The Happy Birthday of Death, Gregory Corso
New Directions, January 17, 1960
How powerful I am to imagine darkness!
-from “Power” (for Allen Ginsberg)
It’s August and hot and you’re on a train crammed into a small compartment with six other people somewhere in central Germany. The chubby middle-aged man across from you is wearing a black Primal Fear T-shirt. He looks English or Dutch or German but you can’t really tell other than he’s blonde and loves Primal Fear (which you think might be a band, film or video warfare game). The others are definitely French or Belgian. You’re on your way home. Another long trip and place in a long list of trips and places.
You’re 50. You smile and laugh to yourself and feel relatively healthy and content. Recently you threw not one, but two parties in honor of your birthday (the decadence!). But deep down inside you feel strange somehow. Odd. As if someone had pulled a black and ugly sweater over your head. Like some old granny left her twisted shoes on your front doorstep. Even worse, left you her dead husband’s broken pocket watch. But no, not even this gets you down.
There is no us, there is no world, there is no universe,
there is no life, no death, no nothing—all is meaningless,
and this too is a lie—O damned 1959!
Must I dry my inspiration in this sad concept?
Delineate my entire stratagem?
Must I settle into phantomness
and not say I understand things better than God?
Not everyone has gotten this far. You write out their names. Martin, Rosie, Armin, and Beatrice. Christine, Ernst, Anne, and Hani. Victor, Virgie, Ray and Kasper. Marcel & Eneke. Vivienne and Gladys Lee. These are just the close ones. You kiss their pictures late at night when no one’s looking. You light candles for them in the garden. You say their names out loud in bed before you go to sleep. You read them poems by dead poets realizing only then the true meaning of (1930–1990), (1922-1970), (1955-2010). Names and numbers. Trips and places. Dates and years. Oh how soft the sweater feels! Oh how shiny these shoes! The chubby man gets off at Frankfurt. Auf Wiedersehen, he says. Auf Wiedersehen, you say back.
A departed train is a train to arrive.
Like magic another plump man gets on the train replacing the other one and sits right across from you as if no one has moved. Red plain polo shirt. Sad blue canvas carry bag with IT convention logo. Guten Tag, he says to you. Guten Tag, you say back. They come and go like summer fireflies. Like frankfurters and firecrackers. What a procession! You wonder if the fat guy is pondering just as much about the other fat 50-year-old (you) sitting across from him. Two fat men on a train! Another woman wearing black stretch shorts is reading Fifty Shades of Grey in German. Shades of Deep Purple. Shades on the window. “Thoughts of Mary Jane.” The young French couple are definitely lovers.
I have no particular Power but that of Life.
Gregory Corso understood fully. Living the filth and dirt and beauty and squalor and all the wild poetry and life that was the Beat Hotel Paris in the ’50s. They were all there. Ginsberg. Burroughs. Gysin. Ginsberg couldn’t go back home to New York until Kerouac sent money. Kerouac couldn’t send money until Putnam sent him his royalty check. Burroughs couldn’t get published until Ginsberg typed up Naked Lunch. Gysin was supporting Burroughs from his VA check. Corso was pinching off them all as well as every long-legged debutante or artist crossing the rue Gi-le-cour.
By light follow, O child of dark, by light embrace!
touch my electric hand.
-from “For K.R. Who Killed Himself in Charles Street Jail”
They were all ragged and penniless and desperate but utterly generous, happy, and free. Living and searching as fast as they could. So manic and mad and poetic that no one could keep up with them or catch them. Almost. They lived as if they just knew. As if they just knew that one day, early in the morning or late at night or in the middle of their sticky apéritif somewhere at a café or at some dusty college bookshop during a reading—they just knew very early on that sad and vicious fact that we seem to ignore every day in every falling leaf on every dying autumn tree, every withering petal on every broken flower, every glowing eye on every beaming child or milky pupil of every grandmother. Something we all should have been taught a very long time ago but somehow always knew.
And that is this: all goes away. Everything.
At first you think it goes slowly and you have all the time in the world and you just don’t care or think about it or ignore it or put it off, but as you grow older the slowness just gets quicker until it is huge and ugly and all-powerful and undeniable and overwhelms and overtakes you and increases so damn fast you can’t keep up with it. And then … then you realize that they did in fact tell you long ago! Everybody’s fat uncle knew and wouldn’t shut up about it! At Christmas or Thanksgiving or birthdays you hated but were forced to go to. They did in fact tell you fully and completely all down the line but you just didn’t listen and kept forgetting so you scold yourself now for being such a lame fat old ignorant bore sitting on a stuffy stinky train and repeating it all over again to yourself. Just like them!
There be a palace in Deathland
Deathchildren sapping in sunny porticos
Deathhorses nibbling deathgrass
Say it out loud. Call out the names. Say them twice. Remember. All those dear and beautiful and wildly colorful names who were in fact fiery and majestic living human beings. Kiss their black & white and Kodachrome faces. Light a candle. Ring the bells. Write a poem. If not then read one out loud that’s already been written. Every day. Twice a day. Let not all be for naught. No. Please. Not all! Live and live now and let yourself know about it. Every fucking day.
What dies dies in beauty
What dies in beauty dies in me
-from “On Pont Neuf”
The sinking sun sends flickers through the train window not unlike Gysin’s magical dream machine. It is soft and soothing and you suddenly go into an alpha wave rush. The two young French lovers are the only ones left in the compartment on the train and they are now kissing intimately holding each other tight as the summer sun ceases. Not a plump man in sight other than your reflection in the train window. You sink down into your seat and fall further into Alpha Centauri. Life is good. You are alive. And you haven’t even reached Basel yet.