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Wesleyan University Press
My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer

My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer

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Winner of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Award for Poetry (2009)
Winner of the American Book Award (2009)

In 1965, when the poet Jack Spicer died at the age of forty, he left behind a trunkful of papers and manuscripts and a few copies of the seven small books he had seen to press. A West Coast poet, his influence spanned the national literary scene of the 1950s and '60s, though in many ways Spicer's innovative writing ran counter to that of his contemporaries in the New York School and the West Coast Beat movement. Now, more than forty years later, Spicer's voice is more compelling, insistent, and timely than ever. During his short but prolific life, Spicer troubled the concepts of translation, voice, and the act of poetic composition itself. My Vocabulary Did This to Me is a landmark publication of this essential poet's life work, and includes poems that have become increasingly hard to find and many published here for the first time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819570901
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 08/15/2010
Series: Wesleyan Poetry Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 508
Sales rank: 728,124
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

JACK SPICER (1925–1965) published books including After Lorca (1957), Billy the Kid (1959), and The Holy Grail (1962). PETER GIZZI is a poet and author of numerous books, including The Outernationale (2007), who lives in Holyoke, Massachusetts. KEVIN KILLIAN is a poet, novelist, critic, and playwright living in San Francisco.

Read an Excerpt





Plague took us and the land from under us,
Rose like a boil, enclosing us within.
We waited and the blue skies writhed awhile Becoming black with death.

Plague took us and the chairs from under us,
Stepped cautiously while entering the room
(We were discussing Yeats); it paused awhile Then smiled and made us die.

Plague took us, laughed and reproportioned us,
Swelled us to dizzy, unaccustomed size.
We died prodigiously; it hurt awhile But left a certain quiet in our eyes.


Song changes and his unburnt hair Upon my altar changes;
We have, good strangers, many vaults To keep the time in, but the songs are mine,
The seals are wax, and both will leak From heat.
A bird in time is worth of two in any bush.
You can melt brush like wax; and birds in time Can sing.
They call me bird-girl, parrot girl and worth The time of any bird; my vault a cage,
My cage a song, my song a seal,
And I can steal an unburnt lock of hair To weave a window there.


Roses that wear roses Enjoy mirrors.
Roses that wear roses must enjoy The flowers they are worn by.
Roses that wear roses are dying With a mirror behind them.
None of us are younger but the roses Are dying.
Men and women have weddings and funerals Are conceived and destroyed in a formal Procession.
Roses die upon a bed of roses With mirrors weeping at them.


Watch sunset fall upon that beach like others did. The waves Curved and unspent like cautious scythes, like evening harvesters.
Feel sorrow for the land like others did. Each eating tide,
Each sigh of surf, each sunset-dinner, pulls the earth-crop, falls A little fuller; makes the sand grain fall A little shorter, leaner. Leaves the earth A breathless future harvest.
I watch, as others watched, but cannot stand Where others stood; for only water now Stands once where Arnold stood, or Lear or Sappho stood.
Retreating shore (each day has new withdrawals)
Breaks in feeble song — it sings and all abandoned history is spread,
A tidal panic for that conqueror.

I. The Indian Ocean: Rimbaud

I watched and saw a sailor floating in that sea And melt before he drowned.
Asleep and fragrant as that sleep, he seemed To draw the sun within his flesh and melt. He seemed To draw the fire from that angel and to melt. Now he is dead.
To melt is not to drown but is enough To shear the body of its flesh; the sea Is meant for drowning, but when God is short Of waters for his purpose then the sea Becomes a pool of fire; angels ride Astride their flamy waves Pale as desire Terrible angel, out of that fire Out of the beach-bones, melted like butter Out of the blazing waves, the hot tide Terrible angel, sea-monster Terrible fish-like angel, fire breather Source of the burning ocean.

II. The Atlantic Ocean: Hart Crane

But I watch slowly, see the sand-grains fall A little riper, fuller; watch the ocean fall From sunset dinner. Watch the angel leave His fire-pleasure.
  Deep in the mind there is an ocean I would fall within it, find my sources in it. Yield to tide And find my sources in it. Aching fathoms fall And rest within it.
  Deep in the mind there is an ocean and below,
The ocean-ripened sand-grains and the lands it took,
The statues, and the boundaries and the ghosts.
Street-lights and pleasant images, refractions; great

Currents of pleasant indirection.
The statue of Diana in the railroad station The elaborating, the intense, the chocolate monsters.
Under the ocean there are crushing tides, intense And convoluted stuffings for a dream.
Deep in the mind there is an ocean and below,
A first and fishly paradise.

It is the deep-end of dreaming. There are stacks Of broken sailors, sweet and harvested; the tacks Do not decay; they do not bleach with daylight; they remain Like grain in harvest.
  But there is little human there, the face Of statues, nothing colder than that face; it is the end An Easter Island end of dreaming; paradise And always afternoon.
  But he is dead Untroubled swarms of bees pursue their pleasures, lax and drowsy; steal Sweet honey from a drunken sailor's bones.
  But he is dead And nothing human there can chafe his flesh;
Only the fertile sea can chafe his flesh; it is the end,
An island end of dreaming.
Harvesting angel, out of these pleasures Out of the kelp-fields and the sea-brambles Tide-weaver, hunter and planter,
Harvesting angel, paradise-keeper Harvesting dolphin-angel, coffin-lover Keep safe his sleeping bones.

III. The Pacific Ocean

But there are times the sea puts on its rouges, looks A doom-bedraggled whore with eight diseases; seems To cruise her ancient beaches and demand An answer to her question —?Will you sleep??
An answer from the living —?Will you sleep??
?No no my girl, my dooming ocean, no It won't do,? I answer, ?it won't do.
Who, girl, would drown, if all the fragrant ocean, girl,
Would be his bride and bed?
  Though he is dead And though he sleep with you, your cheapness is not dead And you are old and deep and cold and like a cheap hotel Of sleepless corridors and whisperings.
No, I can spare your charm, my harpy ocean, spare your charm And grunt and turn away. — No, it won't do."
This world, it will not end, it will not end;
It would look well in ashes, but it will not end. (Though he is dead.)
Dr. Johnson stamped his goutish leg upon that ocean; proved That rocks are rocklike as the sea's a sea Of real appearance. If the mind's a sea And rocks are feathers in it, do not say The sea's a feathered creature. She may fly,
The mind, I mean, may fly, but cannot spin,
The Doctor's lithic stumbling block would break her shin.
How shall I answer the whorish sea?
Sir, says the doctor, leave it all to me.
How shall I visit him where he is dead?
Sir, says the doctor, I shall go instead.
The gloomy whore is chastened and he goes.
The sun becomes a nest of singing birds and he is gone The painted sea is gone.
Gout-ridden angel, out of these terrors,
Out of the mind's infidelity and the heart's horror Deliver my natural body.
Gout-ridden angel, slayer of oceans Gout-ridden common-angel, keeper of virtue Deliver my natural body.

For it was I who died With every tide.
I am the land.
I was the sea.
Each grain of sand With us will be If we are dead.


Lactantius writing on the Apocalypse says:
"Qui autem ab inferis suscitabantur praeerunt viventibus velut judices — They, moreover, shall be raised from the depths that they shall stand above the living as judges."

I dreamt the ocean died, gave up its dead.
The last spasmatic tides, the final waves Were crowded with escaping ghosts; the tides Were choked and strangled with the weight of flesh And falling bone. And soon the homeward floating ceased.
The dead awoke. Once they had mouths and said,
"When all we dead awaken," they awoke.
When all we dead —

  (but I have talked to the king of the rats
  and I have walked with the king of the rats
  and I have bowed to the king of the rats
  and the king of the rats has said to me —

When all we dead —

  (but I have talked to the king of the swans
  and I have walked with the king of the swans
  and I have bowed to the king of the swans
  and the king of the swans has said to me —


The Sunday Chronicle presents the dream In slightly different order; Angel-Face Is chased through eight cartoons by Nemesis,
By Demon Richard Tracy; each disgrace Each new escape, is hinted out and found And Angel-Face is cornered, caught, and drowned.
He will arise in every Sunday Chronicle Refaced, pursued, reburied in the lake Till Tracy roots his ever drowning heart Into the crossroads with a phallic stake.

Or say I turn the records in a great Electric station, our reception famed As far as May or Babylon and back again.
My great turntable is inevitable; it whirls Around, around, a convoluting day A night of static sleeplessness; it plays Requested favorites, universal things,
And millions listen, hear some tenor sing,
It's a long, long way From Babylon in May

To this November.
But listen to the chorus
  When we dead —
Those flat and tuneless voices
  When we dead —
The aching chord is broken
  When we dead awaken
  We will do the singing.
  We will do the singing.
Their flat electric voices Fill the sky And Angel-Face has floated from his grave Again to die.

Angel-Face hires lawyers from the firm Of Ratface, Swanface, and Beelzebub.
Mr. Ratface, well-known Persian lawyer, takes the case Faces the court, asks manslaughter on Tracy,
Slander on my station,
Death on me for treason.
Judge Swanface tries the case without a word And orders Juryman Beelzebub To give me death. The juror says,
?I sentence you to drown three times When we dead

  (The king of rats has bowed to me)
When we dead
  (The king of the swans has bowed to me)
When we dead
  (The king of the world has bowed to me)
Awaken and the living die.


Listen, you silk-hearted bastard,
I said in the bar last night,
You wear those dream clothes Like a swan out of water.
Listen, you wool-feathered bastard,
My name, just for the record, is Leda.
I can remember pretending That your red silk tie is a real heart That your raw wool suit is real flesh That you could float beside me with a swan's touch Of casual satisfaction.
But not the swan's blood.

Waking tomorrow, I remember only Somebody's feathers and his wrinkled heart Draped loosely in my bed.


If asked whether I am goyim,
Whether I am an enemy to your people,
I would reply that I am of a somewhat older people.
My people (the gay, who are neither Jew nor goyim)
Were caught in your Lord God Jehovah's first pogrom Out at Sodom.

No one was very indignant about it.
Looking backwards at us is hard on neutrals (ask Mrs. Lot someday)
You may say it was all inhospitality to angels.
You may say we?re all guilty; well, show us An angel pacing down Hollywood, wings folded,
And try us.


Entering the room Mr. Stevens on an early Sunday morning Wore sailor-whites and helmet.
He had brought a couple with him and they danced like bears He had brought a bottle with him and the vapors rose From helmet, naked bottle, couple Haloed him and wakened us.

But Mr. Stevens, listen, sight and sense are dull And heavier than vapor and they cling And weigh with meaning.
To floors and bottoms of the sea, horizon them You are an island of our sea, Mr. Stevens, perhaps rare Certainly covered with upgrowing vegetation.
You may consist of dancing animals. The bear,
Mr. Stevens, may be your emblem,
Rampant on a white field or panting in plurals above the floor and the ocean,
And you a bearish Demiurge, Mr. Stevens, licking vapor Into the shape of your island. Fiercely insular.
Out of sense and sight, Mr. Stevens, you may unambiguously dance Buoying the helmet and the couple,
The bottle and the dance itself —
But consider, Mr. Stevens, though imperceptible,
We are also alive. It is not right that you should merely touch us.
Besides, Mr. Stevens, any island in our sea Needs a geographer.

A geographer, Mr. Stevens, tastes islands Finds in this macro-cannibalism his own microcosm.
To form a conceit, Mr. Stevens, in finding you He chews upon his flesh. Chews it, Mr. Stevens,
Like Donne down to the very bone.
An island, Mr. Stevens, should be above such discoveries,
Available but slightly mythological.
Our resulting map will be misleading.
Though it be drawn, Mr. Stevens,
With the blood and flesh of both superimposed As ink on paper, it will be no picture, no tourist postcard Of the best of your contours reflected on water.
It will be a map, Mr. Stevens, a county stiffened into symbols And that's poetry too, Mr. Stevens, and I'm a geographer.


"Passion is alien to intellect As hot black doves are alien to trees On which they do not rest —
All are alone.
Of passion and of intellect Suspect Neither bird nor tree Of vicious privacy —
Nothing is intimate.
Doves without rest Must blackly test Each branch with every claw they lack And trees alone Are tough as thrones With too much sovereignty."

"Above your branches every hot black dove Protests his love And gathers in great swarms As darkness comes.
They wait Until the darkness make Them dream-birds black As needles and as ultimate.
As you branch blanketed in royalty Each lacking claw, bird-real,
Will find its rest Throughout your naked branches,
Make you feel Birds in the bed Locking their claws against Your privacy.?

A NIGHT IN FOUR PARTS (Second Version)

Part I: Going to Sleep

While the heart twists On a cold bed Without sleep,
Under the hot light Of an angry moon A cat leaps.
The cat prowls Into cold places,
But the heart stays Where the blood is.

Part II: Light Sleeping

Down in the world Where the cat prowls,
Heart's manikin,
His climbing doll Prepares for love:
Spawns eye, spawns mouth,
Spawns throat, spawns genitals.
Heart is so monstrous naked that the world recoils,
Shakes like a ladder,
Spits like a cat,

Part III: Wet Dream

Downward it plunges through the walls of flesh,
Heart falls Through lake and cavern under sleep Deep like an Orpheus A beating mandolin Plucking the plectrum of the moon upon its strings,
It sings, it sings, it sings.
It sings, ?Restore, restore, Eurydice to life.
  Oh, take the husband and return the wife."
It sings still deeper, conjures by its spell Eurydice, the alley cat of Hell.
  "Meow, meow, Eurydice's not dead.
  Oh, find a cross-eyed tomcat for my bed."
Too late, it was too late he fell.
The sounds of singing and the sounds of Hell Become a swarm of angry orange flies And naked Orpheus, moon-shriveled, dies And rises leaving lost Eurydice.
His heart falling upward towards humanity Howling and half-awake.

Part IV: Waking

Heart wakes Twists like a cat on hot bricks Beating off sunlight.
Now the heart slinks back to the blood And the day starts.
Then the blood asks,
?Who was that lover That thrashed you around last night??
And the heart can't answer.


When he first brought his music into hell He was absurdly confident. Even over the noise of the shapeless fires And the jukebox groaning of the damned Some of them would hear him. In the upper world He had forced the stones to listen.
It wasn't quite the same. And the people he remembered Weren't quite the same either. He began looking at faces Wondering if all of hell were without music.
He tried an old song but pain Was screaming on the jukebox and the bright fire Was pelting away the faces and he heard a voice saying,
    He was at the entrance again And a little three-headed dog was barking at him.
Later he would remember all those dead voices And call them Eurydice.


Then I, a singer and hunter, fished In streams too deep for love.
A god grew there, a god grew there,
A wet and weblike god grew there.
Mella, mella peto In medio flumine.
His flesh is honey and his bones are made Of brown, brown sugar and he is a god.
He is a god.
I know he is a god.
Mella, mella peto In medio flumine.
Drink wine, I sang, drink cold red wine.
Grow liquid, spread yourself.
O bruise yourself, intoxicate yourself,
Dilute yourself.
You want to web the rivers of the world.
You want to glue the tides together with yourself.
You look so innocent —
Water wouldn't melt in your mouth.
I looked and saw him weep a honey tear.
I, Orpheus, had raised a water god That wept a honey tear.
Mella, mella peto In medio flumine.


You, Apollo, have yoked your horse To the wrong sun.
You have picked the wrong flower.
Breaking a branch of impossible Green-stemmed hyacinth You have found thorns and postulated a rose.
Sometimes we were almost like lovers
(As the sun almost touches the earth at sunset)
At touch,
The horse leapt like an ox Into another orbit of roses, roses.
If the moon were made of cold green cheese,
I could call you Diana.
If a knife could peel that rosy rind,
It would find you virgin as a star.
Too hot to move.
This is almost goodbye.
Fool Apollo,
Stick Your extra roses somewhere where they'll keep.
I like your aspiration But the sky's too deep For fornication.


Excerpted from "My Vocabulary Did This to Me"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Estate of Jack Spicer.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction xiii

About This Edition xxvii

I (1945-1956)

Berkeley Renaissance (1945-1950)

Berkeley in Time of Plague 5

A Girl's Song 5

Homosexuality 6

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Landscape 6

An Apocalypse for Three Voices 10

One Night Stand 13

An Answer to Jaime de Angulo 13

A Lecture in Practical Aesthetics 14

Dialogue Between Intellect and Passion 15

A Night in Four Parts (Second Version) 16

Orpheus in Hell 18

Orpheus After Eurydice 19

Orpheus' Song to Apollo 20

Troy Poem 21

"We find the body difficult to speak…" 22

"They are selling the midnight papers…" 22

"Any fool can get into an ocean…" 23

The Scrollwork on the Casket 24

The Dancing Ape 25

Imaginary Elegies (I, II, III) 26

Psychoanalysis: An Elegy 31

Minnesota Poems (1950-1952)

Minneapolis: Indian Summer 37

Watching a TV Boxing Match in October 37

Portrait of an Artist 38

Sonnet for the Beginning of Winter 38

On Reading Last Year's Love Poems 39

Orpheus in Athens 39

Train Song for Gary 40

A Second Train Song for Gary 41

Berkeley / San Francisco (1952-1955)

A Postscript to the Berkeley Renaissance 45

A Poem for Dada Day at The Place, April 1, 1955 46

"The window is a sword…" 47

Imaginary Elegies (IV) 48

New York / Boston (1955-1956)

IInd Phase of the Moon 53

IIIrd Phase of the Moon 53

IVth Phase of the Moon 54

Some Notes on Whitman for Allen Joyce 55

The Day Five Thousand Fish Died Along the Charles River 56

Hibernation-After Morris Graves 56

Éternuement 57

Song for the Great Mother 57

"The city of Boston…" 58

Five Words for Joe Dunn on His Twenty-Second Birthday 58

Birdland, California 60

"Imagine Lucifer…" 61

The Song of the Bird in the Loins 62

Babel 3 63

They Murdered You: An Elegy on the Death of Kenneth Rexroth 64

A Poem to the Reader of the Poem 65

Song for Bird and Myself 69

A Poem Without a Single Bird in It 73

The Unvert Manifesto and Other Papers Found in the Rare Book Room of the Boston Public Library in the Handwriting of Oliver Charming. By S. 74

II (1956-1965)

San Francisco (1956-1965)

Poetry as Magic Workshop Questionnaire 99

After Lorca 105

Admonitions 155

A Book of Music 169

Socrates 179

A Poem for Dada Day at The Place, April 1, 1958 180

Billy the Kid 183

For Steve Jonas Who Is in Jail for Defrauding a Book Club 192

Fifteen False Propositions Against God 193

Letters to James Alexander 203

Apollo Sends Seven Nursery Rhymes to James Alexander 217

A Birthday Poem for Jim (and James) Alexander 223

Imaginary Elegies (V, VI) 230

"Dignity is a part of a man…" 233

Helen: A Revision 235

The Heads of the Town up to the Aether 247

Lament for the Makers 315

A Red Wheelbarrow 323

Three Marxist Essays 328

The Holy Grail 329

Golem 359

Map Poems 365

Language 371

Book of Magazine Verse 403

Chronology 429

Notes to the Poems 437

Bibliography 455

Index of Titles 457

Index of First Lines 461

What People are Saying About This

Ron Silliman

"The book is one of the most important volumes of poetry published in the past 50 years. The poems are simply wonderful, and Spicer's mature work is some of the best ever written by an American."

Nathaniel Mackey

“An epic of irritation by a poet who professed no epic intent, the collected poetry of Jack Spicer is essential reading. Acerbic, wary, aggressive, aggrieved, it rides and puts it own spin on a recovering (would-be recovering) romanticism, a signal travail informing twentieth-century poetics.”

From the Publisher

"The book is one of the most important volumes of poetry published in the past 50 years. The poems are simply wonderful, and Spicer's mature work is some of the best ever written by an American."—Ron Silliman

"An epic of irritation by a poet who professed no epic intent, the collected poetry of Jack Spicer is essential reading. Acerbic, wary, aggressive, aggrieved, it rides and puts it own spin on a recovering (would-be recovering) romanticism, a signal travail informing twentieth-century poetics."—Nathaniel Mackey

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