Allen Ginsberg – Iron Curtain Journals

Publication day tomorrow (November 6) for Allen Ginsberg – Iron Curtain Journals – January-May 1965, edited by Michael Schumacher and published by the University of Minnesota Press – the first of three in a series of unpublished travel journals

Anne Waldman: “”Iron Curtain Journals is a romp of complex encounters and intrigue: arrest, deportation, samizdat romance, and the giddiness of candid poet-talk with international luminaries as the peripatetic chronicler asks: ‘What jump, what hemispheres crisscross of a sudden like a Shakespearean dream?’ Ever the most passionate and most famous poet-citizen of the world, and a cultural ambassador and radical champion of rights, human, sexual, social, Allen Ginsberg shakes and lifts the curtain on the soft spots of ‘communistic’ endeavor. From the ‘Marx Brothers Duck Soup’ of Cuba’s Revolution to being ceremoniously crowned King of May in Prague, to the light gleaming on cobblestones of Red Square (‘a cabaret of red marble atop Lenin’s tomb,’ his ‘backbone against the Kremlin Wall’), this book is a tribute to Perestroika’s delicate web, to a time still roiling with karmic urgency and agency. These journals are a welcome and relevant addition to Ginsberg’s huge oeuvre and persistent legacy.”

Michael Schumacher (from his introduction):

“He avoids nothing but experiences it to the hilt”, (William Carlos) Williams wrote in his introduction (to Howl and Other Poems). “He contains it. Claims it as his own – and, we believe, laughs at it and has the time and effrontery to love a fellow of his choice and record that love in a well-made poem”. I mention this because Ginsberg treated his journals in similar fashion. Like most writers’ journals, Ginsberg’s journals were intended to be a private record of raw materials, flights of fancy, and inspiration that might be world into something useful. When he was on the road, separated from family, friends, and country – which was often – he would fill notebook after notebook (there were five from Cuba alone) with whatever he felt like writing, whether that be detailed descriptions of his surroundings, scraps of conversation, accounts of daily events, new poems, random observations, dream notations, or even graphic records of his sexual activities. He had no need for secrets or editing, spelling or proper punctuation.”

He goes on:

“These raw materials, predictably, were certain, authoritative, wistful, silly. His entries stood as light beams probing body and soul. Ginsberg believed that one should “notice what you notice” and his journal entries offered insight into what he noticed enough to notate. The process could be imprecise, which is why he argued, sometimes irritably, that his poems and journals were not autobiography, at least not in the strictest sense. He’d pass over important events, neglect to report his first impressions of seminal figures in his life. In this way, he was no different than anyone else.”

The journals here (January-May 1965) are broken down into four sections – “Cuba”, “Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union”, “Poland”, and “Czechoslovakia and England” (expelled from Czechoslovakia, he was put on a plane to London, the occasion of his compostion of “Kral Majales”, where he arrived, May 7 1965)

A few brief selections from each of those sections:

from “Cuba”

“Cuba so far enchanting like Marx Brothers Duck Soup revolution. The “revolution” an obsession in everybody’s mind, like the hallucinogenic drugs in mine, a change of reality itself. Everybody seems smart enthusiastic, but that it go the way they want. The architect lives cheap, builds big domed art schools, the scholarly ethnographer gets money to study voodoo – ‘culture folklorica” – the Casa De Las Americas like liberals from the Bronx a bunch of ladies running left wing culture  for idealistic Hope, the young Sick muchachos complaining & fighting a bureaucracy of bourgeois old dogmatic mediocrity Marxists – Guillen and another poet (Retemar) secretly visiting one Ramiro Valdez the Minister of Interior to complain about persecution of faggots in the streets by Lacra Social – they dissolved Lacra supposedly, but the whole ‘problems’ – “contraversio” about Departments of Social Undermining never made the papers…”

Castro on TV – Hotel Havana Riviera – Sitting, over notes, talking, hand to his mouth, then pointing, hair black on the television screen – Grabbing microphones to adjust them – riffling thru piles of papers sitting at end of the table – talking about airplane bombs attacking the sugar-cane – “The counterrevolution doesn’t even know where to tie the ropes” – his hair is mussed, he’s paranoid? about “enemies?” – 5,000 workers will get prizes – trip abroad – 1000 motorcycles – like a vast church raffle – refrigerators – small details, what kind of refrigerators go to what cities- He gets lost & is silent a moment looking at notes – a disc jockey – Der Fuhrer Gorilla – a pop art poster – lovable friend – Television giveaway program – A real hairy creature for president. Ten times more natural than Johnson in fact human, the numerous spontaneous changes of face & gesture in course of a speech like a man over coffee at night in a Mexican cafe, tapping the table with 3 fingers at once – a wristwatch & open neck khaki shirt and jacket – We have to incorporate the feminine half of the population into our Social productions…”

“He’s too facile with his gestures of amity, comradeship & kindness, as I am, for the same reason, a fantasy of idealistic preoccupations moving too fast in too much detail to really attend totally to anyone.”

“I made a mistake, I should have written daily descriptions like this years ago. On this planet I haven’t much time – combing my hair in the mirror saw the spreading fields of white in my beard; never noticed so closely before. That’s one thing beards are good for.”

from “Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union”

“..all afternoon in cafe with Jan Zabrana correcting images in his Czech head from text of Kaddish – At 5 p.m. with Peter Shelpi and gang young girls & boys to cellar on outskirts of Prague. we all read poems in room hung with fencing masks. a coal stove. old sofa, huge burlesque bass fiddle box filled with vodka bottles & aluminum foil – the upstairs neighbors come down to complain, only 4 were allowed to use the Mimeo Mag office – threatened to call police – But all 20 of us stayed and took photos & then read then to tramcar walking, again misty smog grime cobble streets – red tram came took us downtown Prague, a girl’s house, vodka and wine and we played truth came ala Dostoyevsky – a dozen of us, I was horny so proposed, “Who each will tell who how many he she would embrace with orgazim in this drunk room” – and we went round the table – everybody loved 2 or 3, I loved almost all -”

“Outskirts of Moscow – many small wood houses like summer bungalows in Belmar, fenced in the snow. Workmen and workwmen padded clothes with huge shovels on shoulders walking along railroad track. Train gliding very slightly. Light music on the piped-in speaker. La La La was this Pasternak‘s house? Did Voznesensky walk tru the slush by the railroad tracks to get to this fence and in this door? The one with the checkerboard white/black painted wood posts? Like old houses on River St. Paterson – the woman waist deep in snow, shoveling…”

“…Walked back up Gorky Street thru crowds, heavy hearted toward hotel to meet guide Nina – passing Pushkin statue  stopped & looked up a while, defeated. Iron or brass man with wild wooly hair, strange sideburn beard, looking empty-sad eyed down thoughtful also defeated – or bemused, a pathetic expression – standing there long time blue sky -I’d forgot to see everyone around as God, was seeing them as I thought they insisted, as Soviets – Felt lightness in my body & walked on looking people in the eyes more, tho’ still afraid. Odd sense of presence of everyone in Now movement with buildings around, crossing the big Pushkin statue street, young faces with fur caps & girls walking hand in hand holding net shopping bags full of cans and salami…”

“Much talk with Nina last few days about “art” – “But the artist must teach the people” etc. she says. I tried to explain how, but it’s a circular argument..”

“Sometimes I feel like Zeus walking thru Red Square”

from “Poland”

“On bridge over River, standing still, looking out train window at Warsaw for the first moments – orange setting sun, a boatful of blue crewmen practicing sport with oars – and the peaked roofs of old town red & brown, very tall on a hump by the river, a domed Church in front, rows of new grey apartments & in he midst from high…tower of a 19th century skyscraper. An old Polish horse clops by on the bridge dragging an open  wooden wheeled dray…”

“We went by old 19th Century promenade street & great delicate Water Palace from afar thru Park gates, & across river to Praga, crowded streets & Montmartre markets – then around looking at new architecture – Stalinist and post-Stalinist more modern style – then to the ghetto area – now a vast green and surrounded by new apartment projects, and minument showing old and young Hebrews with wild eyes and Torahs facing invisible Legions of Destruction – a gang of children gathered on the great stone platform under the metal bas-relief. I started crying  – Whatever happened was completely invisible – a whole new Universe had emerged in the same place in space – nothing left at all of that ruin or suffering except the monument and a few visitors..”

“I went on long walk down huge wide Soviet architecture street, and saw many wonderful small things & had many feelings & impressions but now home am too fatigued & the moment passed. Could have written well. This constant yoga of transcription requires such patience time energy & withdrawal from the actual scene to meditate & scribble slowly.”

“I went past all the shops, restaurants, cafes, faces staring at my head, withdrawn on Marzalhowska Avenue.  All the cashiers in all the small stores.  In Church, great files kneeling, waiting for Confession, an old white-haired priest leaned over in booth listening to the monotone silence, behind the scene under the giant Cathedral colmns a velvet drape & behind that the sharp sound of wood being sawn..    To make a list of small details!”

from “Czechoslovakia and England”

“At one o’clock knock on door while I was stretched out resting and opend door – in come some huge band of students in parasols & top hats. 1890’s dress. wescoats, canes, with Jesters, trumpets, – M.C. was young Jewish fellow I’d met last visit here, called in to translate – “Mr Ginsberg we have honor to beg your presence in procession to the Crowning of King of May and to accept our support for your candidacy of Kral Majales & we humbly offer you crown & throne” – a little cardboard gilded crown & they sat me on a chair with red drapes – I got out my fingercymbals & statue of Ganesh & chamois old coat & was carried down in elevator to a truck parked downstairs – there we rolled off singing & drinking beer to Technical School thru streets, announcing our presence -arrived at courtyard of Tech. school, big crowd of students, another truck with Dixieland band waiting, cases of beer, many girls, signs “Ginsbergum Kral Majales”… There I gave first speech “I’ll be the first kind king & bow down before my subjects. I’ll be the first naked king” – and quit talking -”

“Half hour there, assembling people & playing Dixieland & we set out thru streets, winding in and out of traffic till after five blocks we’d gathered several thousand people in our train – I kept getting up & singing Hari Om Namah Shivaya thru loudspeaker..””

“May 25, 1965  (London) – Central line Underground – a gentleman with shiny black shoes & black bulbous derby hat, white celluloid collar, pinstripe blue shirt & dark blue tie with tiny whitte circles…a 7 button black vest, his black coat’s second buttonhole jutted striped grey pants & grey wool socks – reading the Times – thru gold halfeye glasses.”

These few brief snippets just to give you a taste of the riches herein. A riveting, enthralling, start to this series. We can’t wait for the next two volumes!

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