A birthday party on the roof of Hell
Allen Ginsberg, June 3rd 1926 – April 5th 1997
DF: I’m surprised they sent you to Hell, I’d have thought …
AG: Oh, let me tell you, a whole lot of people wanted me in Hell, Lyndon B Johnson, Richard Nixon. Man, most of those guys, the CIA, the FBI – when you think about it.
DF: No, I mean, I don’t believe in Hell anyway …
AG: Oh yeah, you kidding me?
DF: Well, where is it?
AG: Right where you’re standing kid.
DF: I’m sixty-seven.
AG: Yeah, well I guess today I’d be … let me see, ninety-four. I never made it past seventy-one. A bad doctor, a nasty needle. Long story
DF: Happy birthday anyhow. I’ve got some beer in the shed, if you’re interested.
AG: Appreciate your offer. No, I’ll just smoke some of your poppies.
DF: Be my guest.
They continued watering the peas, beans, and potatoes – companionably enough for all Allen Ginsberg’s crackly manner. The soil paths were baked and dusty so that the watering cans made broad brown tracks in the beds where the beans themselves were yet to come up. There were robins and woodpigeons, and somewhere, a goldfinch sounding like a tiny mechanical musical instrument. A perpetual conversation of sparrows issued from the brambles.
AG: You have some kind of disease here.
DF: No those potatoes are fine, flowering well now.
AG: Asshole. I mean out there. People stuck in their apartments afraid to go out, and your freaking government, man, broadcasting A-grade bullshit!
DF: Sorry I see what you mean. Yes, my friend died of it. I shared a house with him back around the first time you and I met. Six weeks before, he was fit and well. His wife and two boys couldn’t even be there at the end.
They put down their watering cans. Allen Ginsberg put a smoky arm round the somewhat younger man.
AG: Hell. You see what I mean? You’re standing right on it.
DF: But why didn’t you choose some Buddhist cloud-temple ‘woven by a priest in Sikkim or Tibet’?
AG: Might be the same thing. Look, Christians didn’t invent the underworlds, didn’t even name them. They’re warm in the winter. I get to go drinking with William Blake, John Milton (yeah, for sure), my old buddy Jack Kerouac. And let me tell you, Moloch ain’t there. He’s up here, standing on the roof.
DF: Are we thinking of the same person?
AG: It’s always the same person.
DF: That makes me think of your poem America. It was one of those poems that opened my head, when I first came across you in 1971 in a small university town by the sea. ‘America when will you send your eggs to India?’ America had too many eggs and people in India were starving. It wasn’t about daffodils, it was spewed forth, everything that was wrong with America. It made me think about my own country’s uncomfortable place in the world. Poetry had done that, not history or politics.
AG: Remember the last line? ‘America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.’ That was politics. But no daffodils. I wrote about a sunflower one time too, though. Me sitting with Kerouac in the garbage of a tincan banana dock where we found a dead sunflower.
DF: Those are sunflowers at the end of that bed there.
DF: They’ll get bigger. Squirrels love them.
AG: ‘… it was my first sunflower, memories/ of Blake – my visions – Harlem.’ Later it goes ‘seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air.’ Shit man, 1955!
DF: I was two.
AG: Mind if I smoke some more of your poppies?
By now they had reached the sweetcorn, which was just beginning to show pairs of bright inch-high leaves. It was that time of early evening when your shadow stretches downhill onto the next plot, when blackbirds begin their strategic singing from stations at the tops of trees and chimneys, and when any grass or thistles let grow start to shine by way of advertisement to the goldfinches.
DF: Now I remember! In Howl you talk about those ‘who […] rose up to build harpsichords in their lofts.’ I’ve had a thing about harpsichords ever since I read that line. And listen, a goldfinch. Would you say it sounded like a faraway harpsichord, maybe sped up, maybe made of silver?
AG: Or tiny scraps of tin.
DF: Then, on that same page you talk about those ‘who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incan/tations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of/ gibberish,’
DF: That’s me, every Friday night, maybe other nights, still. I edit and revise like crazy, but then it’s ugly, or dead.
AG: And that’s me, right there man.
They fall silent awhile, gazing at the sweetcorn and the dribbling of tiny watercourses through the particles of soil.
DF: I hope the birds don’t get them. Anyway, how do I get it all to come straight and true, fresh and clear?
AG: Add a little lysergic acid when you plant them.
DF: No, I mean the poems not the plants.
AG: Like I say …
Only one shadow remained, longer still now, on the vegetable roof-garden of Hell. The sky was one blue hand.
Selected bibliography and links:
Wait Till I’m Dead: Uncollected Poems, Grove Press, 2016
Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, Penguin Modern Classics, 2009
Death and Fame: Poems 1993–1997, HarperFlamingo, 1999
Selected Poems: 1947–1995, HarperCollins, 1996
Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems, 1986–1993, HarperCollins, 1994
White Shroud: Poems, 1980–1985, Harper & Row, 1986
Collected Poems: 1947–1980, Harper & Row, 1984
Full recording of Ginsberg reading Howl