In the fall of 1947, Phil Dick, a young man who lived with his mother in Berkeley, California, decided to leave home. He wasn’t quite nineteen years old. He later said that when he told her he was moving out, his mother threatened to call the police. He asked her why she would do this. “Because,” she replied, “if you move out and leave me, you’ll wind up a homosexual.”
Philip K. Dick’s biographer, Lawrence Sutin, notes that Dorothy Dick was probably even more upset when her son revealed where he was moving to. The bohemian accommodations on McKinley Street in Berkeley, California (a floor of a warehouse converted to rooms) would certainly have given her pause, but she would have been aghast had she known who her son was living with—in Sutin’s words, “some of the most notable young gay artists on the Berkeley scene,” including the poets Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer.
A year or two before either he or Dick moved to McKinley Street, Spicer, taking classes at the University of California and working now and then as a private detective, wrote a poem called “Homosexuality.” Ron Silliman recently noted that “when Spicer wrote this poem, the number of male American poets out of the closet consisted of Robert Duncan.” Dorothy Dick’s fears were hardly out of the ordinary among Americans at the time.
Dick’s own fears would soon have a marked effect on his life. He enjoyed his time at McKinley Street and, under Duncan and Spicer’s tutelage, cut back on reading science fiction in favor of literary classics. Dick was working at University Radio & Electronics at the time, and he provided hours of entertainment for the other boarders at McKinley Street with a disk recorder, capturing poems and songs and joking moments on shellac records. And according to Spicer’s biographers, Robert Duncan later told the poet Thom Gunn that Dick once stepped into Duncan’s room and suddenly masturbated in front of him.
In early 1948, Phil told Vince Lusby, a co-worker at the record store, that he wanted to move out of McKinley Street. He was a virgin and he feared he was becoming a homosexual. Lusby pointed out that Dick had somewhat different taste in books from the gay men he lived with, but this didn’t calm Dick’s fears. “At that time,” Lusby told Sutin, “we had some rather peculiar ideas about homosexuality.” Lusby convinced Dick that what he needed to cure him of his possible gay bent was “a good piece of ass”—female ass, that is.
Thus, to get this “good piece of ass” and put to rest his fears, Phil married Jeanette Marlin, a customer at the record shop whom Lusby knew. The marriage lasted six months—it was his first of five—and Dick would seldom speak of it during his life.
Their time at McKinley Street was important to both Dick and Spicer, in various ways, though it is obviously little more than an anecdote in their biographies. I find myself imagining and re-imagining that time, however, because it was a moment when two American writers, ostensibly different but at heart surprisingly similar, shared space and ideas.
Spicer’s biographers, Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, note that in the 1960s, the young writer Larry Kearney gave Spicer a copy of one of Dick’s novels, and Spicer replied (“bashfully”), “I know Phil Dick!” Ellingham and Killian say the novel was Counter Clockwise World, but no such novel exists, and Dick’s Counter-clock World appeared after Spicer’s death; the scene they describe, of a hot dog stand disappearing and being replaced with a slip of paper reading “hot dog stand,” is from Time Out of Joint, published in 1959. Despite their mistakes about which novel Spicer was given as a gift, Ellingham and Killian are entirely correct in noting the affinity between Dick’s books and Spicer’s poetry.
In his afterword to The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, Peter Gizzi notes that Spicer’s poetry now seems even more relevant than it did when it was written, because “the future . . . has finally caught up with the dark vision of his poems, which in his time must have often seemed odd, anachronistic, paranoid . . .” Similar things have been said by critics trying to explain why Philip K. Dick became so much more popular and influential in the years after his death than he had been while he was alive (although Dick attained a level of recognition and reward while he was alive that Spicer hasn’t achieved even now). Gizzi writes that the “degraded future articulated in his poems” is one “where computer stands in for God, silicon inhabits the heart, politics are informed by bombs, popular consciousness is preoccupied by outer space, the death of the author is an accepted trope of literary practice, and the social matric of nation and community has collapsed into slums under the bosses of multinational self-interest.” That “degraded future” is one familiar to Philip K. Dick’s readers as well as Spicer’s.
Dick’s major novels have been back in print for more than a decade now, many of them were collected in two volumes from the Library of America, and just about all of his minor works have also been restored to print. When I started reading Dick, though, this wasn’t the case. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was the only easy-to-find novel, since it had been made into the movie Blade Runner. Now and then, over a period of about five years, I found copies of Martian Time-Slip, The Man in the High Castle, Time Out of Joint, Solar Lottery, Radio Free Albumuth, Dr. Bloodmoney, the short story collection I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon, and a British edition of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. As frustrating as it was to know there were other Dick books out there—I ached to find a copy of A Scanner Darkly and VALIS, which I’d read various references to—it was also exciting, in those pre-Amazon.com days, to be on the hunt. Individual books possessed more magic for me then, as a young reader, than they do for me now in my more jaded and experienced adulthood, and the difficulty of tracking down certain books only added to their power.
Spicer’s work was difficult to find even when he was alive—much of it was barely distributed outside the Berkeley area. I discovered him much later than I discovered Philip K. Dick. I had read him in various anthologies, but had not paid much attention to his work until I read Alexander Irvine’s novel One King, One Soldier, in which Spicer is a character. I enjoyed the novel and wanted to know more, so I sought out Spicer’s Collected Books, but even in these post-Amazon.com days, copies are not easy to find, having been out of print for some time. God bless libraries. Once I got my hands on it, I devoured Spicer’s poetry—though his work in many ways denies the reader easy access to its meaning or purpose, the poems possess an energy and power that is likely apparent even to readers who demand that poetry be “accessible.”
At the end of last year, Wesleyan University Press published My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian. It reprints not only everything in The Collected Books, but also much else. It is just about my favorite book from 2008, a book I read through with the same sort of delight I used to read Philip K. Dick’s novels—a delight bred from the wonder of discovery and surprise, of having the world inside my mind jostled, juggled, and reconfigured.
It is difficult to describe Spicer’s poetry, and offering a sample of it poses nearly insurmountable challenges, because Spicer’s most mature works are all serial poems (hence, the title of the original Collected Books). Here, though, is a poem in the posthumously published Book of Magazine Verse, which included poems labeled as “for” various magazines and newspapers (The Nation, Poetry, The St. Louis Sporting News), though none actually were published in those venues. This is the first of “Four Poems for Ramparts“:
Get those words out of your mouth and into your heart. If there isn’t
A God don’t believe in Him. “Credo
Quia absurdum,” creates wars and pointless loves and was even in Tertullian’s time a heresy. I
see him like a tortoise creeping through a vast desert of unbelief.
“The shadows of love are not the shadows of God.”
This is the second heresy created by the first Piltdown man in Plato’s cave. Either
The fire casts a shadow or it doesn’t.
Red balloons, orange balloons, purple balloons all cast off together into a raining sky.
The sky where men weep for men. And above the sky a moon or an astronaut smiles on
for God or man transformed to distance.
This is the third heresy. Dante
Was the first writer of science-fiction. Beatrice
Shimmering in infinite space.
It’s unlikely that Phil Dick ever read Spicer’s mature poems, but part of me thinks he might have liked this one in particular. “And above the sky a moon or an astronaut smiles on television,” sounds like something out of one of his books, and perhaps he would have been tickled by the idea of Dante as the first SF writer, and perhaps he would have imagined himself, as I have imagined him, out there “shimmering in infinite space” with Dante’s Beatrice and also with Jack Spicer, who might himself have smiled at the idea had he had the chance to show his old friend Phil this poem and some of his others. The two men could have had a fine chat later in life, especially if Spicer had not drunk himself into death at age 40. Had he lived into the ’70s, Spicer could have shared his idea of “the Outside” with Dick, whose own idea of the “Vast Active Living Intelligence System” was its cousin. They could remember back to the days on McKinley Street when they were just ambitious kids wondering who they really were and hoping to make some mark on the world, hoping that life might allow them some interesting turns. Perhaps they would chuckle at that idea and smile and say, simultaneously I’m sure: “Careful what you wish for!”
And then they would have said goodbye, maybe with a friendly hug, and promised to keep in better touch, though both knew they would fail at that, and they would have headed their separate ways, into the history of the peculiar America they both chronicled so well.