Spicer’s Dreamtime: The Map Poems

Robert Mittenthal

Our poetic quest has no Grail and that is our story of the Grail: its disappearance. Agamben observes that “the Grail … is simply what constitutes the matter of human experience as an aporia, literally as the absence of a road [a-poria]. Thus the quest is … the recognition that the absence of a road (the aporia) is the only experience possible for man.”
—Robin Blaser, from The Irreparable, in The Fire: Collected Essays.

What are you thinking? …When she is still her dress is like a roadmap. Highways traveling up and down her skin. Long empty highways.
—Spicer, from Psychoanalysis: An Elegy

The poetic is the language of the mapless.
—Robin Blaser


Failure is a stake thru the heart of the highway. Maps as inkblots or imaginary trips across the desert. Trading songs as if these maps could sing. But they do sing.

They lead us on a path which is ultimately untraceable, although it’s a venture we won’t want to abandon.

A song, he said, was both map and direction finder. Know the song to find a way across.

I’m imagining an analogy to Aboriginal dreamtime. The dreamtime of paths that have no frontiers. Dreamtime might be explained as a synchronicity of an all at once time, as experienced by someone fully aware of herself. An immediate and powerful presence.

Gone walkabout, if it’s a crime to sing a verse out of order, that’s a sort of poetic justice. The serial poem (as strict obedience to chronology) which Spicer embraced is in synch with this edict. There’s danger and even death if you aren’t true to the song, if you fail to accept the order of things as they unfold.

There is no contradiction (or if there is, it’s a true one) between the synchronic aspects of dreamtime and the serial poem. While the serial poem abides chronology, it’s only later that it must look back to select and order its traces. Clearly this melancholic arranging happens later – after the writing – and this diachronic work is perhaps what Spicer most detested, i.e., the pain of sorting out the dictation he received.

Musical paternity is tied to naming – that first kick of conception. The event of knowing or naming. Kairòs – “the classical image of the act of releasing the arrow.” [Negri]. Writing as the release of the singular. In the dreamtime, there is no longer any struggle to make the naming adequate to the event.
There are no maps except those painted for tourists or collectors – where the marks on the paintings are said to represent song. It’s not some dance where one can retrace steps.

While a musical phrase may be “a map reference,” and music in general is “a memory bank … for finding one’s way about the world,” the song remains to be constructed or discovered in each singular path. [Chatwin]

An earlier question returns regarding the appearance of the same Spicer poem in two distinct locations, as if mysteriously lost and re-found. Make no mistake. It is best to accept the possibly errant labeling or titling of a map-poem.

In the dreamtime, errant placement or errant naming doesn’t exist. Nothing exists outside song.


Beginning again, it is necessary to thank Kevin Killian and Peter Gizzi for their work in bringing these poems to us, and for sharing a facsimile of Spicer’s fair copy of these poems. It is an important event to have these poems before us after forty years.

To briefly comment on form, Spicer’s “Map Poems” use indented paragraphs which are similar in form to the reflections (or commentary/responses) in Homage To Creeley. In The Collected Books, these mirrored reactions or reverse shots, which he called “Explanatory Notes,” appear on the page in a ghostly gray fill. Words that bite back in response to the call of the poem above.

Similarly in the Map Poems, but less biting, these poems respond to the maps and set off resonances with the history and mythology of California.

In regard to maps, one question that comes to mind relates to use value. Maps are useful to the extent that they omit irrelevant detail. But the physical presence of the antique automobile road maps which Spicer was presumably perusing while writing would certainly be of interest to readers, though ultimately, they may be irrelevant to the usefulness of the poems.

These are maps of particular journeys from one location to another. Listing proper nouns and their coordinates. Ultimately these poems speak for themselves or to themselves, resounding with the sensibility of other mature Spicer works.


That is, these poems are not “one night stands” – they do not fail to relate to one another and to us. They do resound – in and around us, which means that these poems also speak through me. My reactions or enactions follow:

111. Woodland to Williams 48.6 Miles. For description of this map see opposite page.

Dear Marlboro man, without music tourism is merely tourism. A lost highway that yearns to be mapped. Darkness is felt – an apparent paradox whose score somehow gets played. It’s the fourth house, look for the lantern on the left, past an animated advertisement of itself.

Flaneurs of landscape expect nothing. The mapping is not geological, but flirts there. Baudelaire: Trebuchant sur les mots comme sur les paves. We stumble against words as against cobblestones.
At bottom, these words lead to doubt.

Or maybe they are precisely geological in the human sense.
The tourist and/or novelty is disconnected. To be away from home but to feel at home anywhere.

And there is loss, our history that walks out on the landscape. (“Ranches built on hopes that the families of the ranches have long since forgotten.”) Darkness is felt. It boils down to a simple sum, but that which is impossible to fully compute: “Doubt.”

After Artaud, this is perhaps the pain of feeling one’s thought shift within oneself. Moving is painful. Thoughts as fixed points are songs.

137. Dunsmuir to Gazelle 29.3 Miles. For description of this map see page 139.

Hidden monsters fill the landscape and describe a film set. This is “where we can go.” Framed by a negative, by what cannot be done (or by what cannot be had). The elusive treasure like the stunned deer momentarily frozen. But the treasure is always outside and always above. The poem drives below where the frenzied deer clearly escape – refusing to be astonished.

It’s own impact as dancers lick their chops. A negative frame. Elusive theater caught in their headlights. Yes it is an oligarchy of love, starring Jack, the hidden monsters who eat frogs, the little men from outer space, and us tourists aka readers of maps.

155 aka “153”. Livermore to Stockton via Island Road 43.4 miles; via Tracy 41.4 miles. For description of this map see pages 154, 155 and 156.

Always crossing or crossed, never going up or down. The motion makes like a river. Mining the dried streams into mineral beds. As if a river of coal pushes up – nomadic work for the dead workers. The river beds plumb nuggets, the moving fruits of manipulated earth.

Lacking distance, or infinite distance, this play of perspective takes us home.

185. San Francisco to San Rafael via Green Brae 11.7 Miles. For description of this map see pages 186 and 187.

Impermanence and fortitude describe love. The geologic but still human scale. Like a Buddhist sand painting, except for the butter trees which resist erosion. So much and so little. The names that are close to us, closest to us. Melting what before bridges.

217. Rio Dell to Eureka 27.1 Miles. For description of this map see pages 219 and 221.

There’s nothing to say, nothing invented. Discovery maps an erotic suggestion. The domestic is not as it appears. But the harbor lives for the fools gold stored in the apartment, in the bath, in the flow of speech. “Love makes the discovery wisdom abandons.”

But it is poverty makes love possible. Wisdom lacks the fortitude.


Robin Blaser, The Fire: Collected Essays: University of California, 2006.
Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines: Viking, 1987.
Antonio Negri, “Kairòs, Alma Venus, Multitudo” in Time For Revolution: Continuum, 2003.
Jack Spicer: One Night Stand and Other Poems, Grey Fox Press, 1980.