After Lorca
by Jack Spicer (1957)
NYRB/Poets (2021)
66 pp

When I sat down to read Jack Spicer’s After Lorca, recently released by NYRB/Poets, I was completely ignorant as to its contents. I didn’t know Jack Spicer. I knew little about Lorca. I just sat down to see what there was. What I found was one of the most exciting books of poetry I’ve read in years. There is much going on in Spicer’s After Lorca. There’s the poetry, yes, and it’s some kind of amalgamation of Spicer’s “translations” of Lorca’s poems alongside Spicer’s own work — with no indication where one begins and the other ends. It also offers, in the form of letters from Spicer to Lorca, a brief treatise on poetry itself. And it’s a transcendent — and playful — correspondence with the dead, in particularly with another poet who died over two decades prior.

The poet Federico García Lorca was murdered in 1936, so my first surprise was seeing that After Lorca, published in 1957, began with an introduction by him. Lorca expressed surprise as well!

Frankly I was quite surprised when Mr. Spicer asked me to write an introduction to this volume. My reaction to the manuscript he sent me (and to the series of letters that are now a part of it) was and is fundamentally unsympathetic.

As fun as I think that is — and I suffered an abundance of delight while reading Lorca’s introduction — Spicer is doing more than mere playfulness in After Lorca. The collection is a continuation, on a human and spiritual level, of Lorca’s work, while belonging entirely to Spicer as well. As the ghost of Lorca states in his introduction:

In even the most literal of them Mr. Spicer seems to derive pleasure in inserting or substituting one or two words which completely change the mood and often the meaning of the poem as I had written it. More often he takes one of my poems and adjoins to half of it another of his own, giving rather the effect of an unwilling centaur. (Modesty forbids me to speculate which end of the animal is mine.)

Let me show you an example of a poem that is only slightly transformed by Lorca’s “translation.” My apologies to readers who do not read Spanish, but I think the best way to do this is to have Lorca’s original next to Spicer’s. Note that Lorca simply says “Narcissus” while Spicer adds “Poor” out of nowhere.

Narciso — Amor (Canciones 1921 – 1924)

Narciso.
Tu olor.
Y el fondo del río.

Quiero quedarme a tu vera.
Flor del amor.
Narciso.

Por tus blancos ojos cruzan
ondas y peces dormidos.
Pájaros y mariposas
japonizan en los míos.

Tú diminuto y yo grande.
Flor del amor.
Narciso.

Las ranas, ¡qué listas son!
Pero no dejan tranquilo
el espejo en que se miran
tu delirio y mi delirio.

Narciso.
Mi dolor.
Y mi dolor mismo.

Narcissus (A Translation for Basil King)

Poor Narcissus
Your dim fragrance
And the dim heart of the river

I want to stay at your edge
Flower of love
Poor Narcissus

Ripples and sleeping fish
Cross your white eyes
Songbirds and butterflies
Japanese mine

I so tall beside you
Flower of love
Poor Narcissus

How wide-awake the frogs are
They won’t stay out of the surface
In which your madness and my madness
Mirrors itself

Poor Narcissus
My sorrow
Self of my sorrow.

I love the playful transformations going on here. I love how Spicer comments on Lorca, and, in a way, Lorca comments on Spicer. It’s rather intense. And this is among the least affected poems.

Accompanying the poems are letters from Spicer to Lorca. Lorca does not respond to these, other than to say this in his introduction:

The letters are another problem. When Mr. Spicer began sending them to me a few months ago, I recognized immediately the “programmatic letter” — the letter one poet writes to another not in any effort to communicate with him, but rather as a young man whispers his secrets to a scarecrow, knowing that his young lady is in the distance listening. The young lady in this case may be a Muse, but the scarecrow nevertheless quite naturally resents the confidences. The reader, who is not a party to this singular tryst, may be amused by what he overhears.

Yep! But, again, not merely amused. I was enlightened and inspired. Spicer’s letters are thoughtful reflections on what he is attempting to do with poetry, coming to the conclusion in one that “Prose invents — poetry discloses,” noting in another how much he would like his poem to have a real lemon in it and not just an image. And I love this passage where he somehow quickly, if maybe irreverently, shows how beauty is not all on the surface when it comes to poetry:

Some poems are easily laid. They will give themselves to anybody and anybody physically capable can receive them. They may be beautiful (we have both written some that were) but they are meretricious. From the moment of their conception they inform us in a dulcet voice that, thank you, they can take care of themselves. I swear that if one of them were hidden beneath my carpet, it would shout out and seduce somebody. The quiet poems are what I worry about — the ones that must be seduced. They could travel about with me for years and no one would notice them. And yet, properly wed, they are more beautiful than their whorish cousins.

Spicer himself died in 1965 at the age of 40. Apparently his last words were, “My vocabulary did this to me.” I’m glad to see that, though he died young and relatively unknown, quite a bit of his work is available (including a volume of his collected poetry that won the American Book Award in 2009). I want to get to know him better, see what else he has to say to me this many years after his death.

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