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Jack Spicer’s

The Book of the Death of Arthur

by Jim Goar


Paragraph 1

The Book of the Death of Arthur opens with a statement about finances. “’He who sells what isn’t hisn / Must pay it back or go to prison,’” (Spicer, Collected 210)⁠[1]. This quote is attributed to Daniel Drew. Drew was an American financier in the mid 1800s. In 1834 he entered the steamship business but lost out to Cornelius Vanderbilt. In 1864 he again competed with Vanderbilt; he sold his stock in Harlem railroad short, but Vanderbilt bought all of it; Drew experienced heavy losses[2]. The poem continues, “Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, or some other imaginary / American millionaire — Selling short.” These men existed, and, at least at one time or another, were millionaires. In legend though, they are imaginary.


The United States of America’s history is short. Because of this, her heroes, when they die (or even before), quickly move to myth. Arthur was a man in the Isles well over 1,000 years ago. Over time his place and role changed. He became a mixture of many people. But, this transformation was not immediate. Every nation needs its heroes and the United States does not have the luxury of waiting. Drew, by all accounts, was crooked. Vanderbilt and Gould were not much better. But these sins have been washed away. Vanderbilt and Drew have universities named after them. Even more, selling short necessitates that a product lose value before it is repurchased. A bit of scandal might help legend grow. “The heart / Is short too / Beats at one and a quarter beats a second or something like that. / Fools everyone.” All of these men were once alive, but now they are very different. The legend that they have become is not what they were. Everyone is fooled, or everyone is a fool. “I am king / Of a grey city in the history books called Camelot / The door, by no human hand, / Open.” Arthur speaks. If it were Spicer, grey would probably be gray.


Camelot, he says, exists in a book. There is no real place anymore. He is a King of a historical kingdom, so a king in history. Again, he is legend and he is history and a bit of both, but he is not a man. We are told that the door is open; this might even be considered an invitation to enter (or for the cobblies, discussed later, to move through). What we are certain of is that what holds the door is not human. The theme introduced in this first poem continues throughout. Not this, but also not that. Percentages of composition change before our eyes. Stocks rise and stocks fall. We move into and out of legend. It is tough to put your finger on it. The mirrors of many distort. Remember what you saw here.



Spicer dives further into American myth and heroes in the second poem. Camelot was once a place in Washington; President Kennedy was American royalty. The White House, even while he occupied it, moved between legend and structure. There was a love triangle. There were wars. There was the assassination of Kennedy and the end of the hope and energy invested in and emanating from this president[3]. The Kennedy-Camelot has been mentioned obliquely in the sixth poem of Lancelot and in the third poem of Percival, but here it is evoked in much more solid terms. “Marilyn Monroe being attacked by a bottle of sleeping pills / Like a bottle of angry hornets / Lance me, she said / Lance her, I did / I don’t work there anymore.” (Spicer, Collected 210)⁠. Monroe overdosed on barbiturates. Her death is labeled a probable suicide. Theories abound suggesting that, instead of suicide, she was murdered. If someone is attacked, this hardly seems suicide.


Spicer completed this text in chronological order; there was no reordering of poems. The first reading of The Holy Grail was on August 23, 1962 (Ellingham & Killian 232)⁠[4]. Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962. So, this poem was written within days, if not hours, of the announcement. Spicer was a fan of the detective novel and conspiracy theories. Suicides are too simple, especially when the deceased is famous and dangerous to those in power. In this poem a she says Lance me. One can be lanced for medical reasons. But, just a few poems ago, Gwenivere called Lancelot, Lance. There is a sexual drive in this term. There is the calling back and forth to the Camelots of D.C. and Arthur. There is a mirror of the relationship of Gwenivere and Lancelot with that of Kennedy and Monroe. The final line of this section points again to the bawdy song noted in the third poem of Percival. The final line of the song (often times) reads, I don’t work there anymore. The line which precedes it is (often times) a reference to some sexual act, for example, Liquor she said / Lick her I did / I don’t work there anymore. It was sex which brought Monroe her fame and also her trouble. It was sex that brought the end to Camelot. So, it is easy to see where Spicer found his, Lance me, she said / Lance her, I did / I don’t work there anymore.


“The answer-question always the same. I cannot remember when / I was not a king. The sword in the rock is like a children’s / story told by my mother.” Arthur hears his story of ascension in the same way a modern reader does. Where the later parts of the legend deal in death, honor, betrayal, etc, the story of the sword in the stone has a much more childlike quality. It is a story of unknown identity. It is the hope from common to great. And even to Arthur, who lived it, the story sounds a bit farfetched. That boy who pulled the sword does not feel like him. He was never not the king. “He took her life. And when she floated in on the barge or joined / the nunnery or appeared dead in all the newspapers it was / his shame not mine / I was king.” The dead Elaine, according to Tennyson, floated down the river; Gwenivere joined a nunnery; Monroe appeared dead in all the papers. There was a He as the cause of each of these events. In the Arthurian legend it was Lancelot and the dark forces which opposed Arthur, but it was also Arthur. Later, it was forces attributed to Kennedy which, in one way or another, were at least partially responsible for the death of Marilyn Monroe.


Just as in the section before, Arthur sees a separation. At one point he must have been the boy who pulled the sword from the stone, but he says that he cannot remember when he wasn’t the king. There is a duality here. There is the king and there is the man/boy. In this last section of the poem, this is even more apparent. His shame refers to the other players in the death of these women, and one of these other players is the part of Arthur that is not the king. It was his shame, for shame is a human quality, and a king, at least this king, is not human.



In the previous poem, Spicer gave us three women in various stages of demise. Here he gives us the wedding feast of Arthur and Gwenivere. The latter, in legend, obviously occurred much earlier than the former. The poem begins, “In the episode of le Damoissele Cacheresse, for example, one / stag, one brachet, and one fay, all of which properly belong / together as the essentials for the adventures of a single hero, / by a judicious arrangement supply three knights with / difficult tasks, and the maiden herself wanders off with a / different lover.”(Spicer, Collected 211)⁠. [A brachet is a hunting dog.] As all good adventures do, this one began at a feast:


Merlin went to all the knights of the Round Table, and bade them sit still, that none of them remove. For ye shall see a strange and a marvelous adventure. Right so as they sat there came running in a white hart into the hall, and a white brachet next him, and thirty couple of black running hounds came after with a great cry, and the hart went about the Table Round as he went by other boards” (Malory 73)[5].


A knight quickly picked up the brachet and rode away. Soon thereafter a woman (Damoiselle Cahceresse[6]) arrived and complained that the brachet was hers. She too was picked up by a knight, and with her on the horse, kicking and screaming, he rode off. Arthur first laughs and is glad that the woman is gone, but Merlin tells him to take it seriously, and so he does; he dispatches Gawain, Sir Tor, and King Pellinore to find the hart, brachet, and lady respectively. And so begins a very strange adventure. Pellinore brings the lady back to the court, but this woman is not for him. Merlin quickly falls in love with her and she, in turn, kills him, or simply buries him, depending on the version.


Spicer, in a mockingly official tone, wonders why three knights were sent to do the work of one. There is something of a trinity here amongst the adventuring knights, an interconnectedness that reminds of the different faces of the Lady of the Lake or the Isoldes or Elaines. The next stanza of the poem leaves the above adventure and moves to a similar quest, this with three other knights. “So here, by means of one hunt and one fairy ship, three heroes / are transported to three different places. When they awake / the magic ship has vanished and sorry adventures await / them all. Not one of them is borne by the boat, as we should / naturally expect, to the love of a fay”


This stanza points to the time when King Arthur, King Uriens and Sir Accolon were on a hunt. They chased a white hart, first on horseback and then on foot. And like the story referenced in the first stanza, a brachet killed the white hart. Arthur and his party eventually came to and boarded a ship. Maidens led them to three different rooms and each fell asleep. When King Uriens awoke, he found himself next to his wife, Morgan le Fay. When Arthur awoke, he found himself in a dungeon. When Sir Accolon awoke, he found himself next to a well.


Like the adventure referenced in the first stanza, this one is rather pointless. The connections though run deeper. There are three knights in each. A brachet kills a white hart is in each. The maidens, the ship, and the deception remind of those Galahad, Bors, and Percival faced. The stories all intertwine and borrow. The poem ends, “Plainly we are dealing with materials distorted from their / original form.” These could not have been the original stories; one was built on top of the other.


The distortion from original form which Spicer calls attention to here is similar to the distortion which he called attention to in the first and second poems of this book. Three men went on a hunt, there was a hart, there were maidens, but how many times must this story take place? How many different versions, with different names and mirrored outcomes are there? Arthur, like Vanderbilt, becomes less a man by the minute. These stories pull us further into legend and away from the fact. No man could survive that sort of tug.



The fourth poem opens, “The faint call of drums, the little signals” (Spicer, Collected 211)⁠. The drums are not from Arthurian legend (Malory never uses the term), but from the west of Jack Spicer. The drums of Native Americans, or the Indian of movies, sending signals of invaders, of the outside creeping in. “Folks half-true and half-false in a different way than we are / half-true and half-false” Folks takes us to a plane very far from England. The term locates us in the United States. It evokes good and simple people from the past, and at root, folk tales.


The section continues by again exploring the relationship between a man and his myth. Folks is lined up as an other, the we necessitates it. And if Folks points to Americans (Vanderbilt, Native Americans, President Lincoln, etc), then the we either points to Spicer and his contemporaries or Arthur and his or maybe it points to both. In the end though, no one, neither the living nor long dead are wholly real. Myth surrounds us all. “A meal for us there lasts a century. / Out to greet me. I, Arthur / Rex quondam et futurus with a banjo on my knee.” The latter part of this section combines two quotes. Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus (Malory 794)⁠ reads literally, Here lies Arthur, King Once, and King in the Future; this combines with, with a banjo on my knee.


The incongruity begins with Arthur speaking the epitaph written on his tomb. This epitaph is spoken by Arthur with a banjo on his knee. The line, with a banjo on my knee is familiar. The song came to prominence during the gold rush and so exists in American lore. By combining Arthur, his epitaph and “Oh! Susana”, Spicer lets us know that Arthur is aware of his epitaph, and so outside his tomb. Spicer also, as before, brings this British King into American myth.


A meal for us there lasts a century could mean any number of things. A guess might be toward the concept of time on Avalon. If a meal lasts a century, how long does it take a wound to heal? This could be the explanation of why Arthur has not yet returned. A refrain from “Oh! Susana” also tells us don’t you cry for me. There is the hope of a return, but even if he does come back, she is not to cry. This song’s hope of return is mirrored in the hope of Arthur’s return. “I, Arthur, shouting to my bastard son ‘It is me you are trying to / murder!’ / Listening to them, they who have problems too” One can imagine Arthur at a self-help class. He tells of his problems. Mordred, his son, tried to kill him. And we are there, with Spicer, listening. Yes, these myth-people have problems too. Arthur struggles just as we struggle. No family is perfect.


The line (once repeated) of I, Arthur, is something a king would say at the beginning of a proclamation. Spicer turns this on its head. The poem ends, “The faint call of[7] them. The faint call of / the faint call of / (They would stay in Camelot for a hundred years) / Me.” There is an echo; the first utterance and then the return and reverberation of the same line. The call grows fainter. There is a bouncing off walls. There is no escape from Camelot and this hundred years mirrors the century earlier in the poem.


The poem ends with Me. Them transitions to Me. Many voices become one. This is the fate of the mythical Arthur. Numerous voices and legends now reside inside his body, and all of these voices now flow from his mouth.



The Grail was not for Arthur. In fact, the Grail brought him sadness. When the knights were at his court, he was at the center, but when the Grail arrived, and made its circuit from knight to knight, enticing the most worthy to chase, he was left a king alone. The fifth poem begins, “I have forgotten why the Grail was important” (Spicer, Collected 212)⁠. Really, it is not clear that he ever knew. As the knights leave for the quest, Arthur weeps:


And then the king again said: Ah Gawaine, Gawaine, ye have betrayed me; for never shall my court be amended by you, but ye will never be sorry for me as am for you. And therewith the tears began to run down by his visage” (Malory 573)⁠.


He cries because an era has ended. Such good people never again will grace his table. And even though he witnessed and tasted from the Grail, instead of joy, he feels sadness. It is also to be noted that those leaving do not cry. Gawain does not cry. Lancelot does not cry. It is only the king and queen left behind who cry. The poem continues, “Why somebody wants to reach it like a window you throw / open. Thrown open / What would it mean? What knight would fight the gorms and / cobblies to touch it?” If a tower window is closed, there is a mystery. If a boy stands outside a girl’s window, and that window remains closed, the longing continues. But what does it mean when the window is thrown open? The mystery is no more. She has invited him in. There is no more waiting and no more longing.


Spicer felt that the Grail should never have been achieved. He felt Galahad messed everything up. The Grail is something not meant to be caught. The window is something that is meant to stay closed. The longing is never intended to end. To achieve the Grail is to corrupt it and so corrupt the story. Cobblies can be found in City by Clifford D. Simak. They are other worldly creatures that are “the things behind the wall, the things one hears and cannot identify – the dwelers in the next room” (Simak 165)[8]. One cannot just throw open the widow to find these cobblies. They are of another dimension. To find, much less fight these things, a mental as well as a physical change must occur. But, if the right sorts of doors or windows are opened, the cobblies can come through, and separate dimensions, meant to stay separate, are combined. “I can remember a lot about the kingdom. The peace I was going / to establish. The wrong notes, the wrong notes, Merlin told / me, were going to kill me.”


There was hope when Arthur came to power. There was to be peace, for a time, there was peace, but that peace did not last. Spicer twice repeats the phrase, the wrong notes. This repetition might point to the two things the Merlin prophesied which brought down Arthur’s kingdom. Before Arthur married Gwenivere, Merlin said, “that Guenever was not wholesome for him to take to wife, for he warned him that Lancelot should love her, and she him again” (Malory 68). Arthur’s other great misfortune was having a child by his sister, “for ye have lain by your sister, and on her ye have gotten a child that shall destroy you and all the knights of your realm” (32)⁠. This child, Mordred, was to be the death of him. This wrong note did kill him (or at least send him to Avalon to recover (Robert de Boron. Merlin and the Grail 171)⁠[9]). “Dead on arrival. Avalon has / Supermarkets—where the dead trade bones with the dead. / Where the heroes / Asking nothing.” The last time the reader sees Arthur in legend, he is alive. Spicer tells us that by the time he reached Avalon, he is dead. There is no hope for a return.


But Avalon is not empty. There are other dead there, and there are supermarkets. The 1950s and 1960s were seen as the “golden age of the supermarket” (“A Quick History of the Supermarket in America”)[10]⁠. Supermarkets were becoming more efficient in their advertising and more standard in their design, so it is not too much of a stretch to expect one to be on the moon or on Avalon. Yet, even with supermarkets, the dead still barter, they still trade. Spicer again gives us the modern with the past. You can’t barter in a supermarket anymore than you can expect a fixed price at an ancient market. So here, in the shadow of the modern, the dead trade bits of themselves for bits of others. There is a mixing and matching.


And really, that is what Arthur is. He is a dash of this person and a dash of that; he wears the bones of many men. He is surrounded by heroes, and these heroes have no needs, they ask for nothing. The trading of bones occurs then, not because of the wants of the heroes, but because of the wants of others. The heroes ask for nothing, it is us, the living, that ask and make of them.⁠



The Arthurian legend does not have a happy ending. Knights die on the beach. Knights die in monasteries. Nobody is happy; well, except for Galahad, but he hardly existed. Suffice to say, each of the players in Spicer’s book would have rather things turned out differently. The fifth poem tells us that Arthur is dead, but even in that death, he still has existence; he speaks and we learn about the supermarkets in Avalon. There is humor. The sixth poem wipes all that away, and we are left with only emptiness. It begins, “The blackness remains. It remains even after the rich fisherman / has done what he can do to protect home and mother[11]. It is / there like the sun. (Spicer, Collected 212)⁠.


The rich fisherman, or rich fisher king, is named Bron. Bron teaches his grandson (Percival) and eventually transfers his responsibility to him. The stone which Percival had broken is mended and Merlin proclaims, “The Fisher King is healed, and the enchantments of the land of Britain are cast out” (Robert de Boron. Merlin and the Grail 156)⁠. The story could have ended here. The King and land have been cured, there should be excitement, but there is not. The knights are disappointed because the adventures have ended, so they create some new ones. Encouraged by the knights, Arthur builds a fleet of boats and sails off to another war. The fisher king did what he could do, but the darkness remained.


Spicer compares the darkness to the sun. The opposites abound. What is black is white; a photo overexposed where people look more like specters. “Not lost battles or even defeated people / But blackness alive with itself / At the sides of our fires.” The darkness is not in relationship to, or dependent upon, people, their failures, or their actions. The darkness exists independently. Around our fires, and beneath the sun, darkness is pushed back, but when these inevitably burn out, the darkness will again claim fully what is its own. Spicer, in the fourth poem of Gwenivere, did this with shadows; shadows necessitate light, but darkness has no such dependent relationship. Arthur, and man, can push against the outside, but this pushing is a futile effort. The darkness will always win. “At home with us / And a monstrous anti-grail none of those knights could have / met or invented / As real as tomorrow.” The darkness lives with us, around us, and inside of us. It can live with us and without us, but we cannot live without it. Man is penetrated by it. The darkness is huge. It is so big as to be unseen. Darkness contains all meanings of monstrous.


It is the opposite of the Grail in that the Grail is small and gives light. The Grail, like the sun, like the fire, pushes back the darkness; and again we wonder why Galahad took it away. The Grail was a hope, it was as promised and as impossible as is tomorrow, and now that hope is gone. Realized it became less than what it was unrealized. “Not the threat of death. They could have conquered that. Not / even bad magic. / It is a simple hole running from one thing to another. No / kingdom will be saved. No rest- / Titution.” Christ came to conquer death. We are told that he did. The knights, the Grail, all are ready to conquer death. But this darkness, this absence of everything, an emptiness, how can that be conquered? In darkness there is only darkness; in emptiness, only emptiness.


The deep dark hole which connects us all, which runs through the story and through our hearts persists. There is no way out. There is no rest or place to rest. There is no thing to make right. There is nothing; in this poem there is only despair.



“A noise in the head of the prince. A noise that travels a long / ways” (Spicer, Collected 213)⁠. King Arthur is dead. The fifth and sixth poems make sure of it. What we have here, instead of a literal return of Arthur, is a different sort of return. We are witness to the awakening. There was no noise, and then one day there was, and the prince learned of his identity. “Past chances, broken pieces of lumber, / ‘Time future,’ the golden head said, / ‘Time present. Time past.’” The broken pieces of lumber show us Arthur’s last battle. They are the ships and the round table. They are the past chances. T.S. Eliot begins Burnt Norton:


Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.


There is the noise in the prince’s head and so he begins, but we know how this will end; again, broken pieces of lumber. This prince is fated as Arthur was fated as were Lancelot and Gwenivere and Galahad. “And the slumbering apprentice never dared to tell the master. A / noise.” In these lines, and in the lines above, Eliot’s Four Quartets are not the only sampled source. Spicer also draws from The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay by Robert Greene[12]. In this work, Friar Bacon creates a head which can build a wall to protect England, but soon after the Brazen Head’s creation, the Friar falls asleep⁠. While he sleeps, the Brazen Head speaks seven words: Time is. Time was. Time is Past. And then the head is smashed by a hammer. Bacon’s seven years of work is destroyed.


Spicer ends the above line with a noise. The breaking of a brazen head makes more than a noise. This is again the noise that moves across time and space to the prince. It is a noise which begins the cycle, just after destruction, anew. “It annoys me to look at this country. Dead branches. Leaves / unable even to grimly seize their rightful place in the tree of / the heart / Annoys me” We are back to the beginning, standing in the wasteland. Nothing has been restored, but there is that desire for renew. The dead branches of family trees and flowering trees annoy. The ghosts abound, and again there is Eliot’s Burnt Norton:


There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.


Ghosts move without pressure over dead leaves. They look but are unseen. The flowers tell of their presence. “Arthur, king and future king / A noise in the head of the prince. Something in God-language. In spite of all this horseshit, this uncomfortable music.” Arthur, king and future king is the epitaph on Arthur’s tomb. That is the end. Arthur is dead. But, immediately after, we are given a prince. This is the beginning. It is the beginning of the cycle of legend, and it mirrors the beginning of the poem. It is the noise, the start, the now heard music, but it is also the end. It is the end of the poem, the book, and the work as a whole. This is the 49th and final poem. The line, In spite of all this horseshit, this uncomfortable music. is an echo of a line in the first poem in the book of Merlin, The naked sound of a body sounds like a trumpet through all / this horseshit. The naked body could point to a birth. And the trumpet and notes so often mentioned, point to the music. Missed notes. Hit notes.


There is a connection unbroken between Arthur and Merlin. Merlin was there before Arthur and prophesied Arthur’s coming, going, and of his return. This book ends with an unexpected hope. Arthur is still the king and the future king. All is not lost, but we know it will soon be again.

End of Book of the Death of Arthur


[1] Jack Spicer. The Collected Books of Jack Spicer. Edited by Robin Blaser. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1975.

[2] Later, Drew, along with Jay Gould, issued fraudulent stock in the Erie Railroad, and so forced Vanderbilt to relinquish control of the railroad to them. A few years later Gould manipulated the Erie Railroad stock. Drew lost over one million dollars. At the time of his death, he relied on his son for support.

[3] The assassination of Kennedy took place a year after The Holy Grail was published.

[4] Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian. Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance. 1st ed. Wesleyan, 1998.

[5] Sir Thomas Malory. Morte D’Arthur. New Ed. Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1997.

[6] Damoiselle Cacheresse, or the hunting maiden, is just another guise of Niniane or Nimue or Vivian or The Lady of the Lake. A “fay” is simply a fairy, but it also ties into Morgan le Fay. These women, mentioned above, and in previous poems, are a sort of conglomeration. They overlap in such a way that when one is mentioned, the others are not far off.

[7] The spacing in the poem cannot be replicated inside a paragraph.

[8] Clifford D Simak. City. New Ed. Methuen Publishing Ltd, 1988.

[9] Robert de Boron. Merlin and the Grail: Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, Perceval — The Trilogy of Arthurian Prose Romances Attributed to Robert De Boron. Trans.Nigel Bryant. D.S. Brewer, 2008.

[10] “A Quick History of the Supermarket in America.” Groceteria.

[11] When Percival left his home, his mother collapsed. Instead of turning back to check on her, he continued forward. We later learn that she died on that day.

[12] Robert Greene. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, 1594.

Jim Goar

Jim Goar

Jim Goar took his MFA from Naropa a few years back. Since then he has lived in Bangkok, Seoul and now Norwich. His poetry has been published by Harvard Review, English, LIT, Octopus, Typo, Cimarron Review, and many others. His book, Whole Milk, is out from Effing Press. A manuscript, Seoul Bus Poems, will be published by Reality Street Editions. He edits the online magazine, past simple.

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