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Lions Roar : September 2010
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2010 33 Saxifrage is my flower that splits the rocks — William Carlos Williams The nighT i meT Allen ginsberg, in 1976, his lifelong companion Peter Orlovsky raised a handkerchief to Allen’s nose a fraction of a second before he sneezed. We were in a basement club in greenwich Village commem- orating the death of neal Cassady, one of Allen’s great loves and the muse of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. The poet had a bad cold, and it was his second reading of the night. Anticipating Allen’s need for a handkerchief was just one way that Peter manifested what photographer elsa Dorfman—in an email to a friend after Peter died in may—described as his “unearthly sensitivity and caring.” Kids, animals, and growing things adored Peter. Just before writing “howl,” Allen pledged his love to him, recognizing in him a character out of a russian novel: the saintly shepherd, the holy innocent. in a Foster’s cafeteria in san Francisco in 1955, the two men grasped hands and vowed never to go to heaven unless the other could get in too—a true marriage of souls. “At that instant we looked into each other’s eyes,” Allen told interviewer Allen Young in 1972, “and there was a kind of celestial cold fire that crept over us and blazed up and illuminated the entire cafeteria and made it an eternal place.” At Allen’s urging, Peter also became a poet. in 1978, City lights published a collection of his work with the memorable title Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs. (The vegetables were those Peter grew with tireless enthusiasm on the couple’s organic farm in Cherry Valley, new York, bought as a respite from the grit and druggy temptations of their neighborhood in the east Vil- lage.) While no one would have compared Peter’s creative output to Allen’s, his poems—sometimes only a single line—could be remarkably pure and surprising, even luminous. Poet Thom gunn once told me that the british poet, artist, and mystic William blake—whom ginsberg took as his first guru—had written in the voice of an aggrieved adult child, a grown man who saw the suffering of the world free of the blind- ers of conventional wisdom and dull maturity. That was Peter too, responding empathetically to every sentient being around him, from a starving leper on the streets of benares to a pig with a broken jaw at the farm. even Peter’s idiosyncratic spelling (his first poem was published with the title “Frist Poem”) insisted on its own untrammeled vitality; his poems were like goofy, glori- ous weeds flowering in the cracks of official “poetic” language. Impossible happiness said the moon tooning its guitar * My heart is always not in the right place * I just dident expect to see the same horrible infested condition on the exact opposite side of her body— I was now more surprissed and taken abac—and now I Looked into her eyes & she had very dark olive calm eyes peasefull sweet sad eyes that seemed to tell me SteVe SILbeRMAn writes on science, literature, music, and bud- dhism for Wired, the new Yorker, and other national publications. He is currently writing a book on neurodiversity and lives with his husband, Keith, in San Francisco. PhOTO©Allenginsberg/COrbis Impossible Happiness Steve Silberman’S elegy for Peter Orlovsky Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky at their flat in the east Village, 1987.