Allen Ginsberg’s Iron Curtain Journals, reviewed by Marc Olmsted

Iron Curtain Journals (January-May 1965) by Allen Ginsberg, edited by Michael Schumacher / University of Minnesota Press /

Iron Curtain Journals by Allen GinsbergIron Curtain Journals covers a particularly interesting slice of time in Allen Ginsberg’s writing, Jan.-May 1965, anticipated by 1961’s “Prose Contribution to the Cuban Revolution,” and bracketing the creation of the major poems “Kral Majales” and “Who Be Kind To.”

“Prose Contribution,” now part of the collection of essays Deliberate Prose. came to the post-psychedelic conclusion that no system of government could triumph without a major turning about of awareness.

This, in fact, is what these journals are, as Ginsberg faces the Marxist-Leninist systems first-hand that held some promise but ultimately betrayed their idealism.

Having returned from India and still on his way to a brief stint in the Haight of San Francisco, Allen, by his own later admission, had not yet learned to meditate, but he knew the effect of mantras, both Tibetan and Hindu, by chanting them aloud and repeating them silently in an informal way. Much has been made of Ginsberg’s 1963 poem “The Change: Kyoto-Tokyo Express,” which was written after leaving India — but what exactly changed? Ginsberg still continued to find the poem significant enough to hand out to a fellow poet in Cuba. We find here in the Cuban journals:

“I explained my Indian Mystery version of “get back in your skin” or return to the body, that Death was only a threat only if life is lived solely in the mental worlds but life opened to infinity like in Blake if lived in the feeling body – which means acceptance of this body that must die -”

Thus the line in “The Change” that Ginsberg told Gordon Ball in the late 60s he then considered his own most significant:

“…so that I do/ live I will die.”

Though Ginsberg would revise his view into a more authentic Buddhist one after an actual serious car crash at the end of 1968 – “I gotta get a new metaphysics. Body’s too unreliable.” Ginsberg wrote Ferlinghetti at the time of his accident – “The Change” gave us Allen as the supergregarious 60s version that remains his most popular persona, though not his wisest. This is the persona that leaps through the pages of Iron Curtain Journals and ultimately gets him tossed from both Cuba and Czechoslovakia. The amazing news is to see fleshed-out incidents and elements of what has only been touched on in Ginsberg’s poetry and subsequent bios, particularly in the lengthiest journals from Cuba.

The briefest are from Czechoslovakia because that journal was confiscated by the secret police, a journal he always hoped he’d get back and even thought he might when Vaclav Havel was made President. Alas, it appears to be long gone. Michael Schumacher manages to bridge the time there from a lengthy letter describing the events that involved him being crowned King of the May, “Kral Majales,” by university students (though a former Czech student’s account after Allen’s death would indicate the election was fixed as a prank, a disappointment perhaps to Allen and certainly to many of us who had mythologized the event). Schumacher also includes the original draft of this poem, which is itself a near-journalistic account.

“…examined my scribbles,/and followed me night and morn from the /houses of lovers to the cafes of Centrum…
…and I am the king of may (sic), which is long hair,/Adam and the Beard of my own body…
…and I am the King of May, which is old Human/poesy, and 100,000 people chose my name…”

There are many moments of journal description that are pure literature in themselves.

“Carpathian villages, snow patches – pink mist, later thatched cottages -”

“Shoveling snow into trucks – woodpiles and lumberyards, great piles of concrete piled up in the snow. Flocks of black crows. A furry horse – frozen rivers with footprints trailed upstream. Iron towers for small tension wires, small in the broken fields.”

“- the midiaeval fortress still in postatomic operation, offices and central bureau there with the formal front of the old Feudal shield & wall and turret & clock and gold onion dome and peaked gate keep solid as the Bronx Zoo right in the middle of Moscow — ”

Rounding it all out is Ginsberg’s “Who Be Kind To,” written for the international poetry reading he’d helped organize in London. The poem, like “Kral Majales” is a plea and declaration of the “feeling body” that so underlined all of Ginsberg’s Iron Curtain adventures.

“Be kind to yourself, because the bliss of your kindness will /flood the police tomorrow,…
…Be kind to your neighbor who weeps solid tears on the television /sofa -…

Two more journal collections (yet unnamed) are being put together by Schumacher. I certainly look forward to them.

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