Bei Dao on Allen Ginsberg -2

Bob Donlon, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, Robert La Vigne and Lawrence Ferlinghetti outside City Lights bookstore, San Francisco, 1956 – photo: Allen Ginsberg

Bei Dao on Allen Ginsberg continues from here

Allen’s eyes betrayed his true madness – his eyeballs bulging out at two different angles. He would look at you with one eye and follow his thoughts with the other. [Editorial note – this “look”, in later years, was a physical manifestation of his Bells palsy] He once gave me a book of his photographs. These black-and-white shots conveyed the twin exposures of his two eyes. Most of the photographs were of friends from the Beat Generation, huddling around together, arms around each other, with weary smiles. At the very moment that Allen would want to capture something his focus would drift, like the other eye immersed in the depth of his thoughts. The voice was soft and low, the colors completely faded, because Allen wanted us to experience the power of loss – genuine sadness. Another photo was Allen’s self-portrait – sitting naked, legs crossed, facing the bathroom mirror, camera resting in his crotch. His bald head with thick tufts curling up the sides, his eyes flashing like bulbs. The photo must date from at least twenty years back. Was he capturing himself or his own impending sense of loss?

Allen taught me how to take photos. In Seoul in 1990 he teased me about my instant camera. “Dummy cameras make dummies”. He advised me to get a mani manual Olympus like his – small, lightweight, easy to handle, and with excellent manual controls for creating special effects. Unfortunately, this particular brand, since it had been discontinued, could only be bought in secondhand stores. He warned me against using flash, which would destroy the sense of space, and suggested I invest in high-speed film that would do well in lower levels of light. When we met again the following spring I came equipped with the camera he had suggested. Allen turned it over in his hands, enquired about the exact details my purchase, and finally agreed that I had gotten a good deal. Then he showed me how to use available light, and how, when the lighting was poor, to press ones arms against the chest, and holding ones breath, snap! Snap! he took two rapid fire pictures of me.

Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, New York City, 1985. Photo: Hank O’Neal

Allen had always taken care of his poorer buddies from The Beat Generation. They said he supported Gregory Corso for years by buying his paintings and giving him spending money I met Corso once in Allen’s apartment. Before he arrived, Allen, beaming with pride showed me his friend’s paintings. Corso turned out to be a husky fellow who dressed like a construction worker. We were sipping tea when Allen suddenly produced a collection of my poems, and Corso, equally unexpectedly, asked me to read one.  Corso grunted in appreciation. Allen sat in silence – a mute witness. Then he took us to an Italian restaurant. When Corso asked him for some money to buy cigarettes Allen tagged along like a skeptical father to make sure he wasn’t going to spend it on drugs. Allen highly recommended Corso’s poetry and suggested that I translate him into Chinese. He took me to a bookstore for a copy of Corso’s Mindfield, and then selected the poems he considered particularly significant. I translated a few of these with a friend, and then published them in the journal, Today. Allen was thrilled, and asked me to mail him a copy immediately so that he could give it to Corso.

Allen often got recognized out on the street. People sometimes dashed in to a nearby bookstore to buy a copy of one of his books for him to sign. Time permitting, Allen sketched out a Buddha surrounded by stars and divine creatures with the word “Ha” coming out of his mouth, Prayer or anger? [Editorial note – surely a confusion/transposition? – Allen would quite  frequently sign with the mantra, “Ah”] –  “I’ve signed too many things”, Allen told me, “Once I’m dead, you think they should be worth at least a couple of bucks each?”

Two years ago (sic), Allen sold his archives to Stanford for the tidy sum of one million dollars which created quite a stir.  Sheet for sheet, Allen figured out, it only averaged about one dollar. After taxes, the amount shrank to six hundred thousand, with which he intended to buy a larger apartment to share with his stepmother.


The day I received the phone call about Allen’s death I shut myself up in my room – a complete blank, That evening I called up. He calmly told me about Allen’s last few days in hospital. the doctors had diagnosed it as liver cancer and given him three to five months, “Man, this means goodbye”, Allen told Gary on the phone.

[1997] – Now wandering alone, glass in hand, through the great halls of Lincoln Center, I am here to attend the benefit dinner honoring the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of the American PEN Center. Allen died nine days ago and his name is still on the guest list . I don’t know many people here and I have no desire to meet anyone new. I’m searching for Allen in the crowd.

One comment

  1. A very beautiful, wonderfully personal and anecdotal series of memories. I am glad you and Allen had such good times together. It is different now, people don’t meet, don’t mingle, there is no exhilaration, only cold, blank digital commentary. A nonexistent future. But your thoughts here were very lovely to read.

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