Death and Fame
By Allen Ginsberg
Review is written and copyrighted by Adrien Begrand.
So I finally got a copy of Ginsberg's Death & Fame over the weekend, and I finished it last night. Liked it a lot.
Much of the book is what one would expect from a latter-day Allen Ginsberg: obsessive political rants, vegetarian rants, homoerotic rants, and smatterings of poems that are true gems.
The political content can seem a bit overbearing, but you can't question Ginsberg's sincerity. "New Democracy Wish List" was written as a letter to President-elect Clinton ("Sexuality's loose not fixed. Legalize it."), and was sent to the White House (of course, with little consequence).
"These Knowing Age" is one of the first poems in the book to touch on Ginsberg's deteriorating health, and is a simple gentle poem that ends "These knowing age often/keep quiet."
"Tuesday Morn" is a wonderful, detailed account of Ginsberg's daily routine upon awaking, which seems to last several hours. Just the slow, casual everyday routine of an urban Li Po.
"Amazing Grace" and "Ballad of the Skeletons" are included in the book, as they should be, being two of the best pieces Ginsberg wrote in his last five years.
"City Lights City" was written for the dedication of Via Ferlinghetti in San Francisco, and Ginsberg goes on to lovingly dedicate other SF landmarks to the rest of his circle of friends. He concludes "& I'll take Alcatraz (to return to Native Americans along with Treasure Island)."
"Pastel Sentences" is a section of the book that closely resembles Kerouac's Western Haiku, with Ginsberg using the traditional seventeen syllables, but in one single line. The sentences were written while looking at a collection of paintings, and the lines are short but full of detail: "They exchange glances, a bee shadows her tail, a rose grows on his hip." "Wiping blood-black tears from hard labor, try holding up your sad head."
"Is About" is pretty self-explanatory, with lines like "Dylan is about the Individual against the whole of creation", "Poe is about looking at the moon from the sun", "Universe is about Universe", and "Allen Ginsberg is about confused mind writing down newspaper headlines from Mars."
Ginsberg's trademark humor is ever-present, especially in the hilarious "Here We Go 'Round The Mulberry Bush", where he rewrites the nursery rhyme, changing it to an ode to his incontinence. It would be easy to write it off as lazy, bad writing, but it took a lot to take something as serious as his illnesses so lightly.
"Death & Fame" is the best poem in the book, and one all Subs listmembers should be familiar with, in which Ginsberg ruminates on what he would think his funeral would be like. It starts off in a somber mood (When I die/I don't care what happens to my body/throw ashes in the air, scatter 'em in East River"), but goes on to say he wants a big funeral, attended by many of his Buddhist Gurus & friends. When he gets to the part about all his ex-lovers in attendance conversing, that's when the poem really takes off, full of love, sensitivity, and humor ("You too? But I thought you were straight!"). Ginsberg writes a half-serious mock tribute to himself, and expresses humility in the final lines: "Everyone knew they were part of "History" except the deceased/who never knew exactly what was happening even when I was alive."
When the dates of the poems get to March of 1997, the subject turns to Ginsberg's rapidly deteriorating health, providing us with a firsthand glimpse at what Ginsberg was going through. At first there's true fear expressed ("leaden limbs/lassitude/bed rest/shit factory/this corpse/cancer"), then Ginsberg's inexhaustible humor ("Shit machine piss machine/I'm an incredible piss machine").
At the end the mood changes to reflection. Ginsberg ends the book, as well as his life, with two heartwrenching pieces: the first, "Dream", describes a dream Allen had of actually giving birth, and his longtime love Peter showing up to take care of the child. He reaffirms the feelings he had for Peter over many decades: "What compassion he has. Reassured I felt the miracle was in Peter's reliable hands..." The poem concludes: "A glow of happiness next morn, warm glow of pleasure half the day."
By this time Ginsberg was aware of the gravity of his illness, and instead of withering away, he faced his death head-on in his lat poem, "Things I'll Not Do (Nostalgias)". In it he lists everything he wishes he could do once again, from bathing in the Ganges, to visiting Los Angeles, to reuniting with Burroughs & Bowles in Tangiers, to simply walking home. He concludes both the poem and his life's work by wishing he would simply live again: "Not myself except in an urn of ashes."
So concludes the best poetry of the last fifty years. In Death & Fame Ginsberg, despite his worsening illness, managed to live his life to the fullest, never wallowing in self-pity. The end notes were written by his assistant Bob Rosenthal, and lovingly recount the last few months of Ginsberg's life, the best part being the reciting of "Death & Fame" in a taxi, putting both Rosenthal and Ginsberg in hysterics.
While I love the poetry of Jack Kerouac, Lew Welch, and Charles Bukowski, no other poet ever touched me so deeply as Allen Ginsberg. His writing provided us with a complete glimpse of his soul, sparing us nothing in the process. From that fateful Blake vision in the forties, to his deathbed thoughts, and the myriad life events in between, Allen has left us with a collection of work that will forever go unparalleled. The circle may be complete, but that wheel will turn forever.
+ White Shroud
+ Cosmopolitan Greetings
+ Death & Fame
= the greatest autobiography ever written