Yes, there is absence in Spicer’s book—but like anything else in this funhouse hall-of-mirrors it is not exactly what it seems. Spicer absents himself from the space of the book in order to invoke the presence of the dead Spanish poet; yet in so doing, Spicer does not become Lorca’s disciple—much less his medium. Rather, Spicer creates a kind of magic circle in which, as Peter Gizzi notes, “neither writer’s words are more original or more ‘real’ than the other’s. Lorca is no longer the distant predecessor or source for Spicer’s work since in their poem/letters they exist contemporaneously” [The House That Jack Built, 207]. Thus Spicer subverts the expected relationship of “translator” to original, provoking, evoking and taunting, while also reverently imitating. “The intention of the poet,” according to Benjamin, “is spontaneous, primary, graphic; that of the translator is derivative, ultimate, ideational” [Illuminations, 76-77]. In After Lorca, the distinction Benjamin draws becomes blurred and, ultimately, subsumed in the ritual absenting through which Spicer, paradoxically, inhabits the space of the book. Here is the site upon which Spicer founds his project as a writer; he tells us in the third Vancouver Lecture that the practice of dictation began in the middle of writing After Lorca [HJB, 135], and Gizzi notes as well that this is also the beginning of seriality in Spicer’s work [ibid., 207].
If Benjamin’s relevant differentiation between translator and poet doesn’t adhere to the unusually porous text with which Spicer inaugurates his career, then you are right, Kent, that his thinking is prescient in other respects.
Unlike a work of literature, translation does not find itself in the center of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one.
Uncanny, isn’t it, that Zohn’s translation gives us an “outside” to which the site of poetry is apposite. Even more so, that he gives us an “alien” language, which in this context is so suggestive of what Spicer called the “Martian” language of dictation. No, I don’t know whether Spicer read Benjamin before or after 1957; nor do I in the end believe it matters. If After Lorca shows us anything, it’s that Spicer’s writing could be densely appropriative while at the same time retaining/constructing/reinventing itself, or what we might call “the Spicerian,” within the temporality of the serial poem. In this sense, what you identify as tribute to absence in After Lorca seems a consistent thread running through Spicer’s project; Spicer “absents” the writing in order, finally, to occupy it.
In theorizing translation, Benjamin posits an almost Platonic “Pure” language, “the tensionless and even silent depository of the ultimate truth which all thought strives for.” This “Pure language,” according to Benjamin, is “concealed in concentrated fashion in translations” [Illuminations, 77]. Spicer saw language as one of the building blocks in his poetics of dictation, but differentiated it from the “source,” the Outside—which in this context I am tempted to compare to Benjamin’s “Pure language.” Yet if Benjamin’s “tensionless and even silent depository” connotes for me something like this absence of which you speak, I am drawn to yet another signpost on our journey into Spicer. I have looked to Maurice Blanchot in a different consideration of this poet; his view of language continues to haunt my thinking about Spicer.
The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing. He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self.... To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot cease speaking— and since it cannot, in order to become its echo I have, in a way, to silence it. I bring to this incessant speech the decisiveness, the authority of my own silence.
[The Space of Literature, 26-27; ellipsis mine]
Blanchot’s notion of “silence” here strikes me as uncannily parallel to what, referring to Benjamin, you call “absence.” For if the writer, for Blanchot, must become “the echo of what cannot cease speaking,” and do so, paradoxically, through her very silence, then this silence—literally an absence more profound, more haunted, than that which “cannot cease speaking”—rhymes eerily with Spicer’s poetics of dictation. To “make oneself the echo”: to become the transmitter of all those Martian signals.
“We go through the word Forest,”2