In Somewhere Near Defiance, his sixth full-length collection of poems, Jeff Gundy is at the top of his game. The book revisits Gundy’s usual catalog of subjects — small-town life in the Midwest, nature, Mennonites, being on the road, and so on — but these themes remain fresh under his deft touch. Like two of his poetic influences, William Blake and Walt Whitman (who each appear in several poems), Gundy is a poet of the people in that his poems examine everyday life in a way that elevates it to the sublime. One of the book’s early poems, “Having It All Four Ways,” is written as a catechism, inspiring the desire to read it reverently, as one would whisper a prayer during morning devotions, but focuses on the holiness of fleshly being: “[s]weat, chocolate, lust, and fire” (23). The parallel emphasis on the earthly and the divine is present throughout this collection as an argument that the two are much more closely related than is often assumed. Read More
By Diego Báez
Donna Tartt has turned out a single novel every decade, starting with her bestselling debut, The Secret History (1992), a semi-autobiographical “murder mystery in reverse” about students at a small private school in Vermont. The Little Friend (2002) followed and fixes its focus on the suspenseful, Mississippi-based story of 12-year-old Hattie’s extended family and Southern life at large. The Goldfinch (2013) follows thirteen-year-old Theo Decker, who loses his mother when an explosion destroys an entire wing of an art museum in New York City. Theo’s estranged father reappears and absconds with the boy, removing him to the desert wastes of Las Vegas. Over the course of his drawn-out adventure, Theo finds himself inextricably linked to the novel’s eponymous masterpiece and its role in the underground art market. Read More
“He just wanted to live his dream of dying in Paris.” So says one of the new housemates of Leticia “Lita” del Cielo on her first morning as a new tenant in the House of Stars, a run-down mansion on the Left Bank in which well-moneyed—or “green-blooded”—young women board year by year. The man under discussion is an American who flew to Paris for the sole purpose of his suicide, and it is through this conversational topic that both Lita and the reader meet the young women with whom she will live during the next several months. We are less than twenty pages into Patricia Engel’s first novel, It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, and the American’s death is the second one to bear mention. The first was Princess Diana, who died in that infamous tunnel crash under Paris as Lita was flying from Newark to the City of Light to begin her year abroad. As we soon learn, love and death are both present in the House of Stars. Read More
By Patrick James Dunagan
I first encountered poems by Jack Spicer in Don Allen’s anthology New American Poetry, however, his work didn’t immediately strike my fancy at the time. That wasn’t to happen until some amount of time later while browsing among the library shelves at the University of California in Riverside (during a personal furlough of sorts through some definite Purgatory landscape) when I came across The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, edited by his fellow poet and pal Robin Blaser after Spicer’s early death.
Standing in the aisle puzzling over the first book, After Lorca, with its Introduction clearly written by the ghost (?) of the dead poet, I first caught glimmerings of how vital Spicer’s work would prove to be in relation to my own concerns as a poet, playing a major role in my own conceptions surrounding poetry. At the time, I was looking ahead to graduate school in Poetics at New College in San Francisco and attempting to prepare myself for future study by becoming familiar with all things poetry, most especially concerning those poets whose work immediately appealed to me. In terms of my own reading habits, this has always entailed performing what poet Charles Olson refers to as a “saturation job” of reading EVERYTHING available on any given figure of interest. With Spicer in Riverside, this resulted in my soon finding the back issues of Boundary 2 wherein, among numerous other delights, was the Spicer issue (bound together with the Dickinson issue, portraits of each poet adorning the respective cover) chock full of essays on the work, along with his “plan for a book of Tarot.”
Within a year, I was in San Francisco walking the same streets Spicer had some four decades previous, visiting the same and/or similar North Beach drinking establishments, arguing, cajoling, his poems spilling round in my head. Then Kevin Killian and Lewis Ellingham’s biography Poet Be Like God appeared; almost immediately Spicer’s name started to emerge more and more in classes, bar conversations, and during poetry readings. Poetryworld was quickly discovering, or re-discovering as the case were, the fantastic nooks and crannies of Spicer’s poetic realm filled with his Martians, Spooks, Ghosts, Billy the Kid, baseball, pinball machines, Lorca, and Cocteau imagery.
For a short period of time, it remained possible to find on the shelves at neighborhood bookstores cheap, used copies of The Collected Books, the odd Spicer issue of an earlier magazine, such as Manroot, or the collection One Night Stand and Other Poems. The latter is a comprehensive gathering of the predominately early, solitary Spicer poems not organized into sequential book-length sets of series he came to favor in his mature output and which Blaser honored in his editing of The Collected Books.
Joining in with Poet Be Like God’s interjection of Spicer with a thundering force into the heart of Poetryworld discourse, Peter Gizzi’s The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer further contributed to encouraging the ongoing drone of Spicerian poems, homages, accolades, and inevitable dissertations (Gizzi’s book of the lectures is, in fact, his own dissertation).
I began to hear that Killian and Gizzi had students at work on going through the Spicer archive gathering potential material for a larger Collected Poems, perhaps part of a projected multi-volume set of Spicer material to appear from Wesleyan (publisher of both the biography and lectures). My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer has since appeared and various murmurings over the years indicate there may very well be at least one or two further volumes to appear: a collection of Spicer’s correspondence and/or still more poems together with some plays. Wesleyan has recently kept the attention-pot stirred, releasing After Spicer: Critical Essays edited by John Emil Vincent. For better or worse, Spicer is now worked into the academic labor mill as far as nearly any poet of his generation.
Daniel Katz’s The Poetry of Jack Spicer at first nearly seems more belated than anything, yet gladly that’s proven not to be the case. This is the only existing book-length critical study consisting of a complete overview of Spicer’s body of work. Katz proves himself eminently up for the task. There’s little within Spicer criticism of which he does not manage to at least touch upon, accomplishing a thorough introduction that is not lacking in fresh insight. The bar is set high for future would-be Spicer critics and scholars. While the focus throughout remains scholarly, Katz’s general tone tends towards the conversational (with only occasional brief slides into academic jargon) and he does a highly efficient job filling in biographical detail without besotting his critical lens with heavy quoting of sources or random listing of facts. The result is an impressive condensing of a large amount of information, the offered judgment of which is all spot on.
If Katz fails to explore some areas, it is usually due to the fact that these remain either elements of Spicerian lore, rather than the nuts and bolts of his poetics, and there is a lack of thorough-going material available to draw upon for reference, or else it simply doesn’t pertain to his own argument and he’s unable to locate footing for a proper engagement with it here. This is where Katz’s book, at times, serves more as an introductory overview rather than as engaging original criticism in its own right. He makes no mention of Spicer’s interest in the Tarot, for instance. There is also little discussion of Spicer’s bioregional interests — his San Francisco-centric ideals get only passing reference, readers are directed elsewhere in footnotes.
Katz seems intent more on reading Spicer less as a California poet consumed by his own personal occult world in favor of just generally as a poet. He also makes no mention of California poet Robinson Jeffers, with whom Gizzi handily draws several corollaries to Spicer in his afterword to the Lectures. There’s no cause to feel that Katz is intentionally side-lining the occult or the politics of the local from Spicerian scholarship, only that these interests did not find a place within his own tackling of Spicer as a subject. Certainly, there are frequent openings where Katz leaves opportunity for further scholarship to explore these and other areas. At no point does it feel as if he’s refusing their relevance.
In his Coda, Katz describes how, in the late 1950s, Spicer rather surprisingly began “compiling a manuscript for a projected ‘selected poems,’” detailing this unlikely seeming enterprise:
…many of the poems from A Book of Music figure in it. This means that well after the rousing letter to Blaser in Admonitions excoriating the individual lyric, Spicer was still seriously putting together a collection of them, and refusing to abandon a project whose inadequacy he himself had so passionately argued. One has to imagine that an ultimate commitment to the “book,” perhaps solidified by Billy The Kid, is what prevented the “selected poems” from ever seeing the light of day, but in the wake of Admonitions it’s hard to see how Spicer could have continued to work on such a project without serious misgivings and a bad sense of faith.
It’s also possible that such a gathering on Spicer’s part was very much a competitive gut reaction to publication of his pal Robert Duncan’s own Selected Poems by City Lights, which appeared in 1959. Either way, the fact that Spicer ever assembled such a manuscript does extend as well as complicate the poet-figure with which so much of Spicer lore has left emblazoned in the imagination.
Katz quotes the following unpublished poem, titled “Poet” or “A Portrait,” which Spicer placed at the end of this “selected poems.”
He knocks upon our doors un-
As if the only test
Were some way of being right
That a poem can give one
A clear moment of The Poem announcing that The Poet, in fact at the time of writing, is but a somewhat hapless observer to subsequent events. It is also simultaneously rather hair-raisingly reminiscent of the Spicer poet peer with whom his work shares the borrowing of Cowboy Western motifs, along with a bitingly humorous sardonic outlook — namely the poet, Ed Dorn. The first appearance of the Gunslinger character central to Dorn’s later epic, Gunslinger, occurs in Dorn’s “An idle visitation” wherein those “slender leather encased hands / folded casually / to make his knock, / will show you his map. / There is your domain.”
Although Dorn’s poem is written nearly a decade later, while he’s in residence in England, he was in fact living in San Francisco during the late 1950s. Spicer had already written Billy the Kid and he went on to write the only latterly discovered “Map Poems.” It’s alluring to attempt to hear in this “lost to the archive” poem a distant echo of what might just be the conversation “in the air” around North Beach bars of the 1950s having filtered its way from Spicer’s lips to Dorn’s ear, eventually laying some elemental features within the grid-work upon which Gunslinger would partly work out its formation.
For a long while, the buzz around Spicer has been loud, often approaching the distinct feeling of being a fad. Several elements of the work (overlapping even when at apparent odds with one another) contribute to the likeliness of such a possibility: his homosexuality, his anarchistic point of view, the belatedness of any sort of mainstream publication, the linguistics (which was his “profession” if he is to be seen as having one) at work/play in his poems, alcoholism, and the deceptively simple seeming breaks of his line often combined with a lightness of colloquial diction. There’s much that it’s deceptively easy “to get,” process, incorporate, and write back to in response. Indeed, “correspondence” appears as a key device, repeatedly manifesting as both fascination and a tool with which Spicer interacts, encouraging endless possible connections indiscriminately merging: past/present/future, imagination/reality, dead/living, magic/science, reader/poet, poem/poet. But in the end, Spicer courts us as he abuses us. Dangling a dangerous game just within reach, tempting a following that he’d mockingly scorn. Be wary.
The Poetry of Jack Spicer
By Daniel Katz
Edinburgh University Press
By Nancy Smith
Only a few paragraphs into This Is Between Us, it becomes clear that this is an intimate portrait of a relationship. A narrator speaks, perhaps confesses, directly to his lover of five years, and we get to peek inside the everyday details of this romance. The book is divided in five sections, marked chronologically by time. Early in Year One, our narrator says, “On just our second real date, we started talking about what our life would be like together. We talked about houses, cars, dreams, our kids, and our friends. Then we reluctantly talked about honesty, as if we weren’t really sure what it meant.” And this—the talk of a life lived together—is exactly what unfolds over the course of this lovely, understated novel. Read More
By Caitlin Callaghan
Early on in Jamie Ford’s new novel, Songs of Willow Frost, William Eng, the twelve year-old protagonist, is about to run away from Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage with his best friend, Charlotte. As they are on the verge of making their escape, Charlotte reminds William that one of the nuns who cared for them used to say that all great stories have a moral. William, considering this, “didn’t know if his story had a moral to it. Honestly, he didn’t care […] All he wished for was a happy ending.” Read More
Both prolific and diverse, Russell Atkins’ literary output crosses over traditional divisions of genre, style, and form. He has drafted musical scores for many of his literary works and theorized his original theory of practice in his essay “A Psychovisual Perspective for ‘Musical’ Composition.” His spelling, syntax, and subject matter all tend to be unorthodox. The one problem with this selection of work is that it leaves you feeling there should be more included. Let’s have a full Collected Poems rather than this slim gathering. Of course, that is the point. The format of the Unsung Masters Series calls for the selection of the writer’s work to be followed by inclusion of recent critical essays by scholars. Responding here to Atkins are Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Tom Orange, Evie Shockley, Sean Singer, and Tyrone Williams. The essays not only provide context for approaching Atkins’ work, but also demonstrate the ongoing relevance located within it. The hope, at least in part, is to generate a broader interest in Atkins among poets, scholars, and general readers. Read More