Search View Archive

Rapid Transit

Ed. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian
My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer(Wesleyan University Press, 2008)

At 21, Jack Spicer joined Kenneth Rexroth’s inner sanctum in San Francisco. Early poems foreshadowed the drill-bit addresses he would later hone. He ran an improv series called “Blabbermouth” and claimed his poems were like radio transmissions or dictation from Martians. He used that distancing artifice to inject life and lyricism into his iconoclastic, sometimes blunt poetry. His short life (41) wasn’t easy. In “Homosexulaity” symbolism and pain are braided: “roses that wear roses…die upon a bed of roses.”

In Jack Spicer’s arid arias, metaphor and system set up magnetic fields of echoing isolation. His poems talk to each other. They speak with legends. Compressing many voices into a singular focus, Spicer radically redesigns the interior narrative.

Nursery rhymes, folksongs, mythology, history, literature, economics, and numbers add rhythmic thump to personal deliberations. Spicer claimed his poems are radio transmissions or dictation from Martians. The poet acts as “a kind of witchdoctor” weaving spells into an enchanted rope that stands free. Poetry is “a machine to catch ghosts.” It is an “argument with the dead.”

Spicer evolves from staunch, stand-alone poems (exemplified by “One Night Stand”) to serial works and “novels” about Rimbaud and Billy the Kid. His linguistic research leads to startling innovation and repetition. A keen feel for the word as a structural marker complements the lonely heroics. Language itself becomes a roadmap through transitioning page-scapes. “I am I—both script i and cursive i.”

Humor, nonsequential detail, and themes like love and “this big loneness” branch out from Spicer’s inveighing. He spoofs Olson, Stevens and fellow San Franciscan Ferlinghetti and saluted Orpheus and Osiris.

 In “Language” (1963-1965), Spicer crafts a lattice of “White and aimless signals.” He compares poetry to the music of the ocean’s emotion that “does not mean to be listened to.” Poetry is “the last of the stone singing, its hard voice.” It’s the lone seagull calling for no one. “If this is dictation, it is driving / Me wild.” Me too!

Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, ]Open Interval[, (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009)

Lyrae—her very name is the stuff of stars conversing. The poet Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon looks up—to the heavens and too, her forebears: literary, astronomical and relative (the mother who gave her a magic name).

“Falling Star,” the cover art by Romare Bearden, has been brilliantly requisitioned. The legendary black astronomer Banneker “carves his wooden clock.” The deaf astronomer John Goodricke (who died at 21) wrote her name in his notebook. “Part of my project is to claim everything for myself,” she said about this second book. Hendrix, Rilke, Phillippians 4:11—Lyrae collects special forces, seeking to fill the “]Open Interval[.”

‘Open interval’ is a mathematical term for an ongoing line. “]It does not contain its ends: but signs:[” The author’s outgoing brackets represent the containment of infinity. Referring equally to the flesh and to the Auburn Correctional Facility, each cell is nebulous. Each sonnet offers a chance to break free. “The space in everything is God: that force / of present absence: pen: expanse.” And what a nice off-rhyming, alliterative cadence that ending has.

The poet finds a new “body” of knowledge in her quest for self-understanding, gracefully bringing a touch of astrophysics to psychological portraiture: RR Lyrae refers to both a star and a series of pulsating horizontal branch stars often used as standard candles for measuring distances. Scattered between long, lean poems, dense sonnets with RR Lyrae in the titles exert the pull of black holes. These “marquees of heaven” announce “the essence of an eon.”

Chad Sweeney, Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sounds (City Lights Foundation, 2009)

In the last decade and a half, over 250 writers have taught in public schools through the WritersCorps program born in the spirit of AmeriCorps and the WPA. This anthology showcases a fifth of those poets, novelists, slam performers, and playwrights. Martin Espada notes in the foreword that it is fitting that these “writers who have enabled so many of the damned and despised to find their voices… should speak for themselves in these pages.”

We enter the world of “Juvy” through Kathy Evan’s sophomores. Ryan Grim shows us the corner where kids are working the block they own. Will Power engages current culture in his “hip hop theater.” Jimie Salcedo-Malo tends the “uprooted Mexicano dream.”

Each writer provides a statement about his or her involvement with the program as well as some writing. Hoa Nguyen addresses the reciprocity of teaching poetry to young people in a quote by Joanne Kyger: “Poetry is about continuing poetry.”

Poetry and money have often been strangers and that’s another reason this program is laudable. “Thinking of Bernadette trying to live without / money,” Nguyen sympathizes with a fellow poet.

This anthology cuts across the board. It’s an important sampler, not only of poetry, but also of the rainbow underbelly in the rough hoods of Washington, DC, San Francisco, and the Bronx. It is also valuable as a chronicle of hope and a reminder that poetry is a shared endeavor. It is a “circle of circles,” writes Chad Sweeney in the intro.

Isolation became a field for his diamond echoes. Compressing the blizzard…
Nursery rhymes, folksongs and elocutionary ghosts
Diamond echoes – the dead too talk to themselves on the stage of endless farewell


Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

Wright is a New Romantic poet associated with St. Mark's Poetry Project.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2009

All Issues