Matthew Power: Blue Magazine

 

Holy Soul

Originally Published in Heeb Magazine


The first time I went to New York, I took my girlfriend to visit Allen Ginsberg in his Lower East Side walkup. He was sick in bed with a blood clot in his lung. We were walking down 12th Street in the East Village to get to his apartment, and halfway between 1st and Avenue A, we came across a community garden. It was beautiful, growing from the ruins of a torn down tenement that still had structural elements left behind. The entrance to the garden was the building's original door frame, but the facade was gone, replaced by a wrought iron fence and rows of blooming rosebushes. A wall was grown over with morning glories, and a sink had found new life as a birdbath. There were winding paths under fruit trees and huge sunflowers nodding in the breeze. None of us had any idea that such a thing could exist amid the concrete swelter of a New York summer.


We went up to Ginsberg's apartment where he lay in bed, gaunt in blue pajamas, surrounded by piles of books and newspapers. He guided us by memory through his home, describing the artwork on the walls. "That Blake print is God giving life to Adam," he said. "Notice that God has Adam's face and Adam has God's face. And that silk painting behind the veil, that's my girlfriend." The veil hid a terrifying painting of a fanged Hindu deity. "It's Kali, the goddess of death." He directed us to another silk painting. "That's the wheel of Samsara. Attachment to the illusion of existence. Everyone's trying to get to Heaven-the soldier realm by force, and those are the hungry ghosts with the distended stomachs. Only the bodhisattvas make it out, through enlightenment. It's love that keeps everyone else on the wheel."


I asked him if he knew the garden we had wondered at on the walk to his place. "Oh, that's just a movie set. All fake. The stones and bricks are styrofoam and the flowers are plastic." After leaving, we walked back past the garden and saw that he was right. The illusory garden revealed from Ginsberg's sickbed has returned to me often in the time since, like a koan to be puzzled over. Was the garden any less real, or a real garden any less imaginary? What did it mean? Not nothing, I felt sure.


It's been four years since Ginsberg died. I've lived in New York the whole time, and even with him gone I can see his presence everywhere here-in the junkies meditating in Tompkins Square; in furtive graffiti writing; in the punk kids cooking dumpstered food for the homeless of the Lower East Side; in the street musicians with their open cases; in the pigeons winging like ghosts around the ConEd smokestacks; in all that makes this city a pulsing, joyous madhouse. In September, when my street still hung with the acrid smell of war, carried on the breeze that blew across the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center, I could sense him howling again as he did fifty years ago for those "burned alive in their innocent flannel suits." I imagined him meditating in the 16-acre void at ground zero, and proposing a sunflower field be planted there. In his last years in New York, someone had asked Allen if he minded living alone with no family. He spread his arms on the street corner, regarding the whole chaos of taxis, buildings, and pedestrians and declared, "This is my family."


I was fifteen when I met Allen Ginsberg at my cousin Isaac's bar mitzvah. Not having read any of his poetry, I had only the vaguest idea who he was and so I observed him with curiosity as we entered the synagogue. Everyone in my extended family was speaking about him with a sort of hushed reverence. He wore a suit, and at the door picked up a yarmulke-an interesting nod toward his roots, considering he'd become a devout Buddhist long ago. He had been a friend of my Aunt Elsa's since the late 50's when she'd worked at Grove Press and arranged poetry readings with him in New York.


At the reception afterwards, we were introduced, and being at the time a nascent scribbler of bad poetry, I gravitated toward him. It was a tumultuous time in my life, my parents being in the middle of an ugly divorce, and I found myself sitting with him at a table, eating stuffed grape leaves and talking about my family troubles. I surprised myself, discussing with him my parents' situation with uncharacteristic openness. I remember asking him what I should do. "You look lovable," he said, "You should seek out people to love."


We talked more, and he asked me if I wanted to take a walk with him around Cambridge. Too shy to follow my own instincts, I said no. Years later, he would ask me if I had thought he was hitting on me that night.


I didn't see Ginsberg again for several years. Still, the few minutes we had spent talking left a lasting impression, starting me down the same road traveled by so many angst-ridden high school kids in late 20th century America-a love affair with the trinity of beat writers. The mythos of their road trips, Benzedrine-fueled conversation marathons, and seemingly wild sexuality were the perfect inspiration for an awkward introvert like myself, growing up amid the jocks and rednecks of rural Vermont. My road trips were limited to the cruising range of a 1979 Volkswagen rabbit and I had to substitute NoDoz and Marlboro Reds for Benzedrine. Reading of his love of straight young boys throughout his work, I was already half seduced.


Four years after that first meeting, my aunt, who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called and said that Ginsberg would be staying with her for a week on his new book tour. "You should come down," she offered. So I went. At my aunt's house, I spent the whole afternoon waiting for his arrival, wanting to make a good impression. In Paterson, William Carlos Williams includes two letters written to him by a Ginsberg not much older than I was at that the time I read them. "I know you will be pleased," he wrote, "to realize that at least one actual citizen of your community has inherited your experience in his struggle to love and know his own world-city." I wanted to fit into his work in that same way, another small bridge in the obvious (to me) continuum of American poetry from Whitman to Williams to Ginsberg to myself. Like them, I hoped to fashion of my peers a proper generation with a catchy name.


He arrived at the door, a cloth bag on one shoulder, his famous harmonium-an object I would in the future grab for him from the conveyer belt at Logan, and years later still would see gaveled away for $15,000 at Sotheby's-on the other. At first he didn't remember who I was, but then my aunt reminded him and he hugged me. I had outpaced him by six inches since our last meeting, and was surprised to find him much smaller than I remembered. His voice seemed too big for his body. It was deep, rich, and precisely measured. He had a tight itinerary for his time in Boston and we were almost immediately off to a recording studio over the Charles to make a spoken word album.


I sat for eight hours as Ginsberg, in a soundproof booth, read multiple takes of all 242 choruses of Kerouac's Mexico City Blues. He recorded the entire album in a single session with only me, my aunt, and a sound engineer as his audience. By one in the morning, he'd arrived at the book's great elegiac choruses about Charlie Parker, and imagining Kerouac, his long-dead lover, scribbling the poem in a Mexico City garret, he sobbed over the lines, "Poor! I wish I were off of this slaving meat-wheel, and safe in heaven dead." I closed my eyes and let his voice wash over me like a tide. By two a.m., he was finished, and we headed back to Cambridge. My aunt went to bed, and Ginsberg and I stayed up. I asked him how he could read for so long and he said, "You just have to breathe properly with each line. I could read you some more, if you'd like."


We walked upstairs to the top floor of the house. He was tired, but nevertheless grabbed a stack of poetry books from the shelf: his own, Gregory Corso's, and collections of Whitman and Williams. He read me Williams' "The Ivy Crown" in the lamplight, and I sat on the floor, a nervous lump in my throat, unable to tell who exactly was seducing whom. I asked him about Neal Cassady. "The amazing thing about Neal," he said, "was that in one of those conversations where everything sort of fades off into stoned silence, he could remember and reconstruct the whole thing back seven steps, every turn of conversation. And he was the best sleeper I've ever met." I asked him what I should write about. "Write about your love for your friends," he told me.


It was almost four, but I was wide awake. He offered to show me how to meditate, and we sat for a few minutes while he lectured me in a gently exasperated tone, "No, no, keep your back straight, let your body hang down from your head. And don't close your eyes." His hands fluttered, adjusting my chin, shoulders, spine. I wondered if it was working, if I was in fact meditating. I seemed to be drifting into it, but kept blowing it by being aware of what I was doing. I was almost afraid to look him in the eyes.


He shut out the light and asked if I wanted to lie down next to him.


What did I seek in this encounter? Such a moment to step outside of myself and imagine what I'd been searching for, or what I'd found, alone there in the dark with this strange poet who was as lonely as I was in the world. I wanted a physical connection with all those gray ghosts of my imagination, whose words I'd pored over, trying to make some sense of the sorrow and transience I sensed at the core of life.


Something in the moment made me at least want to be fearless. I lay down in the bed, shoes on, heart racing, feeling like a kind of child bride, afraid and unbearably curious at the same time. Ginsberg got up and went to the sink, standing in the open bathroom door washing his socks. Such a strange thing, it seemed, for someone who read in front of rapt audiences of a thousand or more, to wash his own socks in a sink. He came back and said, "Do you mind if I take my clothes off?" I said I didn't. He sat cross-legged next to me in the bed, naked, looking like a guru in the dim streetlight. Having at once no idea and every idea what I was doing, I reached up and unsnapped the buckle of my overalls, a gesture he would recall years later as having displayed surprising audacity.


The funny thing about kissing this man fifty years my senior was how familiar it felt. He was smaller than me, and had a soft, hairless body that felt like a seventeen-year-old's. Next to me in the lotus position, running his hands over my nude body, he seemed infused with an electric energy I had hitherto not known existed and have not discovered anywhere since. I'd wondered if it would seem obscene or lecherous: it was neither, but something extraordinarily gentle and sympathetic. "Socrates said that the best teaching is done in bed," he told me. It was the age-old exchange, the vitality of youth offered up to the wisdom of experience and vice versa. Or, as Ginsberg put it: "I'm a vampire sucking your youthful energy."


Really, though, there was nothing particularly vampiric about our tryst. After the initial shock of unfamiliarity subsided, my racing heart slowed, and I felt more or less at ease. Afterwards, I felt initiated into some rite that marked off the me I now was from the me I had been. The birds were just beginning to sing and the sky was shifting to a predawn gray when I crawled out of bed and tiptoed down to my own room. "You won't tell?" I whispered to him. "I'm not a fink," he replied, laughing. In the morning, we met at the breakfast table, both exhausted, never saying a word.


And so it went for the week he was in Boston: I would escort him around the city to poetry readings, interviews, and book signings. I followed him everywhere, secretly delighted to be in the entourage a poetry rock star, which to my thinking was even better than a regular rock star. In public, he was sometimes difficult, with an impatience that seemed a function of having limited time to say what he wanted to say, and of always having people make demands of him. Still, he'd sign books until the last dog-eared copy of Howl was shoved into his hands. I tried to play it cool, but swelled with secret pride when he took my arm as we walked out of a performance. At night, we would return to Cambridge and find ourselves in bed in the upstairs room, again engaged in interactions far more gentle than graphic. It seemed, in some way, a natural outgrowth of a teacher relating to a student, this curiosity and intimacy. There was nothing strange about it to me, though I didn't want anyone in my family to know. It was a secret I felt was too bright and strange for them to really understand. When the book tour in Boston ended, Ginsberg went on to Chicago and I returned home to Vermont.


Time passed. I went on with my college life, and saw Ginsberg whenever our paths crossed. I went to hear him read at Dartmouth; he invited me to sit with him at an awards dinner. We became friends-platonic-and it's the memories of our simple, charming friendship that I usually think of now. We once watched Don't Look Back together, and it was so strange to see him standing thirty-five years before in the background of the video shoot for "Subterranean Homesick Blues." He laughed out loud when Dylan asks a British reporter "You got any poets like Allen Ginsberg?" Another time, he asked me, "Have you ever heard of Beck? Beck's great. A real poet." I was in college and he knew more about Beck than I did. The last time I got to spend with him was a blustery week in the winter of 1997, during my first year after graduation. He was in Cambridge to visit his cardiologist. He was frail even compared to how he had been a few years before, and could barely manage to walk on the freezing sidewalks of a New England winter. At Elsa's house, he would sleep sixteen hours a day, but would still insist on cooking for me, making soup or porridge and sending me out to the Haymarket--where my great-grandfather had run a fruit stand eighty years before, speaking only Yiddish--to get overripe persimmons. I felt almost as though I could sense all his loves and sorrows weighing him down. He stood in the kitchen in a bathrobe, so thin I could have picked him up and carried him to his bed.


We went shopping for Tibetan rugs for his loft, taking a half hour to walk the three blocks to the store. I kept his pace, a barely perceptible shuffle in the cold wind. Ginsberg had to concentrate so intently on walking that he hardly spoke. He wore a heart-monitoring machine in a bag on his shoulder, recording every beat over a 24-hour period, a seismographic record of his faltering body. I transcribed poems from his journals onto the computer, giving him a few timid editorial suggestions as I went along. He in turn reciprocated by tearing apart a short story of mine, telling me to "drop all the sentimental bullshit and tell the story."


Ginsberg was still at Elsa's when I had to leave to go to an internship in Austria. He kissed me goodbye on the lips, and stood in the doorway as my airport taxi pulled away. Three months later, I got an e-mail from my aunt, telling me that he had been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and had six months to live. I freaked out. I started folding a thousand origami cranes for him, after a Japanese folk legend that it would grant the recipient a wish. Four days and 600 paper cranes later, I got another e-mail. It read: Akkeb us in a cina. Looking at the keyboard, I realized Elsa had been crying too hard to see what she'd typed. What she meant to type was: Allen is in a coma. And the next day he was gone. It was nighttime and snowing when I found out, and I went out into the darkness and sobbed for a long time. I wept for myself, really; for the loss of one who could have granted me entrée in the mysteries of New York, and who I'd hoped would help me actualize, as Kerouac wrote, "that great writer I thought myself to be."


During that last visit together in Cambridge, I sat for hours at the table and made little origami animals for Ginsberg. We watched The Simpsons. But there was none of the flaring, mysterious seduction of our earlier encounters. He never even mentioned them. I've wondered since that time if I should have gone to him in the night; if there was any youthful energy I could have imparted to help bring back some of his old strength. The last reserves of his old self seemed concentrated in his voice alone, which was as vibrant as always. And now, now he belongs to everyone. Not just to his love-boys, of whom I was but one of a legion (there are so many of us, wandering the Lower East Side with these tales.) But to all the fretful, hopeful humanity that he called his family. To all who've seen, in his words, the dearness of the vanishing moment-the beauty of an illusory garden, the chaos of the city, a night in bed-and who know that what he wrote thirty years ago about the role of poetry is also about the simple role of being alive:


"And what's the work?" he told us. "Ease the pain of living."