Monday, November 20, 2006

It helps, reading this Jack Spicer poem for the first time, to know that Paul Morphy was the greatest of the 19th century chess players, a New Orleans lawyer who opposed the Civil War & spent the war years in Paris, and that he was every bit as moody & cantankerous as modern-day chess champions, refusing toward the end to play anyone who would not give him the advantage of one pawn & one move. The poem is entitled “The Clouds”:

The pawns are pushed like clouds
Paul Morphy played.
The poem pushes a car
or even love
What a poem could grasp   That is,
a car
that runs over
a king or a queen or a bug
that happened to get on the board.
If that aint big enough
I push New Orleans toward anything
he’s afraid of
Imagine, in a hundred years
Biography, sitting before the fire on a winter’s night.
he’s afraid of.

The typescript, which is dated anywhere between 1959 & ’61, also contains this alternate ending:

Imagine, in a hundred years
Biography, sitting before the fire on a winter’s night
Trying to figure it out
he’s afraid of.

This typescript appears on p. 102 of an extraordinary new book entitled Exploring the Bancroft Library, a sumptuous art-book anthology to celebrate the centennial of the acquisition of what is now the largest public library west of Chicago by the then-fledgling University of California at Berkeley, co-edited by Charles B. Faulhaber, the director of the library, and Stephen Vincent, poet, editor, blogger. Curiously (to my mind at least), this edition is published not by UC Press, but rather by Signature Books, a publisher of Western & Mormon Americana.

The Bancroft is a major institution in its own right – it was my constant hangout when I was a student at Berkeley, having pulled every string I knew in order to get a carrel in the stacks there, which in those days was almost unheard of for an undergraduate. In fact, one year before I actually transferred over to Berkeley, I found myself one May afternoon locked in a classroom in Wheeler Hall, the English Department mausoleum & the building immediately south of the Bancroft, watching out the window along with maybe a dozen similarly huddled student protestors (I was technically an outside agitator, I suppose, and certainly would never have been admitted had I gotten busted) while Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs – “blue meanies” in the popular jargon of the day – riddled a library van with shotgun pellets & fired live rounds right through the rare book room window. Fortunately, no one was hit, though four blocks away the same deputies did kill one bystander, James Rector, & blinded another. This to explain perhaps my own deep attachment to the Bancroft, which goes much further than one might expect for your typical college library.

There are a million good reasons for any citizen in the Bay Area, any bibliophile, or any former UC student to own this anthology, but I just want to focus on this one. The first part of the book consists of panoramic essays on each of the Bancroft’s major collections, accompanied by a shorter essay on a key collection within that area – the choices are whimsical to the point of being brilliant. The key collection for the section on the history of science and technology, for example, is that of Rube Goldberg! And for rare books and literary manuscripts, it is Jack Spicer, with an essay by none other than Kevin Killian, Spicer’s biographer & himself a wonderful poet. The three illustrations for this two-page suite include this typescript of a poem, a sampling of Spicer’s translation of Beowulf in his own hand – numbered lines with the Old English in red pen, the translation above it in a slightly faded blue ink – and a poster for Spicer’s book Billy the Kid, a collage including chess pieces (knights), a man in a deep sea or outer space outfit and an add for women’s blue jeans (I’m making that gender call based on the femme boots that jut from the cuffed leg) with a monarch butterfly just slightly off-center at the crotch where some superimposed text reads “COME JOIN US ON THE ALASKAN FRONTIER.” The book is advertised at a cost of 50¢, to be found at two locations on the same block in North Beach, one called The Cloven Hoof, the other the Paint Pet.

Killian’s essay contextualizes Spicer for readers who’ve never heard of him before – twenty years earlier this same collection would inevitably have focused on the library’s Mark Twain holdings instead – and makes the point, underscored here by the typescript, that although Spicer’s theory of Martian radio & poetry by dictation is widely known, an actual examination of his manuscripts reveals instead “Spicer the craftsman, never satisfied with what he had written, always seeking the next turn round the bend.” Killian also gives the first complete accounting I’ve seen of all the major Spicer publication projects that are now in progress.

Vincent and I are of the generation that came of age shortly after Spicer’s death &, for a decade or so until the publication of the Collected Books by Black Sparrow in 1975, we & Spicer’s immediate compadres had him sort of as our own secret in the world of poetry. Vincent, in fact, is in the middle of a series of prose pieces dedicated to Spicer that is emerging these days on his blog. A decade from now, Spicer is almost certainly going to be seen as one of the half-dozen great poets of the mid-century period in America (the post-avant scene already knows this, but the Collected Books have been out of print for awhile now), so just maybe we’ll finally be getting over the circumstance of discovering – continually, as tho Spicer’d been writing furiously the entire four decades since his death from alcoholism a few weeks after the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965 – new poems as well hewn & hard-edged as the one above. When Killian, Peter Gizzi, Kelly Holt & Aaron Kunin have finished their respective editing jobs, we will have a new, far more substantial and complete Jack Spicer, even if it is still the same cranky drunk from the deep end of the bar at Gino & Carlos.

Killian is, as I would expect readers of this blog to know, as qualified to write on the work of Jack Spicer as is anyone not named Robin Blaser in this world. Lew Ellingham’s sprawling raw manuscript of Poet, Be Like God had defeated more than one first-rate Spicer scholar before Killian stepped in & helped make it the best literary biography to date of any New American poet. In a just world, Killian would have had an endowed chair at an ivy league school for ten or fifteen years now. That Vincent & his co-editor Bliss recognize & acknowledge this is integral to the genius of this anthology.(And check out the Kyoto notebook page of Phil Whalen’s, reproduced two pages before the Spicer essay, as well as the photo nearby of Gwendolyn Brooks apparently as a teenager.)

I should note, while I’m at it, that Killian has some terrific work as well in the new No, which I wrote about in more depth last Wednesday. Better known as a novelist & playwright, Killian’s chops are just as solid when it comes to verse. Of the five poems by Killian in the issue, my fave is “Proverbs”:

After dinner is over, who cares about spoon? Deer
Should not toy with tiger. Every maybe has a wife
Called maybe-not. I went hunting for your proverbs,
Silently, dicta buzzing through my head,
In the long flat jungle where they stalk the plain.
If befriend donkey, expect to be kicked.

I missed the metaphor, my gun, like a loaded base,
stood up in my face. Impossible to miss someone
who will always be in heart. Mind, like parachute,
only function when open. “Hey, sahib,” said my
Sumerian sidekick, “maybe in this one jungle case
you might be out of your league.”

Mock insanity not always safe alibi. I didn’t love you
because you were curious. I just let myself go, like
the mud turtle in pond, more safe than man on horseback.
I didn’t give you five dollars just to suck my dick,
must gather at leisure what may use in haste.
I’m trying to go all Charlie Chan on your ass,

Must turn up many stones to find hiding place
of snake. Okay, my little clown, I fucked up this safari,
so bring me back to Minna Street, help me ward off crack.
I made a magic promise to pluck bullets from mid-air,
happiness from that hole in your rucksack.
Pretty girl, like lapdog, sometimes go mad.
People who ask riddle should know answer.

Not only do you see Killian appropriating proverbs at all angles here, particularly with the fortune cookie syntax, an ear that has honed itself on Spicer over the years, but the detail that I like best is how he uses the more formal capital at the left margin in the first stanza, but drops it thereafter, a perfect formal analog for the increasing intimacy between poet & reader as this poem progresses. It’s attention to particulars like this that tells me this poet indeed knows the answer.