Canto One of a Beat Buddhist Divine Comedy
Like hour-glassed sand in its transparent hell
from which no grain escapes but must again
be counted and recounted, like a tale
retold that always only ends the same:
our wishes, plans, intentions, what you will,
propel us through Samsara, birth and death,
and birth again, and suffering throughout,
beginningless. It had no start and so
it never has an end.
Last night I dreamed
I heard the soul of Corso cry to me
from Hell (the temporary hell between
rebirths he’d learned about from Ginsberg.)
who took so much from Allen, owed him this
karmatic satisfaction: he avowed,
(in tones as deep as being’s sorest core,
as plaintive as the smell of old men’s clothes
or one’s own blood), his New York accent, shrill
and querulous re-echoing across
Avidya’s universal night, which is
the darkness of inherent ignorance:
“O man, it’s fuckin’ Dharmageddon now!”
Thus have I heard . . . On Desolation Peak
Jack Kerouac was faced with Emptiness,
could not let go of Self. For the idea
of letting go is usually linked
with that of falling: thus the deathly clench.
Jack understood the truth of suffering,
(perhaps too well,) he knew what craving was,
but craving knew him better. Poetry,
his mastery of language mastered him,
he wrote with feeling so believable
that he himself believed himself, and swapped
Nirvana for a bottle and a song.
So Kerouac became a god, received
a realm within the heavens of desire,
the king of Lit’rature—a paper crown!
And all the books of Kerouac are sweet
and ripe with sad awareness, haunted by
one haunted truth: the pity of our joys.
And this is why Zen sages, bent with age,
on mountaintops, mid mist and twisted trees
so madly cackle, with a mirthless mirth,
emphatic, resonating emptiness!
Jack saw enlightenment far off, and poured
another drink while savoring the view.
He wasn’t quite a saint, in fact our Jack
was a catastrophe. But he never was
a dick. Most saints are dicks. Not Kerouac,
a poet hero of the noble cause
that’s always lost. Despite the booze,
his somewhat backwards attitudes towards,
minorities and women and the rest,
such fascinating screw-ups as were his
will always merit heaven of a kind.
Through history great hearts been opposed
by lesser minds, and thus it was with Jack:
he had a great heart and a lesser mind,
—and words so poignant strong and childlike
their very winsomeness would make you weep.
In realms of bliss, unthundered, cloudy, vast,
Jack heard the distant cry from Corso, called
on Allen —who, a Bodhisattva, moved
at will through all the realms in any shape
that served to ease the suff’ring sentient
and lead them to enlightenment — Jack called
to Allen, whose nobility was matched
with metaphysical mobility,
to rescue Gregory. “Since he wrote me
his deep-felt Elegy American,
and lavished such ‘alas’ upon his Jack,
I now send thee, dear Allen, from his Jack,
a lantern, to his Hell’s dark halloween,
to treat the trickster Corso’s suffering
with insight’s touch and deft compassion’s balm.
So Allen, who’s a savior being now,
a bodhisattva, who deferred that last
nirvana to assist all we who still
experience our “selves” as actual
and suffer in a way that’s real for us —
so Allen, hearing Gregory’s lament
descended to the entrance of the Hell
where Catholics are tortured, now in death,
as then in life, according to the laws
It looked a lot like NYC
from fifty years ago, a winter’s night
in January, spectral earthbound clouds
of steam from manhole covers wafting up
to smokily unfocus all the view.
For this adventure underground a guide
was indicated. Allen, guileless
like all the saints, was lost in clever Hell.
Dark figure stands in fog-bank: overcoat,
fedora, horn-rims. William Burroughs, now
a hungry ghost, a preta. Death it seemed
had changed him very little, still the same
cadaverous complexion, now inclined
a little more to mummy, that was all;
an elegant gaunt haunt, his dainty frame
belying still enormous appetites.
In life he’d swallowed seas of alcohol,
and cooked up endless dunes of heroin,
his cravings never stilled.
afflict the preta: moonlight scorches, sun’s
beams freeze him. Burroughs was not much impressed.
You shiver through that many junk-sick dawns,
it breeds an easiness.
Not bad enough
to come back as an animal, or as
a habitant of hell, nor good enough
to merit godhood, human birth again
was possible, but he demurred, it was,
“a most distasteful business” he explained.
Thus Burroughs lingers in the twilight zone
that intersects with ours, the realm of shades
and flying saucers. There as anywhere
there’s highs, if you can pay for them. He keeps
his ectoplasmic habits well supplied
by running short cons on the newly dead.
“They’re live ones, let me tell you,” he confides.
“There’s Three Urn Monte, (the Alternative
Container Scam), the Spanish Ashes Trick,
the Rip-Deal Columbarium Routine —”
and thus he’s never short of shadow cash
for joss-junk, spirit spirits and the like.
A bar sign flared pastel across the street,
“The Paradise,” in flashing gas and glass
of neon script. Bill’s nod said “That’s the place.”
From alley slunk three Hell-bred quadrupeds:
two seemed to be vast frazzled cats, the third
a massive hound, raw boned and hugely toothed.
A looming zoo. “O damn that Gregory,”
said Bill, “he made the only bar in Hell
turn into Café Dante — this whole scene’s
a winter midnight on MacDougal Street
where he remembers scoring junk, become
the symbol’d passageway across his life,
nel mezzo del cammin. His dubious
medieval allegory’s put the juice
“Don’t blame Gregory for this,”
said Allen, “these three creatures you recall
from Dante are fixed features of this realm.
They represent the triple evil roots
depicted on the hub of that great wheel
which maps the sixfold worlds that karma turns,
the bhava-chakra. The allusive beasts — ”
“Are varmints,” William fumed.
“— mean Ignorance,
Desire and Hate,” persisted Allen, kind
and generously wise, “in Buddhist art
they’re serpent, pig and bird. The last,
seed-greedy, pecking feckless in the dirt
or wingy-quick pursuing ev’ry want.
Pig: ignorance: fat, placid, satisfied.
The snake is hatred, venom-hot. The terms
in Sanskrit are a little more precise:
they’re moha, raga, dvesa —”
Bill broke in,
“If I’d my old Winchester, walnut stock,
box-magazine, and lever action, three
spire-pointed center-fire cartridges,
their names would translate into breakfast, lunch
and dinner.” Allen breathed a saintly sigh.