- Prodigal Son (Midway along the Pathway)
For you I would build a whole new universe around myself. This isn’t shit it is poetry. Shit Enters into it only as an image. . . .(“Love Poems”)
In 1975, Black Sparrow Press published The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, edited by Spicer’s longtime friend and fellow poet, Robin Blaser. The Black Sparrow Spicer, as an object, communicates a certain version of Spicer that is as necessary as it is incomplete. The cover illustration depicts the tarot deck’s Four of Cups—a pensive-seeming man under a tree, with three chalices in front of him, and a fourth chalice ostensibly being offered by a hand reaching out from a cloud. Are we to imagine Spicer as the pensive man in his cups, or is Spicer the hand extending a fourth chalice (in which the pensive man qua reader shows little evident interest)? Of course there are many ways to interpret any tarot. In the context of literary history, Spicer has existed—despite the efforts of Black Sparrow Press and coterminous critical attempts at resuscitation—as the neglected chalice, the unaccepted and/or unacceptable gift.
Spicer’s unacceptability, his staked position outside of poetic convention or establishment, is duly noted by Spicer’s admirers. His poetry, however, is not simply that [End Page 489] of a rabble-rouser, despite Spicer’s deep interest in the imbrication of rabble and arousal. Poetry, like a slipknot, only rarely understands who or what within it, at any given moment, is central. Indeed, the aggressive, sometimes bullying, playfulness of Spicer’s poetics—eccentricity that in part explains his exclusion from a poetry world beyond that of Berkeley, California—has in past decades actually cozened Spicer’s adoption by l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets, from Buffalo to San Francisco. To be sure, l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poetry and its perceived aspirations toward aberrance have become a convention unto itself. The latter’s claiming of Spicer as arch-enabler, like the Black Sparrow edition, gives a necessary but incomplete impression of Spicer’s importance to contemporary poetics.
Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian’s new edition of the collected poetry of Spicer includes all of the serial poetic sequences to be found in the earlier volume, as well as his earlier nonserial poems, an extended version of Spicer’s brilliant and hilarious “Unvert Manifesto” (1956), and previously unpublished poems from both Spicer’s early and later productive years. Gizzi and Killian’s edition offers a more adequate and less affectively distorting account of Spicer’s amazing two decades of output. This new edition is elegant and polished in all the ways the Black Sparrow importantly and justifiably is not. My Vocabulary Did This to Me does not displace Blaser’s 1975 edition, so much as honors it as crucial part of the ever-growing Spicer archive—ever-growing, thanks to the efforts of Gizzi, Killian, Michael Davidson, John Emil Vincent, and others. To say that the new edition is grand—looks grand, feels expensive in all the ways in which the Black Sparrow perhaps utopically does not—is not to say that Spicer has arrived. He was already here, but never so lucidly. Gizzi and Killian’s decisions are laudable, particularly their inclusion of Spicer’s earliest poetry, which hitherto was available only in a separate volume.1 Each of Spicer’s serial sequences was originally published in the form of a limited-run, illustrated book; these books, produced by White Rabbit Press (principally operated by Spicer’s friend, Graham Mackintosh), are works of art. Illustration (most often by Spicer’s friends or cohorts) and text twine into each other in the manner of William Blake’s illuminations. Gizzi and Killian are therefore to be commended for reproducing at the outset of each of Spicer’s individual books the original cover illustration of said work. Eventually, ideally, we will have a...