Stephen Vincent writes to Jack Spicer

Stephen Vincent. After Language: Letters to Jack Spicer (BlazeVOX [books] 2011).

After Language is an act of homage that also seeks to take some of Jack Spicer’s interventions into conventional lyric poetics further along the lines he laid out in both his After Lorca & Language, the latter of which had a huge impact on Vincent when it first appeared in 1965, & reached Vincent in Nigeria in 1966. Interestingly, Vincent has just about reversed Spicer’s mix of poetry & prose in After Lorca in his response to Spicer: After Language is mostly prose, the ‘letters’ addressed to Spicer, plus a fascinating ‘A Walk Toward Spicer – An Introduction,’ in which Vincent carries out in prose a central part of his poetics (as demonstrated in his earlier books, Walking (1993) & Walking Theory (2007).

Vincent’s Introduction, then, takes him & his readers ‘toward’ Spicer by carefully denoting the spaces in San Francisco he inhabited & Vincent now walks through, describing both geography & history. Vincent’s descriptions are full & complex perceptions that also metaphorically connect to the life he is slowly gaining ground on, as in this take on the beach at Aquatic Park:

The thin sand beach is partially covered with large gray-and-black stones, remnants from the construction of the sea wall and breakwater. Their odd wet shapes, some full of myriad angles and planes, were once broken apart by steam shovel, sledge hammers, picks. Directly in front of us a number of the stones are precariously balanced, one on one – sometimes there are three – standing end upon end, creating improbable geometric figures, a feather-touch from falling.

He will later introduce the man who creates these fragile figures, & then, as he walks further into the sites of Spicer’s life, the full text will slowly comprehend a similar fragility in that poet, & thus how easily he was broken down.

The Letters follow, & they do something special, for they are both memoir & theoretical poetics, & by filling his prose with aspects of his life, Vincent sidesteps conventional lyric approaches while still achieving something of a lyric memorialization of his life, & of Spicer’s influence on it. It begins with the appearance of that book. Language, in Africa, a book he both loved immediately & could not ‘understand.’ ‘No one – not even my friends – was in a rush to understand or interpret your poem. Though others come to suffer from not listening – whether to poems or anything else – sometimes it is an invisible code that saves us.’ Nigeria was about to descend into civil war, Vincent was in danger, & this book appeared, partly, so it now seems, that many years later he could write a reply to it, & to Spicer.

It is said that on your deathbed in the hospital you claimed it was your “vocabulary” that killed you. Ironically, in Nigeria – at that point about to suffer a major implosion, genocide and more – it was your vocabulary, those poems, those structures, that compelled my attention, that, indeed, saved me.

Thus endeth the first Letter, & thus are we swept into Vincent’s engagement with his own past & with Spicer, his poetry & his life. At the end of each Letter, Vincent lays in a poem, each of which achieves its own Spicer-like obdurateness & obscurity. They do not offer up easy interpretation as one line veers off from another:

That river casual to its lovers
Soft as the concept of nothing
Each listen to the song. The river
Supplies the bent ear. A mountain
Or crush libidinous. One swells
Across another:
What is transparent oil in the Italian glass vase
Bread cuts in a white ceramic cup
What birth that women look for
Direction compels the choir
Blue and transcendent her dress
The song a quadrant
The silver square
Within each ripple.

‘That river’ looks forward to Vincent’s later Letter excavating Spicer’s poem from Language that begins ‘This ocean.’ As he says at one point: ‘While we have, at least, a faint signal – as you and Lorca would have it – I am haunted by wanting to pose several questions.’ And, in a sense, that is what this whole, richly expansive, book does, &, in the posing it also enters into a dialogue with not only Spicer’s work, but many others’ works, & with a number of poetic & artistic traditions. After Language is no simple work of poetry; it is an amalgam of autobiography, biography, criticism & theory, poetics & poetry, all wrapped up in a deeply felt & honest parodic homage. Spicer would have approved.

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