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Jack Spicer

James Herndon   
from the memoir "Everything As Expected": 
Jack Spicer and the art of Fran Herndon 


Lithographs and collages by Fran Herndon, copyright © Fran Herndon, reproduced with permission of Fran Herndon.
Text taken from Everything As Expected by James Herndon, copyright © James Herndon, 1973, reproduced with permission of the James Herndon estate: "Printed in the Bay Area / in the winter of 73 / Composition at Spring Creek / Photography by Isadore Klein"
This piece is five thousand words or about twelve printed pages long.
When Fran and I came to San Francisco, I looked up old friends. I looked up Jack Spicer. I was surprised when he came by our place the very next day. We were not precisely old friends then. He had once written me a letter from Minnesota, addressing me as "Dear Boswell", and signing himself "Samuel Johnson, Esq." My name happens to be James Boswell Herndon. It wasn't in Jack to pass up a good coincidence like that.
He came by to watch the McCarthy hearings on TV *. He came in, got introduced to Fran, asked right away for the TV to be turned on - feeling right at home, it seemed - and questioned us about tuning and focusing in order to see which of us was an expert at the TV, or if either of us was, wanting to know what chance he had of getting the best out of the old set. We watched the Senate hearings for six hours, not counting a break for lunch, which Fran made. Two hot-dogs each, French mustard, New York Martin cheddar cheese, some tomatoes with spring onions. Jack Spicer ate it all and observed that Fran made it all. That lunch got established, once and for all, as lunch.


* Continuing a war against the American left that had begun with President Truman's order to search out "disloyal persons" in the U.S. government (Executive Order 9835, 1947), Joseph McCarthy, U.S. Senator from Wisconsin in 1950 initiated the systematic persecution of accused communists beginning with the State Department and coming to encompass all areas of cultural life. It was only in 1954, when McCarthy began hearings to investigate subversive activity in the U.S. military, that his "investigations" were halted and Senator McCarthy himself was censured by the Senate. As Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian note, "[t]he occasion described here was probably a television rerun," the televised Army/McCarthy hearings having taken place in 1954. James Herndon, like Spicer himself, had left San Francisco in 1950; he and Fran married in Europe, returned to the city in 1957. Cf. Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1998) 102. For a brief history of Senator McCarthy, cf. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: HarperPerennial A Division of HarperCollinsPublishers, 1990), esp. p. 420ff.


This went on until the hearings were over. I think it lasted four days. TV, lunch, TV. Interpretations of the American political scene by Jack (we had been away from America so long that he thought it best we get it straight from the outset). Of course no talk was allowed during the hearings, unless Jack himself wanted to laugh or exclaim. We were both charmed.
James Herndon with son Jay, 1957
James Herndon with son Jay, 1957
photographer unknown

It was another coincidence. We were living in Reg Theriault's place (he and his family were away) until we found our own. Naturally Reg had a TV. If we'd had our own place, we wouldn't have had a TV - we didn't get one, in fact, until six years later and then it was gotten to amuse Jay, our son, who was very ill, and at Jack's suggestion. Even Reg wasn't, at that time, an old friend of mine, but rather a friend of an old friend, and we had met in Paris and gone out all night together and seen a marvellous drunk American tourist leap into the freezing Seine with his suit on at four in the morning, while his girl-friend shrieked from the landing . . . here follow several hundred pages of the story of my life, telling how everything led up to everything.


It all started when Jack Spicer came by our place to watch McCarthy on the TV.
No, it all started when Jack came by one evening to take Fran on a picturesque tour of North Beach. That's what he called it, over and over again, all night long. I was, of course, allowed to go along. We went thru the picturesque Broadway tunnel, we saw picturesque Vesuvio's, the picturesque Bagel Shop, we saw the picturesque Beats and bought picturesque Beatitudes. We ended up at The Place where we stayed until late and met people who later on became old friends.
When we left The Place Fran and I thought we were going home, even though it wasn't yet closing time. But no, we had to stop at a bar along Broadway*. It was time for the serious business of the evening. We stopped there because that was where Jack Spicer played the pinball machine. It also happened to be what he had brought Fran for.
* The bar was Mike's Pool Hall. ibid. 103.
We got drinks and Jack got dimes and he began to play. It worked out that if he won free games, we got to play some of them. We did it. But along the way, serious demands began to be made. Jack was playing the invisible world thru that machine and he sought Fran's allegiance. The fact is that he had just finished the book of poems called After Lorca: he had found out that cooperation (to call it something) of the invisible world was required for the writing of his poetry, he had certainly decided to write it, and was in business to figure out strategies to insure that cooperation. We didn't know any of that, although I don't think it would have made any difference if we had known it.
At certain points in the game we were to cross our fingers, think only about certain numbers, hold our breath . . . well, I'd played pinball with Jack before and thought it was the same. I had no trouble obeying since (1) I liked to play pinball or watch others play pinball, and (2) I didn't believe in the invisible world anyway. It cost me nothing to go along. With Fran it was different. She thought pinball was a bore. She did believe in the invisible world. She only didn't agree it had anything to do with pinball.
Fran Herndon, 1958
Fran Herndon, 1958
photographer unknown

Oh horseshit! she said, when Jack wanted us to cross our fingers. Come off it! she said, when Jack blamed us for not thinking hard enough (or for thinking too hard) about number 17. I was really amused, but Fran wasn't, and neither was Jack. He didn't defeat the machine that night and he knew it was Fran's fault. Fran had to be bored to death until closing time, and then bear Jack's recriminations.
Jack knew Fran believed in the invisible world, which is why he was mad. How did he know? He didn't know about John Godwin, her father, who had seen a-plenty of ghosts along country roads, about her sister who predicted deaths. He knew it, that was all.
That was the beginning of the Lessons. The subject was that of all true lessons - to get the student to know, to recognize, to suffer, what the student already knows. It was also true that Jack had envisioned a bargain. He was going to give Fran this tour, putting out a fantastic charm, wasting his time, and it was up to Fran to reciprocate by crossing her fingers and by believing in crossing her fingers. That was not wasting his time. Of course it was so that Jack would have made the same tour (only not calling it a tour) whether we were there or not, which says something about his bargains. Still, I know he planned Fran's come-uppance that night.
But Fran escaped for a bit because we went up to the mountains where I had a job. What Jack didn't see was that Fran was pregnant - that is, he saw it, but wanted to ignore that intrusion of the visible world. Anyway, Fran figured she already knew all about the invisible, and hoped to let it stay where it belonged, entering in only where it couldn't be helped in the shape of owls, dogs howling, and sisters dreaming of the deaths of friends and kin.
But when we came back to town she made mistakes. She told Jack about the ghosts her father had seen. She sent off for a bright tobacco-leaf, at Jack's request. Worst of all, she became a painter . . . .
Jack slyly established a routine with Fran. A certain day, a certain time, for lunch. A certain lunch, already described. Afterwards, football or baseball games to be listened to or watched on TV in North Beach bars. Some advice on how to raise our son. Routine is apparently an obsession with the invisible world. If you do the same thing at the same times on the same days, it seems to (1) let the invisible world in, or (2) give you access to it. It's one and the same, I guess. It's not I who understands it, bear in mind.
The blow fell sometime later on. Routines - a certain evening every week for dinner, drinking hot buttered rum exclusively, Jack leaving for the bar at a certain time, Fran and I rushing into bed as fast as possible with that hot rum sloshing around in our innards . . . at closing time when we were fast asleep, Jack was coming home thru the Broadway tunnel drunk as a lord to receive another poem for Heads Of The Town.
At the same time Fran was working in graphics at Fine Arts. She took to the litho-stone like a duck to water. Jack would show up on his certain night with his new poem and his routines and Fran would have a new litho. Jack would point out a correspondence between the two. He would show how Fran couldn't have known about the content of the poem. He would show that he couldn't have known about the image in the litho. It was so. Fran was producing lithos in her class at night, twice a week, one evening to draw it, one to print it; Jack was writing down poems like a serial movie at 3:00 A.M. in his room under the Bank of America.
Fran Herndon lithograph
Fran was wavering. She wanted to forget it. She wanted to have it. She didn't want ghosts drawing her lithos. She hoped they were. She hated pinball. She wanted the visible. She loved the litho-stone, apparently firmly connected to the invisible. One night Jack produced a poem about a white rabbit absolutely outlined in whiteness / upon a black background, and Fran produced her litho of a white rabbit absolutely outlined in whiteness upon a black background, and the correspondence between the two was thus exact, as if the ghosts had gotten tired of just hinting around about it. Looking on, I thought of Huck and Tom; I heard dogs howling in my head. "A ghost," the poem went on, "the most / we can say or think about it is it stays".
Fran Herndon lithograph
That line suited Fran. OK, if it was just going to stay there. She knew about it already, knew it as a child along those long, dusty roads, knew what Jack had had to arrange his life so as to know. Still, I think that's often the case with teachers and students or fathers and daughters for that matter. I think it was Jack who was really astonished that evening. I think he believed up until then that it was really his own idea.


Later on, in the Explanatory Notes, Jack wrote (about the same poem) that "Rabbits do not know what they are. / Ghosts are very similar. They are frightened and do / not know what they are, but they can go where the / rabbits cannot go. All the way to the heart".
Fran Herndon lithograph
Oh aye. That's the trouble. When Fran took our son Jay to visit his grandpa John Godwin, Jay came back telling me about his Grandpa saw a ghost, what it did, what it was like. When, years later, she took Jack, our youngest boy, he came back to tell me about how his Grandpa saw a ghost, what it did, what it was like.
Jay also told me about how his Grandpa killed a copperhead. Took up a hoe and killed it, easy as falling off a log. I remembered when Jack Spicer was trying to throw dirt-clods for Sam Hardin's little dog to chase, one day up in the country, and he threw the dirt-clod and hit the dog. Jack had to pretend that he was trying to hit the dog all the time because he was mad at it or because it was good for dogs to get hit with dirt-clods once in a while.
All the way to the heart. That was what Fran didn't want. That was what Jack, wanting it, didn't know about.
Or we'd all drive out to the country on Sunday. Then Jack Spicer would discover some road we'd never been on and we'd plan to drive up it the next Sunday. At first it was quite nice. We'd stop and walk up and down Paper Mill creek, for example, and Jack would give Jay a lot of advice about how to throw rocks into Paper Mill creek and even demonstrate, to everyone's peril.
But then it began to be like this; we'd drive up the road we hadn't ever been on, and go up it - it was always up, it seemed like - and when we got to the top of the road we'd get out. We got out. What are we going to do here? Jay would ask. There was never anything to do there. It was the top of a hill. There was dry grass, there was clear bright sky, there was a buzzard wheeling overhead, it was hot as hell, there was an ancient track off to our right going down into the canyon to an abandoned mine, there was our car pulled over onto the dry grass. We all saw the same thing. After no more than five minutes of seeing it, Jack would inquire if I thought it was reasonable to drive the car down the track to the mine, and I would allow as how I didn't after pretending to think it over while Fran got angry that I even considered the idea, and we'd get back in the car and go home, making it a hot, awful, three-hour trip for a five-minute stop. We'd leave because Jack had seen all there was to see there at the top of that road. We all saw it too. Then the trip appears later on in Jack's book Language. A question of whose purpose.
You know, I don't think ghosts care if you had a long, hot trip to see a buzzard for five minutes. If they are in your heart, they decide your heart needs buzzards, and they need buzzards, and the poem will need buzzards. But John Godwin knew the ghost on the road wouldn't feed him and his family, wouldn't even protect him from a copperhead. You had to kill it yourself.
It came to pass that Fran decided to go to the school at Fine Arts and take Art History and learn something. Jack vetoed that notion. (It was OK if she wanted to use the litho press there, but it was not OK if she just wanted to escape him, Jack). Desperate Jack Spicer offered to teach her himself. To come over routinely and teach Art History. There was no way to resist such an offer, so Fran didn't go to school and Jack did come over. Jack had once taught at Fine Arts anyway, (it was a famous class) and his way of teaching history was to take some hero and find out when he was born and then ask the class to find out who died in the year the hero was born, and after they found out about him they'd find out who died the year he was born and find out about him, and there they'd go, backwards into history.
Fran Herndon lithograph


Jack came over routinely and I was routinely sent off to the library to find out stuff. I spent the time finding it out and watching the Chinese high-school girls at the North Beach library copying the encyclopedia and giggling. Perhaps Fran learned a lot about Art History. But I always noticed, when I got back, that Jack had been trying to talk Fran into doing a lot of odd stuff. He wanted her to make junk sculpture. He wanted her to make chalk drawings on shirt-cardboards which came back from the laundry. (Fran said we didn't send shirts to the laundry; Jack offered to bring over his.) Finally he talked her into building a monument to Sad Sam Jones, the great Giant pitcher, sometimes called Toothpick Sam Jones, which she naturally had to make out of toothpicks. It was ordered as part of the course like a final exam, and so Fran had to do it. Jack took it home and put it on his ice-box, and so the course was over.
Here follow several hundred pages of Fran's life with Jack Spicer - putting out J magazine with him, pushing Heads Of The Town thru at the printers for him. Can't you make him wash his hands first? the printer asked Fran when Jack was doing crayola drawings on the flyleaves of the expensive editions.
I don't know exactly how Jack got onto the sports business. Pinball didn't work and shirt-cardboards didn't work and Heads Of The Town was over and anyway a one-time shot, and typing up magazines and washing your hands have to do with the visible. It was Sad Sam, probably. With sports, it was all there. We did go to ball games. We listened to and watched others. We had favorites. We had theories. Sports were routine - they began on a certain day according to season, started on the nose, lasted a certain number of minutes or the same number of innings every time, barring interfering accidents which were also OK as long as they remained either pure accident or could be attributed to a fix. You could count on them.
There was also Heurtibise, the messenger of Heads Of The Town, who turned up in the form of Jim Heurtibise, an Okie who won the Indianapolis 500 that year. There was the coincidence that my friend Dave Pass subscribed to Sports Illustrated and gave me back copies and we could count on them regularly. However it was, one night when Jack came over to drink hot buttered rum to start off his evening (and end ours) Fran had this big collage to show him. It was called Collage for Jimmy Brown, and was made from Sports Illustrated.
Such an act is usually called digging your own grave. But you ought to see Fran sitting in our living room surrounded by photos and colored papers of all sorts and glue, scissors, pencils, pens, paint and tile ghosts of whoever wanted in there. Open to it - Jack came over in person on his off-night to see. He was jubilant. It was straightway established that Fran would produce a finished collage every week on Jack's night, made out of SI photos primarily, and that it would be a battle of the worlds at the same time (of father-daughter, teacher-student, the worlds, that is). I was happy about it: I figured we would have a history of the sporting world for that year.
Collage for Jimmy Brown
We called him Jimmy in those days. It was a big year for him. Something bothered me about it, though, and later on I figured out what it was. The main photo . . . ain't of Jimmy Brown at all. It is Ernie Davis. Ernie was another Syracuse running back, and by the time Jimmy Brown got famous for throwing girls out of motel windows and was going to become a movie star, Ernie was dead of leukemia. Please note that time is a bit skewed here. I hope that isn't a sign of anything. When I announced my mundane discovery, Fran and Jack were delighted. It proved they were on the right track. . . .

Fran Herndon collage - King Football
King Football, 24 by 27 inches

Did someone mention the fact of the word "Jim" occurring over and over again in Jack's work? Now "the things that are for Jim come to an end," it goes on, not ending. That "Jim" isn't me at all. It isn't even Jim Alexander a lot; it ain't Jimmy Brown or Jim Heurtibise either, although it's some of the latter three. It's a name. Just imagine you write "Jim" over and over again and in the end it turns out to be "Ernie". That's just the kind of thing that pleased them two voyageurs . . . you get a hint of the notion, the terms of war . . .
King Football showed up next week. It wasn't done when Jack showed up, so he got to sit down on the floor in the midst of all Fran's Sports Illustrated photos and her Japanese and French fancy papers and pick up things and lay them down and get everything mixed up and talk about what ought to go in to finish the collage. (My own job was to make hot-buttered-rums and shut up. I did, since it was in my own interest.) Since it wasn't done, you can see whose things are whose, if you want to. Fran had made the skull-face, on top of the mountain of images. She had pasted Scared, Football Deaths. Her images, painted or pasted, are of players. Some of them kid-players, sitting on benches, trudging back to benches. The Day of Devastation is there. In short, it is not a picture about football players. Playing, they ain't.
Why Y.A.? is there. Did Jack put that in, or did Fran already have it? I don't know - they kept meeting at places I never foresaw - but Fran loved Y.A. Tittle and he had just been traded by the 49ers for Lou Cordelione, who was never seen or heard of again.
Trading Y.A. Tittle, the Bald Eagle! Did Fran think that had something to do with the image of death? Jack thought it had plenty to do with it, and so you start getting Raise (the 49ers were threatening to strike) and Bribery ([Jimmy] the Greek is there again, left over from last week) . . . we have got right into Jack's mythology, which says that if Tittle was traded it meant either that the leagues were fixed (it was the N.Y. Giants turn to win) or that the 49er management just wanted a million dollars, and both meant the death of the game.
Is Pro Football Fixed? right over the Halloween mask. Under it, Junk. Perhaps that was the beginning of Jack's obsession with the fix - we'd go to the ball game and an outfielder would drop a fly ball and Jack would claim he saw Horace Stoneham signalling the outfielder to drop it from a secret place in the stands. The game was fixed, all the games were finally fixed, the owners were pushers, the players fixed, scared, dying, the games dead, the fans were zombies.
If Jack or anyone was around while Fran was working, she'd always have to ask them for advice or suggestions, but after they began to suggest things or put in stuff, she would begin to get mad. So, here, she took the collage away from Jack and finished it off with a crown of crepe-paper flowers of purple and white which seemed to fade almost as soon as they were pasted on. They made Jack's notions less, by including them in an overpowering Mexican-Halloween dirge, a Dance of Death, reclaiming it all for what she had meant in the first place.
Jack made a final effort, wanting the collage to be called King of the Mountain, that being the only childhood game I ever heard him mention. His game, of course, his image of lost youth, along with trap-door spiders in vacant lots. Fran had intended to call it A Deep Bow To A Big. It got called King Football.

Fran Herndon collage - Blackbird
Blackbird, 24 by 27 inches

It's now the dead season of sports. Football over, spring training not yet begun. We were all conservatives - football, baseball, college basketball, those were the only sports, the rest being merely exhibitions.
Sports magazines publish all year around, though, and so you begin to see stories and pictures of fishing, track, safaris, skiing, auto-racing, hockey, horse-racing, even bridge games.
Fran used these four weeks (I think) to work on making collages, make beautiful collages, establish how she was going to go about making them - by implication, before Jack woke up and got in there again. A hint of terror in Blackbirds, perhaps. Images - open mouths, Wilt's open mouth, bassmouths (Jack did manage to slip in that toothbrush, but it's just there, not hurting anyone). For these are all Fran's images, her birds, her plants, water, skies, and wings. . . .

Fran Herndon collage - Hurtles
Hurtles, 24 1/4 x 24 1/2 inches

It's completely Fran's invisible world in Hurtles. The dark woods on either side of country roads at night, woods full of owls and the yellow eyes of cat-like animals. Out of there the great Australian runner comes flying, another man with a secret training regime given him by an old wise man, bursting into a crowd of runners all going like hell was after them. Probably hell is after them, since it don't look like they are just running for the fun of it, but they are getting out of there, and it doesn't look like anybody or anything is going to catch them. . . .
It is, after all, as on-looker and pedant that I write.
. . . as if made to show me the process of teaching and of making art. The procession of them, as they are inseparable. "The clarification of this process," writes Confucius, "(the understanding or making intelligible of the process), is called education."
Fran sees no reason for, and is annoyed by, this.
Confucius? Oh, says Jack, you must mean Eddie Confucius of the old St. Louis Browns. The one who got shot by a lady-fan in a Detroit hotel room.
The series never made it to baseball season. Naturally, since baseball was the only sport any of us cared about . . . .
"I am tired of the efforts of the invisible world to become visible," Jack wrote later. But he wasn't. Or perhaps he was - he kept on courting it, but that doesn't have to mean he liked it. In any case, he turned into a hero, which he couldn't stand. Fran said that everything that ever happened to Jack always astonished him, even though he had flatly predicted it. He was always expecting it for someone else. Ghosts need heroes.
They were really quite estranged when Fran painted Jack's portrait. She waited for him to come over and see it. I was always waiting for him to come and see my work . . . 
Jack took one look and said, "I'm repelled!"
He wanted it to be all mixed up, himself almost indistinguishable from the ground and trees and stones, peering out from the brush like a jackrabbit or a skunk cabbage, or like the sixteenth of a Blackfoot Indian he always claimed to be. But the portrait denied that, because he really had become a famous hero, even to Fran. He was distinguishable. It was his own fault that he was, and there was nothing to be done about it except for Fran to paint him as a famous hero, and for Jack to do what he ultimately and very shortly thereafter did do about it.
Readers should cross their fingers now, and think hard about 8, or they should try not to think about 8.
We left town that summer, as usual, to go camping. Jack was already in the hospital, dying. We had been down to see him, although he didn't see us; it was clear he was dying, the doctors said so, and we knew it, but we didn't think he would really die, even though we expected it.
We spent a fine couple of weeks at Lassen, at Kings Creek, the highest camp. Then one night there came a thunderstorm, a routine event in the mountains in August, thunder and lightning and fear, and we left our stuff there to dry out and stayed in a lumberman's cabin for a few days. Then we went back. But soon after there came another storm. That was not routine. Fran had a dream that stormy night about meeting Jack on Polk street, she asking him shouldn't he be in bed at the hospital, and him saying it was OK, he was through with the hospital. The next morning she insisted on going into town and called up the hospital to find out how he was doing, and they told her he was dead.

Fran Herndon lithograph


S T O P   P R E S S
Granary Books announces the publication of Golem, by Jack Spicer, with collages by Fran Herndon and an afterword by Kevin Killian.
The manuscript of Spicer's Golem poems was discovered by Fran Herndon and Kevin Killian in 1997 in a " manila folder. The first poem in this series saw print-in the 'Spicer issue' of Manroot - only because Lew Ellingham had copied it onto a brown paper bag after Spicer posted in on the wall of Gino & Carlo's bar. That it had any successors few guessed or knew." The seven images accompanying the six poems are from Herndon's "Sports Collages," her "painterly re-working of pop images cut from the pages of Sports Illustrated and other mass-market magazines . . . ."
"Spicer and Herndon draw on [the] complex legend [of the golem] to animate their conception of the athlete-and poet-as hero and monster, corpse and avenger. For these artists, the corruption of innocence under the nexus of capital is as simple as, and as confounding as, a 'fix.'" (All quotes from the afterword.)
Golem is designed and printed letterpress by Philip Gallo at the Hermetic Press. The images are beautifully reproduced, digitally, in full color. The edition consists of 150 copies signed by Fran Herndon and bound at the Campbell Logan Bindery in paper over boards. 5 1/2" x 8 1/2", 20 pages. One hundred copies are for sale. $150.
The poems, images and afterword can be seen at:


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