Elegant Uprooted Things: Jack Spicer, California, and Psychoanalysis
When Jack Spicer was three years old, he was taken from his parents’ house in Los Angeles to live with his grandmother in the Midwest. His mother had become pregnant with Spicer’s brother, and it was believed by some that young children should not be exposed to pregnancy. “As an unfortunate result,” biographers Lew Ellingham and Kevin Killian write, “Jack came to feel that he had been expelled from his own family through no fault of his own.” 1
We wouldn’t have access to this history if Ellingham had not interviewed Spicer’s psychiatrist, Harry Z. Coren, who still practices today in San Francisco. Coren was trained in dynamic psychotherapy — before psychiatry was so ridden with physics envy, in Coren’s words. 2 He was younger than Spicer, who began seeing him in the summer of 1964 at a point when he was feeling suicidal, almost exactly a year before he died of alcoholism at the age of forty. Concerning the move away from Los Angeles, Coren remembered that although Spicer thought “the timing somehow wasn’t right, it somehow ties in with this trip with his grandmother. So it may be a sense of having been apart from his mother, either by a real trip, and/or a sense that his brother was filling his space now; he didn’t have much access to his mom.” 3 Buried in the irretrievable facticity of childhood, the uprooting was real, whether geographically or locally enacted; the period is something like a fault line in his biography. “When Spicer reached his thirties, his misery about this expulsion catapulted him into a breakdown and analysis,” Ellingham and Killian note, implying that Spicer had not only attempted therapy ten years before but also that he had narrated this breakdown to Coren.
For someone who publicly joked about therapists and saw them as substitutes for fathers, he kept finding himself in the midst of their draw. Coren noted that Spicer’s wellbeing seemed to improve not long into their weekly meetings, and he even called on him in emergencies. When his job at Stanford changed from part- to full-time and his sessions were rearranged and decreased, Coren remembers that Spicer “had what he called a crisis”:
He had called and wanted to see me and we arranged an emergency session. He was thinking about quitting his job, wasn’t sure whether that was correct, or maybe was some response to the therapy. … At one point he became confused, down there [Stanford in Palo Alto] on campus and wondered what he was doing there, kind of lost touch with himself for a few seconds. He was again feeling suicidal at that point. 4
From various narrative scraps, it is possible to speculate that Spicer exhibited signs of the therapeutic process “working”: there’s evidence of interested entanglement in his inkling that analysis had something to do with panic over his job; some transference in his proudly telling Coren of his achievements in poetry’s social worlds; and a lot of ambivalence, especially toward the end, when Spicer’s resistance became more difficult and overt. It’s impossible to say why his averseness to going peaked at nine months into the process, but even the way he terminated the analysis is informative: he simply didn’t show up. When Coren called the number in Spicer’s file, artist Fran Herndon answered and informed him that Jack had left for Vancouver with no certain return date. 5 Perhaps he cared nothing for the relationship, but perhaps he thought his disappearance would be of no significance to Coren. Absenting appears to have been a reliable — and practiced — mechanism for dealing with relationships: if he didn’t matter enough to be missed, indifference was a portal, and he could find freedom through fugitivity. There also perhaps was a glint of malice in the termination, as Spicer used his sharp edge to provoke people into deeper relation with him — as his infamously oppositional flirtations attest.
Aside from Dr. Coren and the mysterious breakdown, Spicer briefly entered therapy years before as a student at UC Berkeley at the request of Kate Mulholland (of LA’s Mulholland Drive). Mulholland was one of the few romances Spicer had with a woman, and she made the suggestion after a sexual encounter saturated with his shame around his body, sexual inexperience, and sexual orientation. 6 He wrote the poem “Psychoanalysis: An Elegy” around this time. A mesmerizing survey of California lore and landscape, it’s structured as a dialogue between analyst and analysand:
What are you thinking about?
I am thinking of an early summer.
I am thinking of wet hills in the rain
Pouring water. Shedding it
Down empty acres of oak and manzanita
Down to the old green brush tangled in the sun,
Greasewood, sage, and spring mustard.
Or the hot wind coming down from Santa Ana
Driving the hills crazy,
A fast wind with a bit of dust in it
Bruising everything and making the seed sweet.
Or down in the city where the peach trees
Are awkward as young horses,
And there are kites caught on the wires
Up above the street lamps,
And the storm drains are all choked with dead branches.
What are you thinking?
I think that I would like to write a poem that is slow as a summer
As slow getting started
As 4th of July somewhere around the middle of the second stanza
After a lot of unusual rain
California seems long in the summer.
I would like to write a poem as long as California
And as slow as a summer.
Do you get me, Doctor?
It would have to be as slow
As the very tip of summer.
As slow as the summer seems
On a hot day drinking beer outside Riverside
Or standing in the middle of a white-hot road
Between Bakersfield and Hell Waiting for Santa Claus.
What are you thinking now?
I’m thinking that she is very much like California.
When she is still her dress is like a roadmap. Highways
Traveling up and down her skin
Long empty highways
With the moon chasing jackrabbits across them
On hot summer nights.
I am thinking that her body could be California
And I a rich Eastern tourist
Lost somewhere between Hell and Texas
Looking at a map of a long, wet, dancing California
That I have never seen.
Send me some penny picture-postcards, lady,
One of each breast photographed looking
Like curious national monuments,
One of your body sweeping like a three-lane highway
Twenty-seven miles from a night’s lodging
In the world’s oldest hotel.
What are you thinking?
I am thinking of how many times this poem
Will be repeated. How many summers
Will torture California
Until the damned maps burn
Until the mad cartographer
Falls to the ground and possesses
The sweet thick earth from which he has been hiding.
What are you thinking now?
I am thinking that a poem could go on forever.
The speaker begins by performing a somewhat detached free association, daydreaming about the outside world and its geographical terrain. In the second section, he’s still straddling his external and internal world; he’d like to write a poem as slow as getting started, echoing the very circuitous analytic process in which he is engaged. By the time a “she” enters, her presence is more corporeal than erotic: she is stately but he is “lost,” “curious,” and looking at a map he has never seen. By the fourth we’ve gotten somewhere, perhaps to a place of simultaneous recognition and defeat, and the hope that so much repetition will transform or combust, finally ending this deadlock. In the final line, he writes that a poem could go on forever, but it’s easy to imagine “psychoanalysis” in its place, or the questions he knows he repeatedly asks.
Spicer was concerned that therapy might interfere with poetry. His persistent conviction that the poet and the person are separate corresponded with his belief that poetry doesn’t come from the I but is dictated from the outside. 7 Perhaps he thought that delving into what he called the “big lie of the personal” in analysis, or getting too close to subjective experience, would prevent him from corresponding with the unknown, but he occasionally acknowledged that big lie’s hold by entering therapy. He was sickened by the repetition and familiarity of his story, which is a familiar story.
But I am thinking about the potential consequences of keeping poetry and the personal separate; in Robin Blaser’s words, “What killed Jack? Some offer the comfortable explanation that it was booze. But most who knew him well say poetry.” 8 To use “poem” and “analysis” interchangeably in the above elegy is one way to access the outside by thinking poetry and the person together. Because the unconscious is made of the outside, the unknown that speaks to the poet can be possible through the process of analysis without jettisoning one for the other.
Psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas says that the mother is first experienced less as an object than as a process of transformation. Seeking to recreate the experience of this process, the subject will continue to seek the transformational object in adult life “for its function as a signifier of transformation […] the object is pursued in order to surrender to it as a medium that alters the self.” 9 We seek objects that recreate that experience of metamorphosis, and what happens in the therapeutic space can replicate this process. The term “transformation” is almost misleading, though, since it suggests a destination, or a self to be changed into — as if a self is the goal. Here, the desire for transformation isn’t about becoming anything in particular but about being engaged in a process that is ongoing. By simply being together over time in the alchemical ecology of consistency, communication, and recognition, even your repetitions can become bearable. The dead end of your story can begin to aerate. Because someone else can handle the repetitions, because someone can handle you, so can you. You can repeat until a different rhythm emerges.
In analyst J.-B. Pontalis’ words, “When words fail, it is because, without realizing it, one is about to touch a different earth.”
When I moved to Oakland from Tucson in June, my therapist and I decided to have four sessions over the phone while I looked for someone in the Bay Area. Many patients do long-distance therapy but we agreed it was best conducted in person. She mentioned that the field is still unsure about using Skype, and I’d been reading Gillian Isaacs Russell’s Screen Relations, a descriptive project about the difference between screen-bound and co-present psychotherapy. Throughout the podcast episode in which Isaacs Russell discusses the book, her voice is haloed by what is at first a barely perceptible echo; by the end of the interview, static like a rumpling paper bag seeps into the call. She isn’t aware of the glitch, so the interviewer interrupts her to say, “Uh oh, I think we’re having a technological problem, hold on — ” Isaacs Russell confirms she can’t hear it and the audibility gets worse, begins to sound like an experimental performance piece. The interference then ceases to be something in the atmosphere of the call and becomes entirely channeled through Isaacs Russell’s voice. With a bass-heavy trill, she asks, “Do you hear a noise?” alternately a victim of what is happening and a sinister schoolteacher giving an object lesson.
Belief in the interchangeability of videocalls and in-person sessions is what Isaacs Russell calls the myth of functional equivalence. For video in particular, her concern is the loss of a shared environment, which D. W. Winnicott emphasized as a basic requirement of analysis. Setting, for Winnicott, was crucial and precise:
This work was to be done in a room, not a passage, a room that was quiet and not liable to sudden unpredictable sounds, yet not dead quiet and not free from ordinary house noises. The room would be lit properly, not by a light staring in the face, and not by a variable light. The room would certainly not be dark and it would be comfortably warm. 10
On video the patient can call from a salon, a pool deck, or the back of an Uber; the patient is responsible for creating their own environment rather than entering into a physical holding space provided by the analyst. One also doesn’t really ever meet a conversant’s eyes; in looking at their face one appears to be looking away. What confrontationally materializes on video is your own appearance, whereas in person your image appears only as a fantasy, or proprioceptively.
Isaacs Russell is concerned with how “intimacy is affected by radically altering the balance between implicit non-verbal communications and the explicit verbal.” Maybe no words can approximate calm, reliable eye contact or the sensation of the invisible web between two or more bodies. Eve Sedgwick and her therapist used to share the same footrest; the aesthetic of socked feet already does something, not to mention the level of ease implied in the sharing. But silences aren’t as easy in the context of the telephone, social media, or text-based communication either. In digitally-mediated space silence can feel like an absence to be filled with assumption, overidentification, insecurity, or whatever your issues are. Are you (t)here, are we in the same space, are you there when you’re not speaking?
I am thinking about digital communication because it makes up such a large percentage of the way people interact today — for some it makes up the majority. My point is not that these forms invented interference, nor that their misfires are equivalent to those in co-presence, but that they bring into sharp relief the effects of miscommunication in general. In thinking about what is at stake in communicating or not, I’m reminded of Judith Butler’s statement that “communication is both the vehicle and example of recognition.” 11 Spicer’s struggle with this sequence is evident in his poetry, and he seems to have taken apart the former in order to figure something out about the latter — as if he could just figure out how communication worked he could get closer to recognition. In Language (1963–1965), his serial poem that breaks down communication into its smallest functional units (i.e. phonemes, graphemes, morphemes, intermissions), he opens with “No one listens to poetry.” Many poems later, he is still exploring dis/connection:
On the tele-phone (distant sound) you sounded no distant than
if you were talking to me in San Francisco on the telephone
or in a bar or in a room. Long
Distance calls. They break sound
Into electrical impulses and put it back again. Like the long
telesexual route to the brain or the even longer teleerotic
route to the heart. The numbers dialed badly, the
consisted of sounds that I had
To route to phonemes, then to bound and free morphemes, then
to syntactic structures. Telekinesis
Would not have been possible even if we were sitting at the
same table. Long
Distance calls your father, your mother, your friend, your
lover. The lips
Are never quite as far away as when you kiss.
An electric system.
“Gk. ήλέκτρον, amber, also shining metal; allied to
Again, to varying degrees, relations are already long distance. When you’re near, someone can still obviate you by not responding to you; mirroring can break down when someone gives up a commitment to the liveness of relating; and for whatever reasons, you can just miss each other entirely. What makes the -phone, -sexual, and -erotic so “tele-,” or far?
Robin Blaser wrote that “the serial poem is often like a series of rooms where the lights go on and off,” and in many of Spicer’s rooms, the walls glimmer with the trope of the mirror. His poetry is structured by the need to reflect and be reflected by another and identity that is constituted by what representation of itself it is offered. Sometimes the mirror is invoked as an accusation that he wants to simultaneously prove and disband: like, not only do you not listen, but you do not see. At other times, mirrors are more enigmatic or synonymous with longing.
When you rush bravely against the mirror shouting “This is also my universe” you are likely merely to get a bloody nose. That surface has no patience with violence. Even as these letters are our mirrors and we imprisoned singly in the depths of them. . . . Mirror breaker! I simply do not have the patience merely to let the mirror dissolve. I keep tapping my hand on it. Help me!
(“Letters to James Alexander” [1958–1959])
I died again and was reborn last night
That is the way with we mirror people
Forgive me, I am a child of the mirror and not a child of
(“Apollo Sends Seven Nursery Rhymes to James Alexander” )
One of his unpublished and undated short stories at the UC Berkeley archives may offer insight into his experience of communication and recognition at a young age. Written in his elegant cursive on a single notebook page, the story is a fictionalized account of a boy who grew up in, and eventually left, Los Angeles.
This is the story of a boy who wanted to be a king. There is a signal difference between this and other stories for the boy who wanted to be a king was born in Los Angeles. There are many other things that one can choose to be in Los Angeles. One could be a movie merchant prince and live in a house that is richer and more resplendant [sic] than all the dreams of the Medici. One could be a leader of men, and shake the foundations of the state and frighten the more timid bankers with a new political movement. One could be a new, triumphant prophet and with some wild, weird heresy sweep the city like a new Mohammed. One could do all these wonderful things but there was one role one could never assume. One could never be the king of California.
They told the boy this. His father and mother asserted this, the announcers on the radio shouted this, and every day the teachers in his high-school would write it in bold letters on the blackboard. And yet the boy still desired to be king and would only raise his noble, stubborn chin when they denied his dream.
One day his parents sent the boy to a psychiatrist to cure him of his delusion. The psychiatrist probed his dreams, but the boy dreamed only of scepters and ermine. The psychiatrist mentioned an Oedipus complex and the boy told him that Oedipus was also a king. Finally the psychiatrist asked him why he only wanted to be the king of California, why not of the United States, or even of the world. The boy stared at him. “Because California is my land,” he answered. It was obvious, the psychiatrist later told his parents, that the shape of California was a subconscious phallic symbol. The boy remained uncured.
It would not have been so tragic if the boy had not been beautiful. He might have had a screen-test, he might have been sent to Harvard, but one bright spring morning he left his home, his parents, and Los Angeles and went out in search of his Kingdom. 12
Everyone the boy encounters denies the plausibility of his aspirations, going so far as to send him to a psychiatrist for correction. Other traces of misrecognition can be found in the archives as well, from teachers’ comments on his excellent college essays to bold red corrections made to his singular use of imagery in high school poems.
Being mis-seen by his family seemed to characterize his experience of family life. It’s not possible to say why exactly Spicer vehemently dissociated from them, but he did so completely that “many thought him an orphan. He made it clear he didn’t appreciate questions about ‘home,’ only about ‘California.'”13 He embellished and replaced histories so extensively that no one knew the degree to which his claims were true (Was his father really a Wobbly? Was he part Blackfoot Indian?); many were under the impression that his parents were “degenerates” and “professional bridge players.” 14 Misrecognitions are features of even small fragments of his biography. For instance, when Spicer died in 1965, his mother and brother came to the Bay Area in hopes of meeting his friends, and Blaser recalls that they were just going to cremate him and “it was going to be the end”:
There was no funeral, there was nothing, but they’d like to meet his friends and of course they thought he has two — me and maybe somebody they’d never heard of. He had hundreds. People canceled everything — my house filled — you couldn’t walk down the hallway, you fell over buckets of roses. There were drawings, there were books… 15
Spicer had so thoroughly disconnected from his family by this time that they might not have seen it within their reach to plan a funeral. But the assumption embedded in his family’s approach is a curious underestimation. Under these conditions it makes sense why “the personal” and “the fix” would be equivalent: one’s image is frozen by others and thus to the self like a stop-action photograph. In the same conversation with Blaser, interviewer Warren Tallman makes a bizarre request:
Warren: Robin, do something desperate, do something desperate: criticize Jack.
Robin: I don’t, alright? I don’t need to do that in the sense that Jack…
Warren: What were his failures?
Robin: I don’t think we have to — failures? I don’t think he made failures in the sense that — I can talk about my own failures in recognition that were part of the San Francisco thing, which is to reduce the poem to the personal, repeatedly — which is to say that one always reduces the other man to his limit and as a consequence you do not see the work into which he has given himself. This is one of the greatest curses of that poetics coming out of San Francisco, which Jack tried to break and which I have tried to break in my own terms, and I learned it from Jack…
Blaser goes on to say that Robert Duncan was the one who most reduced him personally, as Duncan “proposes to me a future in language at the same time that he will keep me as a tiny boy that he met in 1945 […] He makes me a dead man when I meet him personally […] you are dead because the recognition of you has not been continuous. […] The curiosity about Jack was that the companionship with Jack never died that way.” 16 What is incredible about this is that Spicer was able to convert his experience of being mis-seen into a miraculous capacity for opening up. Perhaps it was because his “perception is terrifying” and his “assurance in recognition [of others] was absolute” that the absence of someone to reciprocate made such a lasting mark. 17
For my first phone session, I was standing in a starflower garden saying I’m glad to be here but it’s not cool to be eager. I’d lived in the Bay for a week and felt like my life should be set up — something that can take years or decades, if ever, to achieve. “People are only intimidating because they’re in their lives, and anyone who moves somewhere new is in a greater position of need,” she said. She reminded me that lots of people never leave the towns they grow up in, much less across the country without support, and this is to say nothing of transnational or forced relocation. Moving exposes you to need almost primally. You can’t take much for granted when you’re without the resources that indirectly accumulate over time. Moving separates you from the setting that made your life possible or impossible but to which you are still attached. And in being cut from your context you can forget entirely who you are or if you matter. No one should underestimate how profound it is to be uprooted and how profound it is to refuse to move, which is to acknowledge the importance of being embedded and the fact that your life is made possible by that embedding.
It’s not that common to think about moving this way, though, especially in a place that emanates the values of portability, innovation, and flexibility like the Bay Area. Moving is as much an “adventure” as it is a completely unremarkable fact of contemporary life. Like, you moved for your job? Just integrate. You got evicted? Just move somewhere else. People warned me about the particular brand of positive detachment known as “West Coast chill,” but then I got here and saw that people on social media were actually levitating. I told a friend about this and he confirmed: Joyce S. Lee’s Defying Gravity (2016) is a book entirely composed of screenshots from men midair on Tinder — skydiving, hovering in their studios via special effects, or just jumping for the camera at a tourist vista. The California ethos is like I’m so light and positive that I’m weightless, and not only do I have no baggage but I’m not even touching the ground.
Meanwhile, for Spicer —
The ground still squirming. The ground still not as fixed as I
thought it would be in an adult world.
When Bollas talks about the transformational object, he’s not just saying that most of us seek to make a home within live relation, but that when someone seems fundamentally or obsessively structured by that search, it is “not only a quest for an idealized object. It also constitutes some recognition in the subject of a deficiency in ego experience” — what Michael Balint calls the “basic fault.” For Bollas, “the failure of the mother to maintain provision of the facilitating environment, through prolonged absence or bad handling, can evoke ego collapse and psychic pain.”
If Spicer’s sudden move away from his context in LA to the Midwest was as formative as the biography suggests, it raises the point that one deracination can render a lifetime of displacement. It’s not that one is then determined by a past event, but that “it may be that a single torment, always the same, displaced, misunderstood, is at the heart of all our torments, that everything which has some effect on us has one cause only.” 18 Contrary to the constant turnover of capital, analysis or therapy imparts you to remember when remembering can be a drag. It forces you to keep remembering that you have and everybody else has a history that’s not easily escaped or outwitted, that your history and your self have to be treated on their own terms, and that change is hard won. But analysis — again, a collaborative way of staying with repetition — doesn’t have to be a reduction. It can serve as practice for how to repeat without reducing in the everyday.
Spicer created a holding environment through his poetry that in some ways Spicer the person would never enter. His serial poems were always to be considered contextually and not alone, thus functioning like the seriality of relation. His poems recreated the experience of being engaged in a process with the transformational object. And the ultimate result of this practice of construction was to create what Blaser called “public love.” It is in spite of his faultline — or rather because of it — that Spicer is one of the best examples of loving with lack. To love, as Lacan reminds us, is to give what one does not have; or as Jaques Alain-Miller adds to Lacan, “to love is to recognize your lack and give it to the other.” 19
When the interviewers asked how Spicer “came to grips with his own power,” Blaser’s response was that he never did. In a way, Blaser offered a counterpoint to his own answer, though: Spicer could have come to grips with his own power, but his particular power went unrecognized, down to the moment of the interview itself:
Robin: Well, I find he didn’t. He tried.
Warren: He was such a mild man.
Robin: What he did was — he was so much the lover…
George: But he was a powerful [unintelligible]…
Robin: Honey do you know what it means to be a lover? That is pure power, man. Power like Robert Duncan will never have.
George: There must be a feeling that you wish, if you are a lover, that you could wipe it off or something.
Robin: Jack said that if you empty yourself out, something — what you call the unknown — will speak through you, to you, so that you begin to be the voice of that which you love. Jack knows… that magnificent point at which the lover is nothing other than the self, that is, you are in the act of what you love, and Jack loses himself and winds up in the action of what he is which makes him among the greatest poets. And I have no idea what will happen to the rest of us. 20
Special thanks to Kevin Killian for his assistance in securing permissions and providing materials (and insight) for this essay.
- Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, Poet Be Like God (Hanover: Wesleyan, 1998), 3.
- Personal correspondence with Coren, 29 September 2016.
- Ellingham and Killian, Poet Be Like God, 3.
- Ibid 293.
- Ibid 297.
- Ibid 27.
- Robin Blaser, "The Practice of Outside," in The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, ed. Robin Blaser (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1999).
- Ibid 287–288.
- Christopher Bollas. 1987. The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Unknown. Columbia University Press: New York.
- D.W. Winnicott, "Metapsychological and clinical aspects of regression within the psycho-analytical set-up," in Reading Winnicott, ed. Lesley Caldwell and Angela Joyce (London: Routledge, 2011).
- Judith Butler, "Longing for Recognition: Commentary on the work of Jessica Benjamin," Studies in Gender and Sexuality 1 (3): 271–290. 2000.
- Boy King of California, Jack Spicer Papers, 1939-1982, BANC MSS 2004/209, Box 20, Folder 1. © UC Regents, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
- Ellingham and Killian, Poet Be Like God, 8.
- Ibid 9.
- Blaser, The Astonishment Tapes, 66.
- Ibid 68–72.
- Blaser quoted in Ellingham and Killian, 326; Blaser, The Astonishment Tapes 63.
- J.-B. Pontalis, Love of Beginnings (London: Free Association Books, 1993), 1.
- Jacques-Alain Miller, "On Love," Lacan.com. http://www.lacan.com/symptom/?page_id=263
- Blaser, The Astonishment Tapes, 72.