By George Wallace
It's tough for even the most insistent ecstatic visionaries of 20th century America to maintain his sense of wonder, when he's slammed in the face with a national trauma of tsunami proportions.
That's a big message to draw from Allen Ginsberg's poem Nov 23, 1963: Alone.
The poem has returned to the limelight this year, plucked from the canon of Ginsberg's collected works -- handset, letterpressed and handbound by Bottle of Smoke Press for an event organized by Three Rooms Press, marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy.
The poem makes for a compelling, if sobering read, as it takes us through Ginsberg's spiritual ruminations the day after that assassination.
In essence, we find Allen Ginsberg in a house at 1403 Gough Street, San Francisco, 'confused, shock-fingertipt' on a rented typewriter, the weekend after Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas.
Over three pages and 34 lines, the reader re-experiences the poet's attempt to sift through his demystified world -- populated with literary hopefuls, hangers-on, meth heads, suicides and arrivistes -- stripped of the ecstatic character he might otherwise have invested in that world.
The man who had become famous by decrying his sense of alienation and aloneness in dominant American society -- and who helped magnetize an alternative community of self-described Angel-headed hipsters who sought to communally ward off that alienation -- finds himself alone again, in the cold light of post-assassination morning, confronted with a cadre of quite unmagical friends and associates.
Here's Charlie, muttering in his underwear-strewn bedroom. Here's Lucille, talking to herself. Anne is mourning her pockmarked womb. Lance, with his crummy painting, is smiling and wan. This one proclaims horses' teeth metaphysics. That one, fat with child, grieves her adolescent backseat romances. A weak whitehaired fellow is chewing on his teeth, lost in his own pointlessness. A gaptoothed poet has a bandaged tendon. Someone's trying to making a big deal about courtesy over the kitchen linoleum. Someone else has made an insulting collect call from back in New York.
There's blood in the furnace. "Go to Hell" is spoken on the street corner. Untrustworthy strangers appear at the door, trying to score. Obscure novels and magazines of beat writers (“Happiness Bastard, Sheeper…Soft Machine, Genesis Renaissance, Contact, Kill Roy, etc.") are strewn through the room.
At best, it is an unglamorous recitation. Where's the ecstasy? Where the celebration? Where the transformative power of camaraderie and visionary impulse?
In the last line, Ginsberg offers up a glimmer of hope that there is some direction in which to go. He declares that he will break off from the news of the world -- and from the tawdry, hangover-grim crowd which surrounds him -- and go into another room, 'where Adam & Eve lie, to get my hair spermy.'
Are we to buy it? Are we to take it as self-irony? Or as a legitimate assertion by Ginsberg that it's actually possible to rekindle the psychic self, to reignited the magic in our lives and in the lives of our Angel-headed hipster associates, through some frank sexual engagement, in another room, with the origin-myth figures of the Judaeo-Christian bible.
Before jumping into the sack with the folks from Eden, I for one would like Ginsberg to have given us a better clue as to just where this 'other room' is located -- the place to which, when the world has been demystified, we may vicariously lie with Adam & Eve, bathed and renewed, hair spermy in the original grace and innocence of their sexual congress.
Ginsberg does not address that question in Nov 23, 1963: Alone. What he does say, in abundance, is that even for hipsters and mystics, there may come a moment in our lives when the world shockingly intrudes, and we find ourselves alone -- locked in the same lonely self where we have always been -- stripped of the ecstatic vestments we have conferred upon our lives and our relationships.
What will we do?
A good way to start is to visit with Allen Ginsberg and the Gough Street crowd, through this exquisitely produced limited edition letterpress rendering of his poem.
120 copies of Nov 23, 1963, designed, printed and bound by Bill Roberts at Bottle of Smoke Press in Dover Delaware, were distributed gratis at Three Room Press’ JFK/NYC/OMG event in New York City on November 22, 2013. The poem may be found in COLLECTED POEMS 1947-1997, by Allen Ginsberg (HarperCollins 2006).