Jack Spicer’s death certificate. “Easy on squeezing/ Frost off the pumpkin/ J. Spicer fecit/ Man, but don’t break it.”

Those of you who are my friends on Facebook will know this part already, but last month an e-mail arrived from Stephanie Elliott, the indefatigable press liaison for Wesleyan University Press, where Lew Ellingham and I published our biography of the American poet Jack Spicer (1925-1965).  Later the same press issued the edition Peter Gizzi and I made of Spicer’s collected poems, My Vocabulary Did This to Me (1998).  (By the way Wesleyan has also authorized a reprint of Spicer’s 1962 volume The Holy Grail by a Portland, Oregon-based small press called Poor Claudia: not a facsimile edition by any means yet a handsome little book all on its own, especially for those who like every poem by Spicer’s on a different page!  Go for it, Poor Claudia.)

Stephanie forwarded a note from a fellow she had met while manning the Wesleyan table at a book convention; he had asked her about Spicer and where he is buried.  This man, Walter Skold, seemed to have it all going on, especially his interest in the gravesites of poets, a subject close to my heart.  I hardly know why, something Catholic in my blood I assume, or somehow connected to seeing that eternal flame of JFK at Arlington at too impressionable an age, but I remember so many trips to cemeteries over the years where I would pay my respects to the great artists I had either known or missed knowing.  I'm from Long Island where Frank O’Hara is buried, so that was cool, whenever any teen friends would say, "I’m bored, want to do something,” I could always explain that twenty miles down the south shore we could see not only Frank O’Hara’s grave but Jackson Pollock’s too, and based on their reaction I would know whether or not they were the right type of person I wanted to have sex with....   I’m not systematic by any means—so many graves I’ve missed, but this Walter Skold, who lives in Maine, isn’t missing any, preparing for a Western swing on his project to round up people who will read from the poet’s work at their gravesite while filming them for some sort of “Poetry in Motion”-esque documentary—well, not in motion per se, in fact whatever the opposite of “in motion” may be to you.  I wrote back to Skold and explained that Lew and I had never been able to pin down Spicer’s gravesite.  What was known is that he had died in San Francisco in the poverty ward of General, and that his body’d been cremated at a now-defunct crematorium at #1 Church Street (behind the Safeway, and now a large building of what look like luxury condos).  (Can you imagine, living in a condo that was once a crematorium?!)  And then, we had been told, the ashes were taken and buried in a common grave—what used to be known as a pauper’s grave.  It was all sort of ironic, that Spicer’s ashes were no more to be found than the body of his hero, Federico Garcia Lorca, similarly buried in a mass grave—but didn’t they find Lorca’s body recently?

Mr, Skold suggested that he in fact had found Spicer’s gravesite and that the details are all on the indispensable “Find-a-Grave” site.  What!  If that was the case how had I missed it?  I love “Find-A -Grave” for everywhere you go, you can consult “Find-A-Grave” and it will tell you who is buried there.  In the space of a few months in 2013 I had used it to discover that Erskine Caldwell is buried in Ashland, that Carl Sagan is buried in Ithaca, and Lovecraft in Providence. (Because I was going to all these cities and wanted to do something touristy in each.)  “Find-a-Grave” tells you where, how to get in to the place, what row these people are in and how many plots down from the fence, etc!  But there was the listing for Spicer, apparently entered back in June 2013, by a cemetery fan who walks this cemetery trying to find out who is buried here. Eddie Fisher is here, so is William Randolph Hearst—the Hearst of San Simeon.  And apparently “John Spicer” in a columbarium.  Cemetery owners are cagey, and won’t reveal the information to everybody about how body X got to be buried in plot Z, but if one knew the mother’s maiden name of the deceased I guess they figure you’re kosher somehow, and luckily I remembered that Spicer’s mother was born Dorothy Clause, and so I could confirm this occasion to Skold, and thus satisfy a huge longing in my own heart because, as I hope you have seen, for a man like me there’s no closure unless I go to the grave and fall down on it, as I did to John Ford’a grave in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, and embrace spectral memory as a living thing in my arms.  Once, a friend who had gone to Bard College in the 80s described how it was a rite of passage for freshmen there to “make out” on the grave of Hannah Arendt, on the college campus.  Oh, how I marveled, thinking of how romantic it all was and how lucky one would be to go to a college in which such an act was regarded not as icky, but as something everyone did before graduating, like passing trig.  Bard people—if this isn’t true—don’t tell me?  Anyway we're going May 1st (today!) and if you can, join us, at 11 a.m.

Originally Published: May 1st, 2014

Poet, novelist, playwright, art critic, and scholar Kevin Killian earned a BA at Fordham University and an MA at SUNY-Stony Brook. Exploring themes of risk, iconography, invisibility, and vulnerability, Killian weaves fragments of misremembered conversation, sex, and cultural ephemera into his collage-based poems. In a 2009 interview with Tony Leuzzi...

  1. May 3, 2014
     Poets’ Graves | Primitive Information

    [...] were visiting Olson’s grave on the East Coast, Kevin Killian was making a pilgrimage to the newly discovered grave of Jack Spicer on the West Coast. What both poets have in common is an insistence on and association with a [...]