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Breathing scared

Raging against the injustices and fractures that have come to define the USA is a sane response to the state of that country and the roots of this awareness were laid down in the 1960s by people like the poet Allen Ginsberg.


Photo: Pixabay

Sean Sheehan


“The fall of America journals” brings together entries from his notebooks, poems and transcriptions made from tape recordings he made as he travelled around his country between 1965 and 1971.

The writing starts with a hiking holiday in the north-western states, enjoying the natural landscapes but troubled by perplexing dreams and thoughts of the killings unleashed by the Vietnam War.

He returns to San Francisco and writes a poem about a friend who committed suicide a decade earlier, painful memories that trigger “needles of anxiety flowing in your skin”.

Ginsberg’s reflections are honest and heartfelt. A lot of his spontaneous ‘auto poesy’ is interesting only in parts but his curiosity about life around him reveals a warmth of personality that endeared him to friends and acquaintances. He listens to Bob Dylan, admitting that the “genius minstrel” is writing better poetry than he did at the same age.

On the tape recorder that Dylan helped provide, he records “Iron horse” about a train journey undertaken from California to Chicago, listening to young soldiers aboard who are bound for Vietnam: “the Iron Horse hurrying to war”.

As the war intensifies with the systematic bombing of North Vietnam, Ginsberg’s alarm at the state of his country increases.

In 1967, his visit to the UK inspires “Wales visitation” and in Italy he is thrilled at the opportunity to meet a sorrowful Ezra Pound who admits to, as he puts it, his “stupid suburban  prejudice anti-Semitism”.

At the Spoleto Festival he is arrested for reading “Who be kind to” with its mentions of body parts, though presumably not for lines like:

Be kind to your disappearing mother and

father gazing out the terrace window

as milk truck and hearse turn the corner

He spends 1968 criss-crossing his country and the scattered thoughts recorded from that year reflect a turbulent period of protest and counter-culture activities.

The following year he notes down that “I have, America has, too many possessions to sleep peacefully in the morning, doze late while the birds twitter in the fog.” Ginsberg is capable of standing back and seeing his body, his situation, in all its meaningless corporeality: “lay in dark in reptile-headed body snout-a-pillow breathing scared at center of vast godless universe” but his commitment to protest is undiminished.

Photo by Ted Eytan / Flickr. Creative Commons License.

“The fall of America journals” is a chronicle of a state of disorder and this is reflected in Ginsberg’s  uneven outpourings of dismay at what was taking place around him. The journal entries amount to a premonition of what was yet to come and were he alive the sense of  loss and outrage would shine brightly in these dark times.

“The fall of America journals”, by Allen Ginsberg and edited by Michael Schumacher, is published by University of Minnestota Press.

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