by Mark Howell
(This story has won first prize in the Florida Press Club Awards for Excellence 2007 in the category of Serious Feature ... Go Ginzy! Go Gorby!)
I guess the most famous person I ever met was the most obscure.
He was a monk who came to speak at my school when I was 12. He told us he had never seen himself in a mirror, had never seen his reflection in all his life.
It was not the main point of his talk and most of the kids let this news slide over their heads. But I have never recovered. He was a carelessly shaven man of utter integrity and fortitude. To the whirlpool of schoolboy self-consciousness that was me, he signaled that you need not complicate your inner battles by implicating a mirror image.
Consider the mirror for a moment. It gives you an image of yourself, yet it is you in reverse.
It is one thing, then, to say a cop mirrors a criminal. It is quite another to realize the cop is the criminal in reverse. And still another — there’s no end to this hall of mirrors — if you mean the honest thief, the tender murderer, the “dangerous edge of things” that Robert Browning called our primary interest always.
In my unmirrored monk I saw no reverse. I got his picture right away. He was all of a piece. It would be stupid to doubt him, rude to question him. This was not celebrity nor notoriety and I have forgotten his name if I ever knew it. His was the nameless fame that rings true right away.
By such a test, the only A-list characters I’ve met who were so clear of vanity that my response was bear-hug acceptance — and I did get to hug them, sort of, so to speak (how to explain this?) — were Gorby and Ginzy.
The ignescence of the Sixties came in colors everywhere. Expansion of consciousness was a political act and you could tell who your homies were from the length of their hair.
On the steps of the great Fitzwilliam Museum in 1965 hovered an avatar of all that. Allen Ginsberg, author of “Howl,” our generation’s very own “The Waste Land,” on tour in England and here he was in Cambridge, alone and looking for company. Here was the real-life Irwin Garden from Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Here was the word made flesh.
“One of the wiggy prophets come back,” according to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, his publisher, Ginsberg was smiling as we approached him on the museum steps.
“What’s your name?” he said.
I knew there’d be a problem with this.
“You’re kidding!” he cried, our first misunderstanding. “Howl?”
No, no, no. “It’s from the Welsh, hywl,” I said, explaining the surname. “Same root as the word longing.”
“Then so is howl,” he said.
“I think so,” I said. The longing for life, a fuel for afternoons of adventure, leaked from our hearts instantaneously so I introduced my friend Murphy. “Take me to a cathedral,” said Ginsberg. Having been exposed to Blake’s engravings in the museum, Ginsberg now wanted the full glory and his eyes glittered with the possibilities.
“Ely cathedral,” I said. “Not far at all.”
Ginzy sat up front with Murphy while I squeezed in back, the car tinier than the tiniest booth in the Trieste Cafe. But we were not in North Beach, we were on the windswept steppes of Albion and this balding, bearded geezer in open shirt and bluejeans was beyond ablaze. He started to chant a mantra, striking two little Tibetan cymbals in rhythm, hunched in his seat and calming himself marvelously.
Across the tundra we raced, zipping by other tiny cars on a flattened landscape of bare ruined choirs (Shakespeare) that was three-quarters sky (Tennyson). I stewed in the back. He was all of 40, we must have been half his age. It seemed to me that the Beats, let alone the Beatles, were sucking up every bit of the fame that would otherwise befall the rest of us. So I wanted to discuss power. Where is it? How d’you get it?
“Power’s in that chimney over there,” murmured the poet. Pausing in his chant, he might have been making a practical point until you caught the twisting column of bricks he was pointing at, stacked like a wish and a prayer on top of a Tudor house, a tube for smoke that made a spectacular case for the existence of the divine, groping for eternity through a marvel of time.
And I had missed it altogether.
I don’t recall much of the cathedral, not because I wasn’t paying attention — I knew now that the mantra of power lay in breath, in breathing open the doors of perception — but because my memory gets snagged by a group of autograph-hunters who held us up in the nave (“It’s for my daughter, OK ... We saw you on the telly?”).
I do remember Ginsberg making the rain come down in sheets on the return trip — unexpectedly and, insists Murph to this day, at the climax of his chanting. But I would not see the bard again until his phantom appearance at an event in London several weeks later. Wholly Communion, a night of poetry held at the Royal Albert, was, in Ginsberg’s view, disastrous because he was drunk (English beer is as warm as wine and as lethal when swigged). But British heads were totally sent by the affair and its musky secrets became synonymous with the capital’s nascent counter-culture: “Now we know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.....”
Immediately following his trip to Cambridge, Ginsberg invited the Beatles to his birthday party in Chester Square, a posh part of London. By the time John and George arrived with wives Cynthia and Patti, a naked Ginsberg’s underwear was on his head and a No Waiting sign hung from his penis. John was upset. “You don’t do that in front of the birds,” he said.
Ginsberg also had a terrible time, I’m told, at a do called the Dialectics of Liberation where Stokely Carmichael, Emmett Grogan and Britain’s Michael X were supposed to meld their minds with his. Stokely’s whitey tirades made it unworkable. “This is dreadful,” Allen told everyone. “This is not going to get us anywhere.”
Instead he went to Wales where, in four days in the Summer of Love, he composed one of the greatest poems in the English language. “Wales Visitation” is as grand a piece of pastoral psalming as any in world literature, with the best lines to buss Britain since Wordsworth’s “splendor in the grass, glory in the flower.” Two phrases in particular, the palpitating “a solid mass of Heaven, mist infused” and “wavelets of Immensity, lapping gigantic through Llanthony Valley,” stand as keys to the bigness of that bantam land.
So, the next time I met Ginsberg (almost a decade later) he had already penned masterworks about my homeland and the war in Southeast Asia continued to lumber on.
The Beat bard was in London once again, visiting his friend William Burroughs who was a ghastly wraith at the time, still deep into his “Exterminator!” period.
The shock and awe of a phone call from Mr. Ginsberg received while I was in the toilet threw my family into fits for years.
“Give me the phone,” I begged through a crack in the door, then spent the next half-hour sitting on the john while Allen told me how to make a movement — a literary movement, scooping up all the Beat angels swinging into the capital even as he spoke. The names of the luminati he recited from his address book sounded like the code to paradise regained.
If there was any mirror to Ginsberg it was in the way he mirrored U.S. foreign policy in perfect reverse, reaching out to distant shores but instead of dumping race-based nervous breakdowns on other countries, he cast compassion about and enlightenment all around.
We met up the following night on a crowded sidewalk outside some party somewhere. I had my son with me, just 18 months old. Allen was on crutches.
I was fascinated by his T-shirt that listed that year’s American dead in Vietnam and Cambodia to date. He was quite taken by my boy Rafael and gave him a happy face, a toothy, crinkly grin that stretched his beard.
I asked him about the crutches; he said he’d slipped and sprained his ankle.
“It’s from those names on your back,” I said.
“Here,” he said, putting the crutches aside. “Let me hold the child.”
I transferred Rafe to Allen’s arms, handing him over to the prophet wounded in the leg. Shades of Parsifal or Ahab must have spooked Rafe’s psyche because he’d have none of it. He struggled mightily, Allen beamed patriarchally, I reached out to retrieve my son from the patient cup of the poet’s arm just as Allen reached out with the other arm to get a hug from me. All three of us collided ridiculously, coalescing into a knot of snuggled warmth that I have cherished ever since and which, to turn that phrase again, calmed Rafe marvelously.
Ginzy’s last work, 1999’s “Death and Fame, ” was published a couple of years after he passed away in his Manhattan apartment at the age of 71. Among his later haikus:
In the half light of dawn
a few birds warble
under the Pleiades.
“A lyrical genius,” said friend and fellow writer Bob Dylan. “The single greatest influence on American poetical voice since Whitman.”
A lot to embrace.
Gorbachev was 71 when I met him. I was on assignment for Solares Hill and on a secret mission for a doctor in Key West.
The former Soviet president, perpetrator of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (transformation), Mikhail Sergevich Gorbachev had come to Miami to attend a Children’s World Blood Bank dinner at the Mandarin Oriental.
I drove up the Keys in a shimmer of expectation. I was to meet a man described by Tolstoy’s great-grandniece Tatyana as “a phenomenon not yet explained,” whose biographies in the press reminded her of “how a biologist, psychologist, lawyer or statistician might describe an angel.” This was the person who dared to euthanize Soviet communism and was ready to cut a deal with President Reagan that would eliminate all nuclear weapons from the globe (until the apparachiks on both sides put a stop to it).
That Iceland summit where Gorby discussed this deal with a fellow the radicals called Rayguns was what I wanted to talk to him about. The doctor in Key West was writing a paper on the incidence of mental disability in American presidents and proposed a competency test for presidential candidates. Sounded good to me. Not long after the Reykjavik summit, people in Washington openly began to wonder whether Reagan had recovered from his shooting. During the Iran-Contra hearings, Reagan kept saying he couldn’t remember and a lot of people, including Col. Oliver North who once told me so, realized he really couldn’t.
Is it possible that Planet Earth almost reached nuclear disarmament in 1985 because a blue-eyed optimist sat in the Soviet seat while, in the American saddle, sat a brylcreemed actor who’d reached the letter “z” in Alzheimer’s?
Let’s find out.
At my dinner table, which was one of 20 full tables in the ballroom, a lady asked if there were any questions for the guest of honor after dinner. “I wonder,” I said, “if you would ask whether President Gorbachev found President Reagan to have been non compos mentis in Iceland? Or not?”
“No, no, no,” she said. “Only about his work for the children’s blood bank, please.”
I figured that was it, so I settled in to enjoy Gorbachev unquestioningly. His speech was memorable though his voice was not, sounding like the grumble of tractors in mud. The translation by Pavel Palazhchenko, however, was resonant as the Bible and gave us time to ponder the map of New Zealand on Gorby’s brow, the oceanic blueness of his eyes, the translucence of his message: “Any attempt to dominate the world will not work. No country or group of countries alone can cope with what the world faces ... Politicians lag behind events, yet leaders are paid to govern! ... Children and mothers, that is where we need to act.”
Turning to my table, he announced he would show a short film about the summit in Iceland. Pay close attention, he said, a baffling plea to many but my hair stood on end.
The film showed Reagan making a speech, introducing the Soviet premier with a couple of words in Russian. In the film, Gorbachev looks at him and smiles. Reagan’s speech continues and, once again, there are those words in Russian. He closes his speech with the same line. Gorbachev looks over at Reagan once more but he isn’t smiling. “You always say that,” he says. Reagan’s face peers placidly into the middle distance. “You always say that.”
Obviously he’d been talking to a hollow man out there among the ice floes but it did not matter because Gorby was so focused on what did matter. “In real life,” he told the diners, “the most important thing is the birth of a human being.” Whatever might save a life from immolation would be worth it and, yes, the film clip revealed Ronnie to be much more spaced out than most of Gorby’s spaced-out L.A. friends (of whom he and his late wife Raisa had many; he still does).
It occurred to me over dinner that Gorbachev may have divined the very earliest discovery, earlier even than the invention of the wheel, that makes our lives possible. The idea of exchange — something of mine traded for something of yours — is what wheeled us furthest from the cave and life would be slavery and serfdom without it.
Though still debated, it’s my bet that Gorbachev offered peace in exchange for all of America’s nuclear weapons, on the proviso that Reagan offer him peace in exchange for all of Russia’s nuclear weapons.
Crazy. And both sides would win the Cold War!
Plus no more nukes, anywhere, ever.
“The uncontrollable fury of nuclear weapons should never be held in the hands of any mere mortal ever again, for any reason,” is what Gorbachev told the world.
The deal failed to happen but I could hug him for trying. I asked his Miami handler, Rachele Scholes, whether that might be arranged.
“It’ll never happen,” she said and so it was. But I did get to ask Gorbachev, in the lobby, if he was happy.
Ringed by people facing out, Gorbachev spoke his two-stroke tractor talk, the rumble made lovely by Pavel. “I’ve lived a dramatic life, walking the edge,” he was saying. “I have no regrets. It seemed like someone was leading me.”
Is it a happy thing to be an agent of change?
“That is a most difficult question,” he said, time running out, the group nudging him to the door. But Pavel kept pace. “I thought until recently there were no happy reformers,” went the traveling translation. “Now I conclude differently. We are all in the flow of history. Those who are against the flow are unable in any way to affect the flow, those who understand their times are the lucky ones who can catch the flow. The opportunity to live to one’s potential does not come to everyone. Today I am a happy man.”
I could just hug him.
But he was gone.
Monday, September 24, 2007
by Mark Howell