A Dying Man Lives With a Dead Girl’s Heart: Visual Essays on Jack Spicer’s The Holy Grail

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore

—– It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, 1965

Almost every morning while walking one of my dogs, I re-listened to Jack Spicer reading The Holy Grail via the recordings on PennSound of the Vancouver Lectures. Then I would re-read the section (or sections) of the poem I was working with that day. In other words, I used the sound of his voice to cover over my reading the text of his poems before assembling each visual essay. This was important to me in my attempts to reach for the impossible or imaginary dialogue rather than the monologue that a reader’s response can sometimes be.

I began assembling these visual essays on The Holy Grail while in the middle of writing a series of (imaginary) essays on Spicer’s Billy The Kid that circled around or under a number of questions including Is writing an essay always elegiac?

Initially, I thought of them as collages that might recover through the visual form who or what is lost in the process of articulation in the written form. But what is collage but a composition that uses de-composed materials? And is this not a situation the ‘critical essay’ shares space with as well? Developed as a possible alternative, collage paradoxically lunged hungrily toward the concerns in the written essays & ran away from them, screaming. All an attempt to contain the escape from answering a question. If it is elegiac, then WHO IS THE ELEGY ACTUALLY FOR?

Now, I think it also has some relation to time —– becoming ‘visual essays’ allows for a static motion as articulation, yes, but they also burst an adherence to linear time that I often get stuck in writing sentence to sentence. The visual essay is (ideally) an all-at-once manifestation of the multitudinous splay of connections that form when I am most lost to reading: associations, correspondences & coincidences of & with other poems, cultural & political histories, personal, social & superstitious histories, etc. And yet they too still lack.

Holes that hide ‘…an argument between the living and the dead…’

It is from an abstract aesthetic in my prior collage practices that I first began these visual essays. More & more, however, my eye would be drawn to figures (particularly when the lines &/or shadows in some part of the image seemed to continue or reflect lines &/or shadows in —– completely unrelated —– others). Because I am always working in a complete & utter mess of a workspace, images cut out and tossed away in rejection would accidentally land on or near other images. Figuration fought to appear so insistently that I had to (somewhat) give in to it. If I thought too much about how my visual essay-as-response should look (what I wanted to see), they were inevitably ‘unsuccessful.’ In other words, I suppose I let the hoo-doo come in.

If, in reading Spicer’s work, my perception is that my particular I is uninvited or unexpected as an audience, then reading his work & feeling the need to respond is complete & utter excess. A complicated mess. The visual-as-essay allows me to investigate this excess, what I cannot fully articulate with words —– why I love the poems & feel compelled to respond to them.


In assembling these visual essays, I used (for the most part) my grandfather’s collection of LIFE magazines (1960-1972) as material. My grandmother gave me these magazines after my grandfather died.

Because of these materials, combined with the poems themselves (and their reflections/correspondences with other poems of Spicer’s, particularly ‘A Textbook of Poetry’), there are a handful of images (or parts from them) that recur more than others —– IMAGICAL REFRAINS.

HANDS first appear in the visual essay of the second section on ‘The Book of Lancelot’ as a homonymic terror —– ‘Waves brushing past the beach as if they wanted to be human / The sailors screaming.’ From there on out in the visual essays, they rarely let go (even in revisions).

Because nearly every issue of LIFE in this time period devotes at least one article to the exploration of space as a new frontier, & because Spicer too incorporates this interest into his work as a whole, images from space —– particularly THE MOON (or, rather, pieces of it) —– constantly make an appearance as landscapes, seascapes, or something more abstract.

POLITICAL VIOLENCE comes in through images found in issues about the deaths and funerals of Martin Luther King, Jr. (used nearly exclusively in ‘The Book of Merlin’), John F. Kennedy, & Lee Harvey Oswald, as well as from articles about the Vietnam War.

Pieces of photographs documenting the restoration of Michelangelo’s Pietà (after being damaged by Laszlo Toth in 1972) also appear throughout (most heavily in ‘The Book of Gwenivere’).

Pieces from the cover image for the December 15, 1967 issue of LIFE (A dying man lives with a dead girl’s heart) are also used in nearly every visual essay composition.