Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"Wait Till I'm Dead:" five decades of uncollected Ginsberg poetry

"Yesterday I was writing in Heaven or of Heaven ..."
Allen Ginsberg, Lima Peru, May 26, 1960
The poet has been in Heaven for 19 years now, sitting daily practice with Blake in his garden and asking if Rimbaud would like to join them for a while. Here on earth the inexhaustible supply of Ginsberg manuscripts and stray inscriptions has a new collection, with an apt title from Allen's own wit: you want more poems? Wait till I'm dead.
And so here it is. Wait Till I'm Dead, edited by longtime Ginsberg associate Bill Morgan, is a generous scoop of "uncollected poems" that appeared in small press magazines, book dedications, the Columbia University Jester, even "For School Kids in New Jersey" [" ... Don't grow up like me, you never get enough sleep!"]. The scope is broad - 50 years' worth of scribbled ideas, finished thoughts, 3 a.m. revelations, and political pokes is enough to empty out a couple of file cabinet drawers - but there's enough of interest to carry through, to keep the reader amused and turning the page.
Because Ginsberg's observational line is so sharp, much of the poetry is fact-heavy, dropping timely references known, and sometimes as obscure, as a newspaper headline from four decades ago. The book is helped along by Morgan's specific notes to many of the poems explaining context or historical reference. As the decades recede it is good to have a brief refresher on names, events, and influences mentioned fleetingly in the texts.
The real treasure is revealed in the continuing lives of the beats he includes in these poems: all the major players from five decades make appearances, flashing in and out of Ginsberg's orbit but never far away. There is a short meditation with Snyder, a New York collaboration with Ron Padgett, and a line-by-line composition with Kenneth Koch, "Popeye and William Blake Fight to the Death:"
Popeye sat upon his chair
Reading William Blake
Blake got up and screamed out there
"This seaman is a fake"....
Perhaps the most necessary reading in this collection is at the very end. "Last Conversation With Carl or In Memoriam" is a 1993 dialog poem, the last meeting between Allen and Carl Solomon. Solomon, a central figure in Howl, was dying of lung cancer in the VA hospital in the Bronx, and Ginsberg was gently interested in some big questions, asked in the poet's best reportorial style.
Allen: What do you think death is?
Carl: Death is a fading away --
which I'd like to go easily
like my mother ... imitate
my mother ... this last
year of grace has been
excessive -- I just want
to get it over with --
... Do you feel I did the wrong thing
putting the spotlight on you
by using your name in "Howl"?
Carl: You gave me my first
outlet in Neurotica -- for
some recognition ... I guess
it went to my head ...
Too bad if I was foolish,
it won't matter much much
longer. ...

After Solomon's death, Ginsberg recounts meeting him in a dream and asks two final questions:

"What's it like in the afterworld?"

"It's just like in the mental hospital.
You get along if you follow the rules."

"What are the rules?"

"The first rule is: remember you're dead.
The second rule is: Act like you're dead."

For those who know most of Ginsberg's personal and literary history, Wait Till I'm Dead is another file of interesting facts to sift through, some not inconsequential poetry ("New York to San Fran" is a nice plane ride with Ginsberg as seatmate) and even more evidence that Allen never, ever, threw anything out. And then he put the date on every scrap for his biographers. Such a nice boy.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Banned Books Week 2016: the naughty bits of "Slaughterhouse Five"

It's ALA's Banned Books Week, 2016. The outrage of Huckleberry Finn is still a thrill, over 120 years since its publication. Congratulations to Mr. Twain, who continues to make the national conscience uncomfortable more than a hundred years after his death.

Here are some of the naughty bits of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, a book often banned and often cited as objectionable, as enumerated in the dissenting opinion of Justice Powell in the 1973 Supreme Court decision. For more First Amendment decisions and lots of fun reading, visit the First Amendment Center.


"The excerpts which led the Board to look into the educational suitability of the books in question are set out (with minor corrections after comparison with the text of the books themselves) below. The pagination and the underlinings are retained from the original report used by the board. In newer editions of some of the books, the quotes appear at different pages. 



32  'You stake a guy out on an anthill in the desert -- see? He's facing upward, and you put honey all over his balls and pecker, and you cut off his eyelids so he has to stare at the sun till he dies.'

34  'He had a prophylactic kit containing two tough condoms 'For the prevention of disease only!' . . . He had a dirty picture of a woman attempting sexual intercourse with a shetland pony.'

94 & 95  'But the Gospels actually taught this: Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected . . . The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ who didn't look like much, was actually the son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought . . . 

Oh boy -- they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch this time! And that thought had a brother: There are right people to lynch. 

People not well connected . . . . The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really WAS a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections then he had . . . . So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn't possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought . . . since the new Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was. And then just before the nobody died . . . . The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son . . . God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections.'

99  'They told him that there could be no Earthling babies without male homosexuals. There could be babies without female homosexuals.'

122  'And he'll pull out a gun and shoot his pecker off. The stranger'll let him think a couple of seconds about who Paul Lazzaro is and what life's gonna be like without a pecker. Then he'll shoot him once in the guts and walk away. . . . He died on account of this silly cocksucker here. So I promised him I'd have this silly cocksucker shot after the war.'

173  'And the peckers of the young men would still be semierect, and their muscles would be bulging like cannonballs.'

175 ' They didn't have hard-ons . . . Everybody else did.'

177  'The magazine, which was published for lonesome men to jerk off to.'

178 ' and one critic said. . . . 'To describe blow-jobs artistically."

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Huxley's "The Crows of Pearblossom": seriously kidding around

First published as a children's chapter book in 1963, The Crows of Pearblossom is a story Aldous Huxley created for his niece in 1944 while she was staying with the Huxleys in the Mojave desert.

In an Abrams picture-book edition with illustrations by Sophie Blackall, Mr. and Mrs. Crow are still bedeviled by the snake who lives at the bottom of their tree and steals their eggs. The book is meant for kids ages four to eight, and if there are any parallels to Brave New World it's that the world may not be all that it seems. As a Christmas gift to his young niece Olivia during World War II, Huxley's story has dark edges that were likely meant as an introduction to the adult world that faced very uncertain challenges ahead.

The story itself was nearly lost when fire destroyed the original manuscript. The Huxleys' California neighbors had a copy, and gave it to Olivia when her uncle died in 1963. In the book, Mrs. Crow catches the snake eating her 297th egg that year -- she does not work on Sundays, you understand -- and requests that Mr. Crow go into the hole and kill the snake.

The Rattlesnake (as snakes throughout literary history are wont to do) thoroughly enjoys his thievery:
"I cannot fly -- I have no wings;
I cannot run -- I have no legs;
But I can creep where the black bird sings
And eat her speckled eggs, ha, ha,
And eat her speckled eggs."

Instead of killing him, Mr. Crow decides to teach the snake a painful lesson and confers with his wise friend Mr. Owl. Mr. Owl bakes mud into the shape of eggs and paints them to look appealing. These dummy eggs are left in the nest to trick the Rattlesnake, who unknowingly eats them the next day.

When the eggs get to his stomach, they cause the Rattlesnake such pain that he thrashes about, tying himself in knots around the branches. Mrs. Crow goes on to hatch "four families of seventeen children each" and "uses the snake as a clothesline on which to hang the little crows' diapers."

It's a story that young readers will probably thrill to be scared by, filled with the kind of darkness that children instinctively suspect hides out in the trees and woods. The new illustrations are colorful and swirling, owning more than a bit to Huxley's history of LSD use, and fans of Tim Burton and Edward Gorey will like Brooklyn artist
Sophie Blackall's artwork.

Olivia de Haulleville

And little Olivia? In 1982, Olivia de Haulleville entered Indonesia as member of the entourage of H.H. The Dalai Lama during his consecration of Borobudur. She continued her pilgrimage there by the name of "Tara" and was requested to write a history of Buddhism in Indonesia by the ethnic Javanese Buddhist teacher, pak Sumarsoeno. In 2000 she published
Pilgrimage to Java, An Esoteric History of Buddhism. Her son, Michael A. Cassapidis is a Tibetan monk in the Gelugs-pa order. She now lives near Joshua Tree National Park and has a Facebook page with the following quote:
If I were given a wish
To be what I wish
I would wish to be
Who I am