Russell Thorburn had an occasion to ride around with Allen Ginsberg in 1974 while in the Upper Peninsula: he imagines what Ginsberg may have been thinking about.
I’d be spending the day with Ginsberg. He was middle-aged and fat and no longer able to dance on his toes. An untrained beard made him look more like the prophet Amos than a poet from the Bronx, somebody who could read your mind, but I was reading his mind that day. Or so I thought, as I sat next to him, for in his mind was a young Jewish boy instead of a middle-aged poet. We talked about most everything as we drove around the harbor town in a van, like the moon the night before in the Upper Peninsula sky or his reading with Louis Ginsberg, his articulate father who almost stole the show that night reading his poem about bombs bursting over Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War. For Allen, the Spanish Civil War was more of a dead man’s game; he roared back with his most famous poem at the time, “Howl,” read from beginning to end with his burning hipster heavenly tongue.
On our ride through the barely plowed streets of the afternoon, Allen had donned a tie to go along with his new threads and looked out the window with me at so much Finnish whiteness and I was only twenty-three years old. A poet of undeclared powers with long hair curling back over my shoulders, a teacher’s aide at the local high school who was supplying them with enough Bradbury to keep them happy. I had come along for this ancient breath of poetry, sun and moon and tree vibrations. I knew I couldn’t miss this ride in his rust bucket Chevy. It slid across the road, Allen gazed at the steeples of the churches, then saw Lake Superior in its Chagall deep blues that resembled part of a stained-glass window. It was a transcendent color of impossible criminals with golden heads, a stained glass that allowed the Belarusian Jewish painter to experiment with intense color. The student teacher who had been asked to show Allen around town before his flight back to the Bronx wheeled the Chevy back into the right lane, or at least the one that was safe.
I followed Allen’s black spectacles out the window to the hotel where his father was waiting. He seemed nervous with the three of us sharing this brief existential time together. Maybe he felt he hadn’t outperformed his dear father last night. He had sat on the floor of the gymnasium beside a sleeping dog and some Kodak happy photographer collected them in a single frame that would adorn the local newspaper the next morning: the caption to read Beat Poet, Beat Dog. Poor Allen probably felt like a teenager again, sitting there with the dog. If he ever had a dog, though, I don’t know.
Allen, almost doglike, and begging me to pet him, asked, “Did you enjoy the reading last night?”
“I thought, if you don’t mind me saying so, you’d read other poems too.”
I expected him to bark or bite me.
He was like a big shaggy dog with his long black hair. He showed me his canine teeth in a smile, as his tongue circled the interior of his mouth.
Maybe I should tell him his poem was just too long. I didn’t understand much of it besides its pain—that “howl” of doglike pain. I sat there on the gymnasium floor, listening. I could tell him my girlfriend with wide hips and small breasts had broken up with me. I had seen her there with another man.
“I can see in your face, you didn’t like it.”
His breath fluttered to the window, muttering something to the snow the truck slushed through, while more snow floated down from above, unanchored to the sky, as it covered the street and the roofs of houses.
I blinked. What was I supposed to do? I readjusted my wire-rims, smiled at the prophetic poet of the old school, “old school” meaning Moloch and the Bible. His beard bristled like a birthday for a condemned man.
“Are you a poet?”
I was like one dreamy painting of Chagall, wide-eyed with his Adam and Eve, in watercolor and ink wash, pen and ink on collage paper, or if Allen stared out at the lapis lazuli sky, he would have seen me undressing for a cold bath perhaps in Lake Superior. He could have slapped me for being so ignorant. I wanted to lie to him now, take back what I had said, but it was too late. Allen looked out the window and saw how ordinary the landscape really was; maybe something from Finland that was so white and suicidal, for it never changed much.
His lips curled slightly, you could see them burbling beneath his beard, his prophet Amos look, but he said little now. He asked when his flight was leaving—if they had time for lunch somewhere first, since he had grown hungry driving around.
Then he said “Upper West Side,” as if it had come from Time and Space, windows of tenements, anywhere radios could be played loudly, madly.
But maybe Allen was thinking of the murder back in Riverside Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The Beats were only cigarettes and coffee cups back then, newspapers unfolded and creased, then laid down to die on the cafe floor. Kerouac had been arrested along with Ginsberg as material witnesses in the murder case of an older man by a Columbia student. The older man’s body was weighed down with rocks in his pockets and shoved into the Hudson River.
He didn’t stay underwater for long, floated to the surface, and then the detectives got to work on the case. Kerouac admitted he had gone with Lucien Carr to bury the older man’s glasses and Boy Scout knife (the victim’s name was David Kammerer). They went to the movies afterward. What film they watched was Bogie in To Have and Have Not, he played Harry Morgan who ran a fishing boat called the Queen Conch out of Martinique, and all of this Hemingway supposedly wrote but it was heavily revised for Hollywood. For one, the novel said Cuba but they had to change that to Martinique.
It was said that Howard Hawks told Hemingway, who happened to be a friend of his on a fishing trip, that he could make a movie out of one of his worst books—and that was To Have and Have Not. And what played across the giant screen in a seedy movie house was that movie, which also featured Lauren Bacall who was hot in every scene with Bogie and an iconic Walter Brennan as Eddie, a has-been alcoholic rummy. There was Bogart, larger than life, slapping away at bad guys and loading a shotgun for a sea trip to pick up a French Resistance leader and his sexy wife.
And Joseph Breen of the Production Code cited three dozen violations from the script manhandled by one William Faulkner and Jules Furthman, claiming the women were prostitutes in the movie. Sexual repartee between Bogie and Bacall made the film memorable, but what did the material witnesses think as they sat in their movie seats wondering when they would be arrested?
Lucien Carr was an angel lost in a moviehouse, wearing his flannel shirt in defiance of any photographs that may be taken of him, the one who not only beat out words on typewriter, but had stabbed a man to death.
Blue-eyed, saddened by what he had done to Kammerer as a murderer, he watched the movie screen holding Hollywood violence out as entertainment. He wiped away his tears. He wouldn’t be able to explain anything to his parents.
“Every man must make a choice whether to trust somebody like Eddie,” Kerouac suggested to Lucien, in a kind of tough guy wisdom, inferring that he was an alcoholic, soothsayer character who spoke the truth in strange ways.
Lucien nodded his head, as they watched the Vichy police try to intimidate Bogie and Bacall’s characters at the hotel.
“I trust you, Jack, you’re my Eddie.”
But Jack was wondering if he should be trusted. They had already arrested Ginsberg and he was being questioned by the police.
“Maybe we should leave town, take a bus ride back to Lowell. My maman would hide us, they speak French Canadian there. Nobody would understand a single thing that she would say if questioned by a detective.”
Bogie didn’t waste any time in getting to the point. He reached into his desk for a gun and shot through it to kill one of the Vichy men.
Kerouac told Lucien, “I want to meet God in a movie theater, see him watching the same movie, hear him fumble for a pocketful of candy.”
“I didn’t mean to stab him to death,” he whispered back to Kerouac who looked like a high school football player with his big wide shoulders in a shirt that really didn’t fit him: he had outgrown it but still wore it.
He relied on his maman for his clothes.
Strange Lucien thought knowing how close he was to his mother, a French-Canadian family from Lowell, Massachusetts; and Jack was a cat lover too, he always seemed to have a favorite one back home.
Lucien didn’t know what jail would be like; he watched Bogie do the right thing on the screen and agree to rescue, again, the lovely wife who was willing to sacrifice herself to him for her husband’s wounds. He lay sick and close to dying in the hotel basement.
“I want to go back and dig up the knife and his glasses.”
“You mean you want to play the hero.”
“They’ll find you anyway, Lucien, and even me who is involved in your murder now. Let’s watch the rest of the movie.”
“Is that what God would tell me?” the handsome Lucien replied, gazing at the middle-aged man before them in a movie seat. But it wasn’t God at all. The man in black glasses and eating popcorn from his pocket pulled out a miniature Bible for them to see. He was going to preach to them from the Gospel of Mark. He told them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave. Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.”
“But this is a moviehouse,” Jack pointed out, leaning forward to pull on his coat collar, as if he were going to hit him.
Lucien, young and breathless, opened his hand to show Kerouac his fingers wiggling in their human prayer, as he joined one hand with the other, altar-boy style.
Kerouac nodded his head. He wasn’t going to punch the preacher who had sat down to watch the movie. A tear to his eye perhaps too, but in the dark you couldn’t see very well if a grown man was crying.
Looking through the window, Ginsberg must have seen their faces. He bared his own reflection as a bearded prophet, one with receding hair showing more skull than the curly black hair of his youth.
He hadn’t been at the movie theater with Lucien the day they buried the Boy Scout knife and the dead man’s spectacles. But the police detective would ask him in the interrogation room of a precinct some hard questions, if he had helped Lucien stab the man named Kammerer. He couldn’t tell him much about a murder. Jack and Lucien had seen the hot movie with guns and lots of bad characters slapped around. Nor had he heard anything of Lucien’s and Kerouac’s conversation while watching God in the seat before them.
His father waited back at the hotel for a ride to the airport. But while Ginsberg stared through the window of the truck, I heard Carr and Kerouac talking still of the preacher. He was unshaven, smelled of alcohol, shifting his eyes from the movie and back to them.
Lucien touched the preacher on the shoulder, and said, “If you have killed someone, it’s alright.”
His black glasses gave him an owlish, almost haunted look. He knew any day he’d be leaving Earth for a so-called Heaven. An informer would find him and report to the police some crime he may or may not have committed.
“You don’t have to report me to the police,” this overly skinny victim would say, changing his mind about dying for people he didn’t know.
“I am wanted by the police too.”
“Then we have that in common.”
A gun was fired through a desk in a key scene of To Have and Have Not. That got the preacher’s attention turned back to the wild big screen. He did something with his hands, feathery and foreboding, as if he knew the power of flight or escape.
“I dream of your arrest every night,” Lucien replied. “I wake up every night and hear the same strange crow calling me on the ledge of my window.”
“I can see you are hunted. They will catch you, so you must confess to your murder.”
Lucien turned his shoulder into Kerouac’s. They both knew that the police detectives could arrest both of them in the theater.
“Do you dream of how you will hang yourself in a hotel room?”
“I don’t dream of my death, only yours.”
“How do I die?” Lucien asked, not wanting to know as he began to locate his gloves and scarf.
And their words crossed one more time but meant nothing in the end, and the preacher hung his head in the pain that he knew would come.
He was eating popcorn in the seat before them; he wouldn’t deny anything, even if it meant nails driven into the palms of his hands.
I didn’t know if Ginsberg believed in God or anything. I knew that I did and wondered why I was sitting next to him on this ride around the Queen City.
Maybe he no longer thought about Kerouac and Carr, both dead, but only of himself as the truck skidded again over an icy road and the student teacher wheeled it back into the proper lane before crashing into another truck. Or maybe Allen saw all the faces at the university reading, their bright eyes looking back at him when he finally rose from his seated position on the gymnasium floor beside the dog.
Keroauc got angry when he touched the preacher on the shoulder, who suddenly was only thinking of his death.
“Let it go, Jack, he doesn’t want any part of a murderer.”
“I want to confront him here in the Starlight Movie Theater.”
“But while he’s watching the rest of the movie, Bacall has decided to go with the dangerous Bogart on an adventure.”
“Doesn’t he know what happens?”
“He wants to check out how well they did. Remember they had to tone down this movie so it’d pass the Production Code.”
“Lucien, we should take a bus anywhere after we walk out of the movie.”
“They are going to hang me from a tree, what’s the hurry, it’s already written.”
Lucien sighed miserably between his glance toward Jack and the woman listening behind them. She wore sunglasses in the dark theater, she was mysterious with the way she gathered her fingers at her open neckline: all gleaming skin and sexy. He found Jack was staring at her too.
Jack smoked a cigarette as they left the movie. Lauren Bacall was deep in his head, as was the guilty preacher man, and he watched as a bus splashed through the melting puddles of snow. He nudged Lucien. That was a bus they could take anywhere, just to forget murder. But Lucien with a scarf like a noose flapping around his neck ignored the bus movement—and Jack said a prayer in French Canadian, disguising his true feelings about murder.
He wanted to pet his cat he had left with his mother. He’d wrap the cat around his wrist like a fur and speak to its wise face. His brother Gerard told him he needed cats to protect him: they were his muse and good luck charm. He especially loved calico Persians and would bend his lips to kiss his cat on the head.
I’d never meet Kerouac. He was alive when I was in high school and reading On the Road. I don’t think I even knew he had died. But Jack Kerouac, or Jack Duloz, was dead.
I did meet Allen, though, whose black spectacles slipped terribly. His finger would correct them. He sweated when he was thinking too much. Kerouac was five years dead. Or so I imagined him like that with his face pressed against the window.
His father sat stoically in a chair waiting for their flight at the hotel. He looked out a window, too, seeing the snowy streets of the Queen City. The ore dock trembled in the gusts of icy wind, and he was thinking of Lake Superior as a killer. He would read about the Edmund Fitzgerald sinking in a November gale one day. Out the window, his mind drifted with all of the dead in his life, and the list was growing longer and deeper, with his own name being added sooner than later.
Beat Poet, Beat Dog
When the great poet in a sport jacket
reads, he parts the air about to tighten
around his throat at the lonely podium.
Let me sprawl beside his son plopped
on the gym floor, a beat poet beside me,
a beat dog, dreaming of chasing an animal
through the snowy yards of his neighborhood.
Some one hundred and fifty people away
from the stage, my floppy hound tail beats
to the older poet’s beat of his own soundless war,
talking about how bombs burst over Barcelona,
and where my master is I don’t know
but the girl on the other side of me ruffles my fur
the right way and I am not moving, not now,
her distinctive nose still arouses my interest,
her roundness of form like a Renoir.
And her dogged look staring at the old poet
behind the podium reminds me of love
my master bestows in my bowl of table scraps,
and I feel there is something missing here
like a bone not where it’s supposed to be.
And it’s my master who has left me
to hit on a girl across the gym floor.
His eye in orbit around the expanse of the room,
the old poet finally eyeballs his son there,
hair to his shoulders and oracular
in his scraggly, uncombed beard,
or maybe he did comb it that morning
in his hotel room they shared,
but his fatherly eye missed it.
It will be me on the front page with Allen;
and the caption reading: beat poet, beat dog:
and it will be me, that canine everybody loves.
The girl beside me has red hair
to her shapely shoulders, a luxurious body
hinted at beneath a winter sweater.
If she understood dog language, she’d know
my high intelligence as my head turns
and buries its snout between my legs:
an idiosyncratic hound who reads poetry,
stirred by a Ginsberg laying out what happened
to poets in another generation.
His son who will read next, so fully alarmed
at the attention his very Jewish father
is getting, shifts his large butt
and sighs dangerously; like always,
the son must follow his father leaning
on the podium, his billboard presence
bigger than he would like, but I am reminded
of the night with all its strange smells, the snow
outside discolored just right for me to sniff.