“Addressed to No One”:
Reading Jack Spicer’s After Lorca

by Mark DuCharme & Kent Johnson

Dear Kent,

    Why was I born among mirrors?
    The day walks in circles around me,
    and the night copies me
    in all its stars.

[Selected Poems, 63]

I am drawn toward a continuum of mirroring & defacement, as one entrace into our conversation about Jack Spicer’s After Lorca.  Mirroring: to produce a corollary, a copy, to create a “mere” photographic representation.  Or an equal & complementary measure.  To reflect—but NECESSARILY to falsify, to corrupt; just as a mirror reverses the image of the subject/object [positions] before it. Mirror as both object and subject—playing an active role in the CREATION of the subject’s image of herself.  And defacement, then, as that representation of herself which the subject violently rejects. Negation towards iconoclasm. (S. Howe: “Eikonoklastes can be translated as ‘Image Smasher’” [The Nonconformist’s Memorial, 48]).

To mirror fundamentally implicates a doubling: an “empty” image, alongside its (corporeal?) original. Clearly, Spicer’s text doubles back upon Lorca’s original, while also twisting it, provoking it.  Lorca himself seems (oddly) to anticipate this direction, in the translation (by W.S. Merwin) quoted above.  (The New Directions edition, edited by the poet’s brother Francisco along with Donald M. Allen of The New American Poetry fame, was originally published in 1955—two years before the White Rabbit Press publication of After Lorca).

Let’s look at one Lorca “original” against the Spicer version. Unlike you, Kent, I don’t have Spanish, so I will be looking at the Lorca in the New Directions edition, as Spicer might have. The translation here is also by Merwin.


    I want the water reft from its bed,
    I want the wind left without valleys.

    I want the night left without eyes
    and my heart without the flower of gold.

    And the oxen to speak with great leaves
    and the earthworm to perish of shadow.

    And the teeth of the skull to glisten
    and the yellows to overflow the silk.

    I can see the duel of the wounded night
    writhing in battle with noon.

    I resist a setting of green venom
    and the broken arches where time suffers.

    But do not illumine your clear nude
    like a black cactus open in the reeds.

    Leave me in an anguish of dark planets,
    but do not show me your cool waist.

    [Selected Poems, 159]

Now here is Spicer’s version:

         A Translation for Joe Laseur

    I want the river lost from its bed
    I want the wind lost from it valleys

    I want the night to be there without eyes
    And my heart without the golden flower

    So that the oxen talk with big leaves
    And the earthworm is dead of shadow

    So that the trees of the skull glisten
    And the yellows give a complete color to silk.

    I can look at the agony of wounded night
    Struggling, twisted up against noontime

    I can stand all the sunsets of green poison
    And the wornout rainbows that time suffers

    But don’t make your clean body too visible
    Like a black cactus opened out among rushes

    Let me go in an anguish of star clusters
    Lose me. But don’t show me that cool flesh.

    [After Lorca, 36]

Without even going to the trouble of presenting a “reading” of these two, a few observations are immediately in order. Though there is a remarkable, line-by-line similarity in terms of the content and, often, the vocabulary, Merwin’s, with its “setting of green venom,” “duel of the wounded night,” etc., strikes me as affecting an awkward, almost faux-“literary” tone which (compared to other translations of Lorca I’ve read, e.g. Paul Blackburn’s) seems inappropriate. Spicer’s version, by contrast, is dead-on—but is it dead-on as a translation of Lorca, or dead-on as Jack Spicer? Placing the two side by side (and assuming Merwin’s to be at least fairly accurate), Spicer here seems almost touchingly faithful.  What I’m saying—and of course this is something that Clayton Eshleman, in his touchstone essay on Spicer, “The Lorca Working,” pointed out long ago—is that After Lorca, for contemporary sensibilities at least, stops far short of the pure “defacement” I refer to at the beginning of this letter.  Yet perhaps a more rigorous defacement lurks just below the surface(?)—

                       “The mirror submerges everything
                       In a great spurt of shadow”