double text which provides contradictory and provocative "explanatory notes" on the text above it. Spicer's last book, the Book of Magazine Verse, contains both a repeated poem ("Pieces of the past arising out of the rubble . . ." [Book of Magazine Verse, 247, 248]) and repeated lines ("People are starving" [Book of Magazine Verse, 256, 267]).
      Spicer's mirroring of other texts occurs as a narrative gesture throughout his books and is not limited to a process of mere repetition. The distancing, reversals, and intimacy of mirrors inform many of his most significant letters, provide much of his "critical" vocabulary, and reiterate his view of poetry as a tradition based in copying. Spicer writes from his reading as a way of engaging in discourse with what is otherwise isolated, keeping poetry in play by simultaneously borrowing, copying, critiquing, and adoring the living, the dead, peers, and legends. This process is evident in his bending of terms like "correspondence" from Baudelaire and his reversal of sentiments like "a map is not the territory" from Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity: an Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. On a larger scale, it informs the naming of each of Spicer's books: After Lorca borrows from Creeley; Admonitions echoes a letter to Spicer from Olson; A Book of Music is a variation on a theme by Poe; Fifteen False Propositions Against God refers to Pound; Red Wheelbarrow mirrors Williams; Lament for the Makers reflects William Dunbar, and the major poem of that book borrows from Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach"; "Homage to Creeley" reflects Creeley and Cocteau; "The Fake Novel" mirrors Rimbaud; The Holy Grail and Billy the Kid mirror popular legend; and his last two books mimic covers of the journals Language (in which his only professional publication in linguistics appeared) and Poetry, just to list a few. To further complicate the process, none of these books presents a unified image or reading of any of the texts they mirror; instead, they are faceted, difficult, diamond-like, refracting each text against many others, activating them within a larger poetic tradition, re-contextualizing them all within a Spicerian funhouse.


      When Spicer invokes, quotes, or critiques other poets within his work it is because he sees them as worthy opponents - since, as he quotes Olson in Lecture 1, poetry is "what we have to do": a task and a necessity. Part of the absurd labor of poets is to parry with each other as well as with the invisible power structures of the "enemy," which Spicer defines as anything that gets in the way of making poems, including other poets (IV, 153). So Percival's plea for a worthy sparring partner in The Holy Grail ("If someone doesn't fight me I'll have to wear this armor all my life") sounds curiously like the Spicer who in his lectures repeatedly asks for verbal battle ("Won't somebody argue with me?") (The Holy Grail, 192; 11, 76). The act requires stamina, as the poem goes on to say with formality and exhaustion: "I am, sir, a knight." Spicer's use and explanation of mirrors is extensive and contradictory. Within his work at least two kinds of mirrors appear, or each mirror performs one of two functions, depending upon who is looking into it. The orphic mirror is a literal passage between life and underworld or real and imaginary. But for Spicer, mirrors are not purely transportive; they also reflect, deflect, cover, hide, and baffle. In the "Explanatory Notes" of "Homage to Creeley," a poem in which Orpheus and Eurydice appear and disappear, Spicer writes with a mixture of nostalgia and punk: "Alice's mirror no longer reflects storybook knights. They reflect the Thirty Years wars and the automobiles people rode in during them." This shift from Alice's mirror to the knights as mirrors ("they" reflect the Thirty Years wars) amplifies and distorts what at first appears to be a single reflection. As the poem goes on to say, "Cocteau invented mirrors as things to move through. I invent mirrors as obstacles" ("Homage to Creeley," 126). And in "Apollo Sends Seven Nursery Rhymes to James Alexander," Spicer claims for himself the regeneration and terrible repetition of mirrors: "I died again and was reborn last night / That is the way with we mirror people / Forgive me, I am a child of the mirror and not a child of the door" (in "Apollo Sends Seven Nursery Rhymes to James Alexander," 98). The lines proclaim and enact Spicer's sleight-of-hand by which things appear and disappear within his poems. At the same time these lines may also be a response to Creeley's poem for Duncan, entitled "The Door," which celebrates the notion of "the Lady" as muse.
      A poem that is a mirror is both a seduction and a warning to its reader, a kind of admonition; the reflective, two-dimensional mirrors of Admonitions are meant to reveal the reader to whom each poem is dedicated by drawing each one into the poem in the same way that Narcissus is drawn into his pool. Any poem that contains a quotation or reflection of someone functions in this way for that individual; readers are purposefully drawn in by the echoes or reflections they recognize. Ideally this mirroring attracts the poem's most serious readers, those poets who share the poem's textual references and whose lines or syntactical gestures have been quoted, sampled, or transposed.
      In this way, Marianne Moore (who would later write about the Eliotic qualities of Spicer's "Imaginary Elegies" in her review of Donald Allen's anthology The New American Poetry) becomes both a sampled voice and a mirrored reader throughout After Lorca, in which her poem " Poetry" is reflected and fragmented. Spicer's letter to Lorca about wanting the real to appear in the poem - "Live moons, live lemons, live boys in bathing suits" (After Lorca, 34) - echoes Moore's sense of poetry as a "place for the genuine. Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, hair that can rise, if it must" (40). As if insisting that his poems fulfill Moore's famous demand that poems provide "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" (1, 31; Moore, 41), Spicer breaks the mirroring surface separating life and art with a turbulence repeatedly declared by the intrusion of frogs and splashes within the mirroring surface of a pool, particularly in "Narcissus": "How wide awake the frogs are. They won't stay out of the surface in which my madness and your madness mirrors itself" (After Lorca, 35). The transformational figure of the frog (transposed from "toad") creates a continuity between the work of different poets, a trace of the act of transposition itself. The poem ends with "My sorrow / Self of my sorrow," which is echoed again in the book's final poem dedicated to Moore, "Radar": "I crawled into bed with sorrow that night / Couldn't touch his fingers. See the splash / Of the water" (After Lorca, 52). Spicer's affinity with Moore is both structural and tonal. Both poets assemble poems from textual fragments, and, like Spicer, Moore writes with precision and patience about love and its disappointments, and about the solitary nature of being a recorder of human relations.
      Robert Creeley is the only poet to whom Spicer pays the dubious honor of writing an "Homage," a serial poem full of intertextual dialogue, echoes of Creeley, or reflections that correspond with Creeley's own echoes. Spicer gets a particular Creeley. He identifies with his darkness, reflexivity, bitter wit, the fatigue of the voice, and the acedia within its repetitions and reflections, the way "hello" can register anything from surprise to friendship to a call for help echoing within a "well of sound." In "Homage to Creeley," Spicer responds poetically to Creeley's music, his use of the everyday, his humor and self-mockery in the midst of paranoia (see Creeley's "The Dishonest Mailmen"), and his sense of poetic transmission in a poem like "Heroes."
      But the title is also a false lead, using Creeley in the way After Lorca uses Lorca, as a kind of scarecrow. Even in the most minute ways, Spicer folds into his homage a poem that appears to be a transposition of a poet whose influence they share: Pound's "In a Station of the Metro." For Pound's "apparition," Spicer replaces "ghosts"; for "petals on a wet black bough," we find "Wet shadows on a stick" ("Homage to Creeley", 131). In the poem "Ferlinghetti" the musical crossing between bebop and beat has the compression of a joke shared between Creeley and Spicer: "Be bop de beep / They are all asleep / They're all asleep." Meanwhile the car - presumably Cocteau's orphic car and the car in Creeley's poem "I Know a Man," itself a parodic echo of the Beat image - careens through the poem's Explanatory Notes: "The car is still travelling. It runs through the kingdoms of the dead picking up millions of passengers" ("Homage to Creeley", 133). The car's wild ride further deemphasizes the significance of individual poets to the processes of Poetry since, as a further joke, the promising young poet Cegeste is killed in a traffic accident within the first few minutes of Orphée.
Jack Spicer
The young Jack Spicer
Spicer's intertextual mirroring is also a way of engaging and distorting the dominant discursive modes of his time. In a society that survived economic depression only by means of a war economy, the mirroring between concept and commodity, between image and idea, became intensified and encoded within poetic practice. Mid-twentieth-century America was a time and place of particularly intense mirroring and portraiture; an early example is Wallace Stevens's "Man with a Blue Guitar," followed later by one of the most canonical poems of the New American Poets: Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror." With the advent of photo-journalism - Life magazine and television - more than ever America was being reflected back to itself. Spicer explodes this snapshot mentality with the ultimate grafitti in the age of nuclear holocaust: the vaporization of a human body into a linguistic trope in "Graphemics":

You flicker,
If I move my finger through a candleflame, I know that there
        is nothing there. But if I hold my finger there a few minutes
It blisters.
This is an act of will and the flame is is not really there for the
        candle, I
Am writing my own will.
Or does the flame cast shadows?
        At Hiroshima, I hear, the shadows of the victims
                                                                      were as if
        photographed into concrete building blocks.
Or does it flicker? Or are we both candles and fingers?
Or do they both point us to the grapheme on the concrete
        wall --
The space between it
Where the shadow and the flame are one?
                                                                 (L, 241)
      As "words turn mysteriously against those who use them" bodies are turned again to language, turned to stone in the poem's flickering between the pronouns "you" and "I." The poem's gestural pointing toward the end becomes a horrific literalization of what a culture can do with its hands.

You can link directly to Jack Spicer's Lecture
You can link directly to a review of Peter Gizzi's recent book of poems Artificial Heart (Burning Deck, 1998)
Peter Gizzi was born in 1959 and grew up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. His publications include Periplum (Avec, 1992), and the chapbooks: Hours of the Book (Zasterle, 1994) and Music for Films (Paradigm, 1992). His editing projects have included the celebrated "little magazine" o-blek: a journal of language arts (1987-93), the international literary anthology the Exact Change Yearbook (1995), and The House That jack Built - the Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan, 1998), from which this excerpt is taken. He lives in Santa Cruz and teaches for the University of California.


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