Of Comets and Ruin

by Geoff Manaugh

On the first day of spring, 1996, I stepped off an airplane in Paris with poet Allen Ginsberg. It was my first time in Europe and would be Allen’s last. Misunderstanding jetlag, I’d stayed up all night, looking out the window and drinking too much wine. Once landed, we were driven into the city in a transcontinental haze: the streets defocused and semi-cubist, several Eiffel Towers seemingly on the horizon. I would be unable to sleep for more than a few hours over the next four days, everything about my internal clock preventing it: lying wide awake before turning on the light again to write or wandering out alone into the labyrinthine arrondissement in which we were staying to watch the sun come up.

We had come to Europe to read poetry together at a series of events, traveling between Paris, Prague and Milan in little more than two weeks. I was a fresh, twenty-year old, physics-obsessed art history student from North Carolina, taking time off from the spring semester to serve as Allen’s opening act (and to help him and his assistant move from city to city, carrying bags and arranging taxis).

Allen and I had met two years earlier, when I was eighteen and bearded; with a self-published pamphlet of my poetry in hand, I’d introduced myself at a summer writing class in Boulder, Colorado, and despite Allen’s initial, understandable dismissiveness, he actually liked the poems. He read a few out loud at a public event the next day, then asked for my address. We made plans to meet up in New York City that fall and went on to organize readings in Boulder, at the Knitting Factory in New York, and at venues in Europe. For the next three years until Allen’s death at 70, we’d be close friends, exchanging phone calls, sending postcards, and visiting cathedrals together in Milan. A box of old letters and articles from those years – including several dozen photographs and Allen-edited poems in my old notebooks, his black-ink handwriting jotting marginalia – now sits in a storage unit out in Los Angeles, shivering with every earthquake like a pendulum removed from its clock.


Allen is probably best known for two things: his 1956 poem Howl, in which his friends and fellow poets ‘scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in / the morning were stanzas of gibberish', the city around them an ‘incomprehensible prison’ of conservatism and war, a city ‘whose soul is electricity and banks’. And then, of course, there was his outrageous lifestyle, with its DIY folk-cosmological Buddhism, full-bodied politics, and near-constant world travel. He knew just about everybody, and so everybody knew him. Whether it was Bob Dylan, William Burroughs or The Beatles, Václev Havel or Jacques Chirac, Johnny Depp or Hunter Thompson, William F. Buckley Jr. or Norman Podhoretz, Allen, at some point, somewhere in the world, had met them.

After all, his driving interest had always been one of support and connection – social networking we might call it now if that didn’t belittle his communitarian impulse. Bringing people together to see what happened next – and how, and with what degree of intensity, constructing moments of connection between generations – was simply what Allen liked to do. He was an analog switchboard, an impulsive and inspirational epicenter of skin and bones, attracted to the first few things a person might say or do in conversation and extrapolating from there to frame his own social physics of friends and future lovers. Endless crowds passed in and out of Allen’s private Oort cloud of kindred spirits – and there was always someone else on the way, whether several years from arrival or actually riding up the elevator right now – ready to join for a few brief discussions before heading for the door and moving on.

People were flashes and if you didn’t see them when they first appeared, they’d be gone.


Allen once heard the baritone voice of English poet William Blake (who etched his own words with acid into copper plates which he hung out in his garden while nude) reverberating in angelic counter-harmony off the building fronts around him. Blake’s voice emerged from the sky, and then from the pages of Allen’s books, booming down through acoustic centuries. Allen had been lying in his apartment, half-asleep, when a tectonic slip-fault ripped through time: he saw Harlem fire escapes and terracotta ornament, floral scrolls and gargoyles, as if 3D-printed from eternity. His 1960 poem, Psalm IV, describes how

I lifted my eyes to the window, red walls of buildings flashed outside, endless
sky sad in Eternity
sunlight gazing on the world, apartments of Harlem standing in the universe –
each brick and cornice stained with intelligence like a vast living face –
the great brain unfolding and brooding in wilderness!

The city was not the city; he saw it remade in an instant, faster than architecture would allow, a new urban world ‘stained with intelligence’ and carved from within by time. Allen described it in Siesta in Xbalba (1954-55), a long poem set in the shattered landscapes of Mayan Mexico, where pieces of temples littered the ground like empty beer cans:

my eyes were opened for an hour
seeing in dreadful ecstasy
the motionless buildings
of New York rotting
under the tides of Heaven.

The earth that day was something entirely unearthly, its buildings words and messages. In the silver gleam of Harlem's afternoon, architecture became a complex hieroglyph: poem-objects relayed forward through time, generation to generation. Encrypted and expressive; holograms and models.

This recalls Umberto Eco’s speech at the 2003 opening of Alexandria's new library, where he describes the medieval cathedral as ‘a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday life, as well as for their eternal salvation’.

Allen’s poems have often suggested that Manhattan is the very same thing: a vast and cryptic message-relay system full of prophecies only poets are obsessive enough to see. It is the city as a world of camouflaged signs and annotations, covered in tag clouds of hermeneutic graffiti; it is the city as an internet in brick and stone, an inhabitable spatial model of the hyperlinks to come.


Unlike his early work, Allen's poems from the 1990s are often unreadable. His attention to the minute specifics of place – a room, event, or landscape – turn far too quickly into a meaningless catalog of prosaic events: reading the paper, making soup, going to the bathroom. He is always going to the bathroom. These details, that no one else could really care about, belie the fact that a regime of close attention to the world should reveal more than one’s own traces in it – more than one’s effects on the surroundings. Paying close attention should be like electron microscopy or fractal geometry: revealing more world within the world, rather than more signs of the observer.

Take Allen's 1967 poem Wales Visitation. In it, he traces the prolonged meteorological transformation of his own breath as it moves through a valley in Wales, his exhalations merging with the morning fog, carried further on light breezes, and eventually forming a minor climatology of their own. This atmospheric system, within which the poet is an active participant, then moves out of its originary valley altogether and out across the world, drifting through the shattered arches of Tintern Abbey (where Wordsworth found such strength of inspiration) before passing over London, the English Channel, and beyond. Allen discovers, in the process, that the world’s atmosphere is ‘One being so balanced, so vast that its softest breath / moves every floweret in the stillness of the valley floor’. The sky is one system, a hypersky. Allen calls it ‘Heaven’s ocean / tonned with cloud-hang’.

In the poem’s final stanza, Allen asks himself: ‘What did I notice? Particulars! The / vision of the great One is myriad’. It is this exclamation – ‘Particulars!’ – that Allen would always advocate: an almost moral obligation to zero-in on fleeting details and sensorially experience the world in full. It isn’t even poetry, we might say, but an act of liberatory forensics: breaking down a scene into its finest details and working outward to understand the larger systems it fits within, parsing everything for hidden signals.

Architects and landscape architects alike might fully appreciate this in their own encounters with the contextual boundlessness of site. Every project is a microcosm: in its soil, boundaries, histories, and its viewshed. From natural environment to imperial infrastructure, Allen includes every possible rhizomic micro-connection, not just the germane. The Allen of Wales Visitation is a meteorological device, a Leica Geoscanner, a planetary sensor. He follows the traces outward to everywhere, until a whole world is unpeeled and observed. Hidden in the scene before you is evidence of the systems that created it.


Part of our friendship was a base of shared interests. One of these – though by no means the most significant – was a mutual attraction to ruins and urban decay. In fact, ruined architecture lies scattered in Allen’s poetry, from the ‘sagging cornices’ of New York City tenements to microscopic scars in the nervous system of the universe. In Siesta in Xbalba, Allen describes seeing a

blind face of animal transcendency
over the sacred ruin of the world
dissolving into the sunless wall of a blackened room
on a time-rude pyramid rebuilt
in the bleak flat night of Yucatán
where I come with my own mad mind to study
alien hieroglyphs of Eternity.

But it isn’t just ancient civilizations of the tropical past that are fated to become abandoned buildings; in his appropriately titled poem My Sad Self (1958), Allen writes:

And all these streets leading
so crosswise, honking, lengthily,
by avenues
stalked by high buildings or crusted into slums
thru such halting traffic
screaming cars and engines
so painfully to this
countryside, this graveyard
this stillness
on deathbed or mountain
once seen
never regained or desired
in the mind to come
where all Manhattan that I’ve seen must disappear.

Decline had an inevitability that fascinated Allen, even when it was happening to himself. He had a morbid sense of expectancy that, here we were, in the final days of Rome, and some of us had better pay attention. Some of us should take notes while the system falls apart. ‘No no not the end of / Civilization’, he wrote in 1996, four months before his death, less a moment of sober diagnosis than an attempt to convince himself that it hadn’t all been for naught: ‘not the end of / Civilization / Only a temporary aberration’.

But Allen always had an eye for structures past their prime, whether it was the temples of Angkor Wat shattered by tree roots or his own naked body. ‘Rotting Ginsberg, I stared in the mirror naked today / I noticed the old skull’ he wrote in Mescaline (1959). After all, we are all inhabiting ruins. It is not only our edifices but also our bodies that are doomed.

Hemorrhoids and shortness of breath are as common a poetic subject in his later work as were the abstract transformations of human civilization in the years before. Coming to understand – and love – the world’s most imperfect forms motivated these later, all-too-common references to his visible self-decline, but it becomes an obsession. In his poem After Lalon (1992), he asked: ‘If I had ambitions to / be liberated / how’d I get into this / wrinkled person?’


It’s also true that some ruins are hand-held. The world is littered with the corpses of failed technologies. Inaccessible data formats, 8-track tape players, and first-generation iPods lie scattered amidst whole extractive geo-strata of mineral-rich mobile phones and broken typewriters, let alone the yawning sediment of industrial forms and lost wood-and-rope machines that built Stonehenge.

Even the technologies we write with now crash into obsolescence with each season. In fact, it would be an interesting project, borrowing a page from Friedrich Kittler, to look at the variety of writing tools used by Allen and his cohorts in the so-called Beat Generation – the machines, devices, and technologies of the time – to see if they had any effect on what was actually written. Yellowing letters between friends are replaced with irretrievable emails stored on corrupted hard drives. We write things to each other that we will neither read nor remember.

Consider Allen’s speed-addled visions of cryptic radio waves burning holes in the atmosphere as direct astronomical transmissions from God, our cities on fire with TV voices. How might Allen’s Moloch now transmit in an atmosphere of wifi networks and a landscape of cell phone masts disguised as trees? What alien mythologies hide in the technologies of today? Or consider William Burroughs’s biophiliac mythologies of eroticized typewriters or his secret police archives full of magnetic audio tape. What new paranoias arise in an age of cloud-based computing and hydroelectric server farms, globe-spanning gardens of buried wires, thumbdrives, and back-up CDs?

How do the physical technologies used by a given generation affect the metaphors they use to describe themselves? Typewriters, FAX machines, intercoms, party lines; email, Google Wave, RSS, blogs; psalms, revelations, prayer books, God. The poet as radio antenna will sound no less elegant in twenty years’ time, but also oddly quaint. Conversely, the poet as Flickr page, or poet as Tumblr blog sounds totally ridiculous, and presumably always will. These latter, highly specific, even explicitly branded technologies sound, as metaphors, like a postmodern joke.

It’s provocative – if unprovable – to suggest that certain things could only have been written on typewriters, or that someone like Allen would only be possible in mutated form today. Imagine Ovid downloading Movable Type for a whole new ‘Metamorphoses’ to begin. Imagine LOLing with a hammer and chisel on the side of a cliff. Imagine an entire generation of bloggers missing out on archives of myths and literature because they're impossible to link to. Imagine if the difference between a masterpiece and a waste of time is the tool you choose to write it with.


I remember being woken up one night at 3 o’clock by Allen. He was laughing. When he saw me awake, his eyes lit up and he read me a poem he’d just finished five minutes earlier – ‘Being as Now has been re-invented / I have devised a new now / Entering the real Now / at last / which is now’ – in a strange kind of used-car salesman voice, laughing at himself as he did so. He’d later call it Bad Poem, and include it in his final book. As if to return the favor, I remember calling him one day from my dorm room in Chapel Hill to read – in full – a seventeen-page epic about quantum physics that I’d finished writing no more than ten minutes earlier. It was awful. At the time, however, I could hardly believe how excited I was, as if I’d reproduced The Odyssey for a world of impossible mathematics and reverse black holes topologically woven from subway tunnels to nowhere. Allen politely advised that I show it to him on paper when I came through New York that summer, where he’d go through it with me line by line. He then quickly changed the subject, and never mentioned the poem again.

I remember the first night of our two weeks in Europe: we met Jacques Chirac at the Salon du Livre, an annual book festival where Allen had to sign some autographs. I’d wandered off to look around, and because this was the kind of thing I did at the time, I stole several books, nicking them from another publisher’s stall. One was Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster. When I walked back to show them off to Allen like some absurd baby bird returning proudly to the nest, he was talking to President Chirac. When Allen introduced me to him officially as an American poet, I was holding shoplifted books under my arm.

I remember doing dishes together in Allen’s apartment at 437 E. 12th Street. We were listening to records by Charlie Patton, the American guitar player and bluesman, and our eyes, almost simultaneously, began tearing up. ‘It’s a sad song’, Allen said, seeing that my eyes were red, that life was larger and more confusing than either us would ever comprehend. We looked at each other across the kitchen. A photograph of Walt Whitman hung on the wall behind him. I nodded – ‘Yeah’. We both knew Allen was getting sick, his liver acting up, and there was nothing we could do to reverse time, no quantum technique of friend-salvation. We finished the dishes in silence, and when the record came to an end I turned off the stereo.

Another night: it was 10pm and a giant bug flew in through the window. It landed on the bedroom wall above a tapestry from Tibet, skeletons meditating inside mandalas of geometric fire, and Allen exclaimed. He was stunned and slightly horrified, though possibly excited by this uninvited messenger from New York’s inhuman depths. It was a scarab once worshipped by ancient Egyptians, like something sent by William Burroughs – bug-signals from a world older than language – and Allen started waving folded newspaper pages at it in his underwear.


When Allen died, I was camping off the coast of North Carolina on an island with no electricity and no roads; it was only stars and beaches. I’d been planning to fly up to New York to see him again by the end of the week. We all knew it was the time of last chances. When he’d called me from the hospital the day before, it was to say that I’d better come up soon.

The Hale-Bopp comet was in the sky back then, and it burned like a silver thumbprint above the sand dunes. It was just passing by this minor planet on its way back out of the solar system – back out to its weird form-bank on the outer edge, where every comet still circulates in a state of eternal return, refreshed, always on the way back to somewhere else, forever.

Allen once urged me to write as simply as possible so that whatever I wrote could be translated and thus, reach as many people as I could all over the world. It seemed like absurd advice: why not strive to write something that was worth translating in the first place? But his point was to get the message out, to make people – no matter what continent they were standing on or what language they spoke – think differently about something, about everything, about one particular thing they’d never thought of before. Allen thought we should write for the entire world, so that people with nothing in common with us – not politics, not gender, perhaps not even species – might get some vicarious thrill out of a unique idea or experience. ‘Particulars!’ This terrestrial moment lives on, he’d often point out, whether or not someone is recording it. But a planetary human community of readers and friends will never continue if we give up telling each other stories, if we stop reconfiguring myths, stop typing our own magic psalms of rotting cities.

If ‘Reality is a question / of realizing how real / the world is already’, as Allen wrote back in 1950, at the age of 24 in the suburbs of New Jersey – or ‘Being as Now has been re-invented / I have devised a new now / Entering the real Now / at last / which is now’, as he wrote in New York City, laughing in bed at the age of 70 – then our responsibility lies in communicating such momentary realities to people using whatever technologies exist for us at any given time, ballpoint pen or 3D printer. If notes must be taken, then it’s our role to figure out how. How to pass things on, how to go from one margin to another, from one person to the next, coming back in full circles and mnemonic loops before hurling ourselves onward to whatever civilization we might yet carve from the bulk of future time.


When the comet went away, the sky went black, the silver thumbprint gone, and this time, Allen went away with it.