June: and aren’t many of us, somehow, writing or at least thinking constantly about the news of the day – the sundry viruses of mayhem and loneliness, those medical and societal, that are breathtaking and breath-taking? This month’s cover art, from André Kertész,Fork, Paris, 1928, is part of that thinking, for me. Often – though it might not appear so! – I spend hours selecting the just-so image for Plume; this one came easily. Something here, as I wrote to our layout magician Christina Mullin, whispers in my ear of the themes of the moment: the disembodied menace of the utensil’s tines and their shadow, a terrifying signal of absence; the, yes, loneliness of that place setting and the abrupt distancing from its habitual locus, a restaurant, one would think. An emptier image I could hardly conceive — to me, there is little if any of hope or expectation here, at most an abeyance, although others might find those comforts – the anticipation of the meal to come, perhaps, a certain civility, a resolute formality – but where is the diner? And the server and the cook and her fellow patrons? And the food that will nourish her? And…ah, Daniel — pessimist.
But enough. Let’s turn, then, to Joseph Campana’s timely meditation on circumstances past and au courant, on offer as in Allen Ginsberg’s “Grant Park, August 28, 1968.” And — I highly recommend the recordings – Phillip Glass is exquisite, as always. Just follow the links embedded in the essay.
Grant Park: August 28, 1968
Green air, children sat under trees with the old,
Bodies bare, eyes open to eyes under the hotel wall,
The ring of Brown-clothed bodies armed
but silent at ease leaned on their rifles –
Harsh sound of mikrophones, helicopter roar –
A current in the belly, future marches
and detectives naked in bed –
where? on the planet, not Chicago,
in late sunlight
Miserable picnic, Police State or Garden of Eden?
in the building walled against the sky
magicians exchange images, Money vote
and handshakes –
The teargas drifted up to the Vice
President naked in the bathroom
—naked on the toilet taking a shit weeping?
Who wants to be President of the
Garden of Eden?
Poems make windows to the past. And so the past enters the room. We look at it, listen. Perhaps it looks back and speaks. Perhaps it accuses. What have you been doing all this time? I’m wondering, today, about that question as parts of Minneapolis burn and the arrests of those responsible for the death of George Floyd are still pending, though perhaps not for long. That life can end at anytime is a truth we all live in. That life can end over a $20 bill and a pack of cigarettes is a truth only some live with.
I’m wondering today not so much what Allen Ginsberg would have thought of our moment, which I fear is desperately clear. I’m thinking, instead, about the moments he captured in The Fall of America, a book that continued his longstanding habit of peregrination and you might also say cataloguing, as a poet would, the news of these American states.
I can’t think of a more extraordinary moment of Ginsberg’s exquisite and appreciative cataloguing of the American things of this world than “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” a poem that invites infinite rereading or listening. Sometimes, on an especially hard day, I do just that. It’s one of many poems that might, just now, be set on loop somewhere in the American air in hope of some kind greater distribution of wisdom than we now enjoy.
Philip Glass set that poem beautifully in his Ginsberg-based opera Hydrogen Jukebox. You can hear Ginsberg reading that himself right here with Glass’ sweet and rousing piano supporting the incantatory beauty. “Almost in tears to know how to speak the right language,” is how Ginsberg describes his meditative wandering through the heartlands of the country. Why in tears? It’s simple, really: “Almost all our language has been taxed by war.” Beauty lives in tension with violence. Not one without the other in America. Later, Ginsberg cries out, “I declare the end of the war.” Would it were that simple.
One war he had in mind, in a poem written in 1966 and that appeared in Planet News in 1968, was the unending slaughter of Vietnam. But he was thinking of disasters of class and race and gender and sexuality still unfolding around us now. It’s not that Planet News or “Wichita Vortex Sutra” were happier or more optimistic than Ginsberg’s 1972 The Fall of America, although the title might suggest as much. The poem that draws my attention today, a day of panic and epidemic, riot and the smoldering that follows, is “Grant Park: August 28, 1968.” You can hear Ginsberg reading it here along with “Coming to Chicago,” the other poem he wrote on the occasion of the riot-stricken Democratic convention.
It was a year of American riots. They happened in over one hundred cities in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, which preceded by a month the assassination of Robert Kennedy. The president Lyndon Johnson had already announced he would not run. Leaders were failing or falling to assassins. This America without head or helm was before my birth, so I encounter it as history, although my husband was ten at the time and tells me he grew up expecting race riots and murdered leaders.
Still Ginsberg put his queer shoulder to the wheel in this poem to make something of a nightmare. That something, oddly enough, is part pastoral. We begin in a park, Grant Park, in “Green air” with the young and old and armed all together. Even the armed seem disarmed, “silent at ease on their rifles.” The moment of being together in a green world exists in tension with the world of harsh sounds, “mikrophones” [sic] and “helicopter roar.” What is a protest at a political convention in one of the worst political years on record, a “Miserable picnic, Police State or Garden of Eden?” As teargas wafts through the air, the leaders Ginsberg was left with weren’t much use, “naked in the bathroom / naked on the toilet, taking a shit weeping.”
It’s in the final question that the pastoral American and the disastrous America collide: “Who wants to be President of the / Garden of Eden?” Were it really the Garden of Eden, surely it wouldn’t need a president. Maybe we hear in Ginsberg’s question a hope—something more like “I declare the end of the war!” That’s what paradise would be, no? A president who isn’t really president. I’m guessing Allen Ginsberg felt he lived in a time with a president who wasn’t a president. I hear you, Allen Ginsberg.
We can declare, with Ginsberg, an end to the police state and declare the world an Eden without microphones and helicopters and political conventions and presidents. Just this week, I’m not yet sure how to imagine what’s beyond that declaration. Pernicious histories—bloody, old, and stubborn—still stalk America. Poems open windows so maybe we can eventually open up a door to other, to better times.
For biographical material on Joseph Campana, A Plume Contributing Editor, see the staff page
For more on Allen Ginsberg, begin with, say, this.
Once more: If you enjoyed Joseph Campana’s piece in this newsletter, and last month’s — and how could you not? — all of the Plume newsletters are now archived under, well, Archives, on our homepage.
And – cue fanfare. Plume is very pleased to announce that Sally Bliumis-Dunn will be joining our staff as Associate Editor-at-Large. Ms. Dunn will begin organizing and conducting Featured Selections in the Fall, and thereafter will be on the lookout for new voices for our journal. Her credentials speak for themselves; we’re fortunate, indeed, to have her aboard. Welcome, Sally!
Sally Bliumis-Dunn teaches Modern Poetry at Manhattanville College and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Her poems appeared in New Ohio Review, Plume, Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, PLUME, Poetry London, the NYT, PBS NewsHour, upstreet, The Writer’s Almanac, Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-day, and Ted Kooser’s column, among others. In 2002, she was a finalist for the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize. Sally Bliumis-Dunn’s third full-length collection, Echolocation, was published by Plume editions/MadHat Press in March, 2018. Echolocation was long-listed for the Julie Suk Award and was a finalist for both the Eric Hoffer Award and Poetry by the Sea’s Best Book Award.
Hélène Cardona‘s collection Life in Suspension (Salmon Poetry) won the 2020 Independent Press Award in Poetry.
Another plea: I have learned from many of you, readings, excursions, seminars have been cancelled. However – I urge you to consider our special half-price offer (with a gift!) on the print anthology Plume Poetry 8. Unable to promote the book with the usual round of readings, we believe it’s with great hope that you might find it worth your time. Details here: https://plumepoetry.com/anthologies/
For more on this month’s cover artist, André Kertész,, start here, or here.
And finally, as usual, a few new/recently/forthcoming releases from Plume contributors: