Essay

Beat America

What did we learn from Ted Berrigan, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg?

by Aram Saroyan
Berrigan and Ginsberg by Paul KillebrewOriginal artwork by Paul Killebrew

 

It's been more than a decade since the death of Allen Ginsberg, but in the interim I've found that he's stayed with me as an informing, tempering, guardian-like presence of a stature equaled only by my late father. Allen and I were never really friends, but having said that I feel an urgency to qualify and emend it. He meant as much as or more than any friend I can think of, and in the years since his death it's come to me that he was one of the two or three great teachers of my life. He looked me up and down, and looked me in the face, taking my measure for good or ill, and then informed me, on several critical occasions, where I had gotten it right or wrong. I bridled at the negative assessments but then quickly or slowly realized the generosity implicit in them and, more to the point, their correctness.

I also realize that with his passing there is simply no one to fill his shoes. He had the energy and curiosity and hunger for the crowd to be seemingly everywhere, and that is something we could do with more of in our poets. Our great ghosts of the outer limits, from Emily Dickinson to Robinson Jeffers, are all well and good, but we need more of the shambling, love-besotted Whitman, Allen's great exemplar, of whom he was the finest avatar we've yet had. That he was Jewish is also, to me, half-Jewish and much in colloquy with that side of myself, a wonder and a blessing. He was a Jew who rejected and defied the worst, and at the same time typified the best, of our tribe. He left the inbred zealots and the mammon-obsessed equally behind and demonstrated, into the bargain, the native practicality of my grandmother's putting a bowl of chicken soup down on the table and commanding one to eat. He paid the rent and the utility bill and only then sat down to write poesy. He was a mensch.

The Jews, like the Armenians wronged by history on the scale of genocide, are obsessed by morality, and this can swiftly segue into self-righteousness. Allen, the brilliant pied piper of the hippies during the '60s, had the insight to see in Kerouac's disgruntled redneck—"Blow me, Ginsberg," he reports being commanded more than once when Kerouac had grown fat and old—to see in this drunken misanthrope a golden teaching. When all of us were caught up in being right, so to speak, Kerouac bedeviled everyone by being heartbreakingly wrong. He kept the other side in human perspective, perhaps in a way similar to Allen's later teacher Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist with whom Allen and Anne Waldman collaborated to create Naropa's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder.

Trungpa came from the Crazy Wisdom lineage in Buddhism. Before his early death, he scandalized the American spiritual community with his drunkenness, his promiscuity, and, most notably, a confrontation with W.S. Merwin in which his devotees at a retreat violently terrorized the poet and his girlfriend. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is perhaps the most famous of Trungpa's books, and the title summarizes his approach. The story goes that when Allen first met him, he was surprised and put off by Trungpa's drinking.

"You should stop drinking," Allen told him. "You can't be a drunk when you're a spiritual leader."

Trungpa told Ginsberg fine, he would stop drinking if Allen would cut off his long hair and shave his beard. Allen, always up for a cosmic joust, went off and did that, then returned clean and shorn to Trungpa, presumably still at the bar.

"Okay," Allen said. "Now it's your turn."

Trungpa reportedly told Allen that he liked drinking too much to give it up—which sounds a lot like that Catholic Buddhist, Allen's other guru, Kerouac.

As a teenager in Manhattan, I turned to poetry because I couldn't understand what life was about and thought I might uncover some clues in such writing, which, according to Louis Zukofsky, finds an order "that can speak to all men." Howl, which I found during high school, was like an encyclopedia of the emotional and psychic life that had been driven under in me, with the result that I felt restless and bored a lot of the time. It was like finding a deep neural and psychic autobiography in the middle of the snow job of late-1950s/early-1960s America. Life is big, it said. It has a lot of colors. It's serious. It's funny. It's full of suffering that is also like bread, nurture, on a journey of the soul. I could say that reading it broke me open, so that I could discover myself in the deeper history of our time and kind.

Which was quite a favor to render a screwed-up adolescent.

Allen called me from Naropa one year, trying to track down a photograph of Kerouac that I'd used in Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch and the Beat Generation. It was a head shot of Jack wearing a crucifix, which had appeared originally in Mademoiselle. The crucifix had been airbrushed out of most of the reprints of the photograph, which may have been why Allen was looking to find the photographer, a man named William Eichel, whom I never located. After going over these details, we got on to other things. My father had died recently, and Allen told me a story about his father, the late poet Louis Ginsberg, who had been a high school teacher in New Jersey. When he'd visited his father in the hospital during his last illness, Allen said Louis told him that as a little boy he'd lived near a magnificent building, a great tower with chimneys from which, at certain hours of the day, huge plumes of smoke billowed. Louis had dreamed of this building and wondered what went on inside it. He promised himself that when he grew up he would go there and find out. Years later, as an older man, Louis made his pilgrimage.

"Do you know what it was, Allen? That great tower that set me dreaming?"

"What, Pop?"

"It was a glue factory."

During the same call Allen lightened my spirits by telling me how much he liked Genesis Angels, which had received mixed reviews. We talked a while longer and then he said he was getting worried about the phone bill, and I let him go. The part about the phone bill is pure Allen Ginsberg to me, the great poet of his time with one eye on the utility company.

During the '60s, in my minimalist phase as a poet, I ran into Allen one afternoon on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street. I'd just purchased some bell-bottoms and a hippie shirt, thinking I'd take the plunge into my generation's attire, and Allen looked me over seriously.

"What's going on?" he said.

"Well, I think the clothes are beautiful, so why not wear them?" I said, trying to keep my inflections relaxed, though I felt caught out by him in an experimental exercise.

He nodded and made no further comment about it, and we got to discussing my one-word poems.

"Are you lazy, or what?" It was the sort of comment that could have come only from Allen or from my father.

"No," I said.

Ten years later, when I'd abandoned postmodernism and become a writer in an older tradition, Allen attended a reading I gave with Bill Knott at St. Mark's Church. Afterward, he commented to me that a poem I'd read took an "us-and-them" stance that he considered incorrect. This was priceless information, not about the quality of the poem so much as about how it is one continues to write. It was, as I see it today, part of the higher literary physics that he and Kerouac reinstated, so to speak. The reason you didn't take an us-and-them stance I heard explicitly echoed later in my reading of William Hazlitt and Henry James, among others. The moral example of literature wasn't judgment, that is, but empathy, which is why Shakespeare is our greatest exemplar. Allen was telling me, in his way, that I had turned down a cul-de-sac.

* * *

The Paris Review interview with Jack Kerouac was the brainchild of Ted Berrigan at a time when, hard as it is to believe, Kerouac was an almost forgotten man. Thank God Ted didn't forget him. It was a few months before the fabled Summer of Love, 1967, and Ted stopped in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was living at the time. He brought along fellow poets Ron Padgett and Tom Clark, as well as Larry Bensky, who went on to become a mainstay of Pacifica Public Radio's political reporting. For everyone but Ted, the Cambridge trip was a spur-of-the-moment lark. For several lovely spring days, people variously drifted in and out of, snacked and rapped in, napped and slept at the Central Square two-story house I was renting with a couple of roommates—everyone enjoying the atmosphere of the town at the height of the '60s—and then all of the impromptu visitors but Ted drove back to New York. Ted invited me to accompany him up to Lowell to interview Kerouac, and the poet Duncan McNaughton showed up with a big late-model car to drive us all there. I accepted the invitation on impulse—at that moment of the '60s I'd very nearly forgotten Kerouac myself.

Ted's impromptu choreography: Jack had loved my dad's work, Ted knew, and he also knew I'd be reluctant to come as the Ambassador of William Saroyan, as it were, and made his invitation spontaneously casual—and off we went.

Kerouac, a bull-like ruin in his dark Lowell ranch-house living room, was the last of the Beat triumvirate I met (Allen was first, then Burroughs), and I saw him only that single afternoon and evening, but it proved to be a strange rite of passage, a goofy but enduring literary baptism.

Ted, a red-haired Irishman in his early 30s who liked to pop pills, gave Jack a handful of Obitrols almost as soon as we stepped into the living room, and Jack gulped them and never looked back. Ted knew Jack's work comprehensively, minutely, and with intimate biographical details in the bargain. He was a great interviewer because he was also ready, willing, and able to run the full gamut of Jack's demotic vocabulary, which like Shakespeare's was a great repository, from the idiomatic to the high literary.

"God, man, I rode around this country free as a bee." Kerouac told us about his time with Neal Cassady. "We had more fun than five thousand Socony Gasoline Station attendants can have."  I sat in the dark living room—the afternoon had turned to evening, but no one had bothered to turn on the lights—thinking this doesn't sound like the Paris Review interview I read with Truman Capote.

I had a signal Edward R. Murrow moment, but it came up a little too late for me to deliver a non-Murrow-like smart-ass punch line I had in mind. I asked Jack what the difference was between Buddha and Jesus. He looked up at me quickly, nodded seriously, and said, "That's a very good question. There is none."

This response, not unexpected, nevertheless kept me quiet, for which I thank both deities. My planned answer: "Buddha knew karate."

During the interview Jack, perhaps intrigued that the son of one of his first literary influences was now looking to him, asked me to repeat after him, line by line, the words of a poem of his from Mexico City Blues:

KEROUAC: Delicate conceptions of kneecaps. Say that, Saroyan.

SAROYAN: Delicate conceptions of kneecaps.

Concluding:

KEROUAC: Like kissing my kitten in the belly

SAROYAN: Like kissing my kitten in the belly

KEROUAC: The softness of our reward

SAROYAN: The softness of our reward

I stumbled once or twice—there were some complicated lines—but a thick-skinned, hardheaded 23-year-old writer was getting some basic training, not in literature per se, but in repeating the words of a master.  That is the correct existential posture in the lineage of mystery—surrendering to it—that the Beats revived. So, my young friend, it was as if Kerouac was saying, Let's appreciate it together; even though I wrote it, it's both of ours now. When I'd completed this exercise, Jack rewarded me with a modest encomium that has traveled with me down the years and that I've tried my best to be worthy of. "You'll do, Saroyan," he said.

Originally Published: July 15, 2009

COMMENTS (21)

On July 15, 2009 at 6:33pm Tom Clark wrote:
Hi Aram,

For those who are interested:

Talking about Ted on the 4th of July

Sometimes I wonder if "Beats" or any of those other easy labels don't blur discriminations.

On Collecting and Naming

Love,

Tom

On July 15, 2009 at 6:38pm Tom Clark wrote:
Sorry about that. I took the trouble of coding those links to be clickonable for a blog, forgot this is just a broadcast station.

http://vanitasmagazine.blogspot.com/2009/07/tc-locations-for-ted-berrigan-nov-15.html

http://tomclarkblog.blogspot.com/2009/07/collection.html

On July 18, 2009 at 6:55am M Swaid wrote:
This is such a great bit of biographical data. Always interesting.

The parts about spiritual drunkeness well.....oh I suppose for some, religious data is merely old folk lore and anecdotal. I assure you, the real story behind the whole spiel is quite interesting and none of these people knew it at all. There work and lives however remain interesting.

I took a photo of Ginsberg at the Sacred Heart. Ginsberg is in profile as he sat next to me and behind him one of the very large stained glass windows.

Perhaps one day, I'll print it. Perhaps.

Next to Ginsberg

I sat next to Ginsberg in 1979,
saw King Fahed being ushered into the ER
wrapped in a pink blanket to disguise him,
he pee'd on my friend in the ICU.
Jack Nicholson ordered coffee from me once
at the Little America Truckstop in Flag,
a pack of cigarettes rolled up
in the sleeve of his black t-shirt
(then he started marrying waitresses).
I lived next door to a man that was
beheaded for building Apaches.
My husband ran into Gene Hackman at the Taj Majal
and Elvira let him encircle her for a picture
down in Atlanta at a convention.
Someone I know told me Goldie Hawn was real mean
in a five star hotel and Kurt was as handsome
as he was in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes
(which I mistakenly called, The Computer War Tennis Shoes)
and Steve Pearl told me the Dalai Lama would visit
the city park and I hoped to be able to pet him.

On July 19, 2009 at 3:07pm Kim Dower wrote:
Dear Aram:

Thanks so much for your great stories
and memories. I love anything I can
ever learn about Ginsberg.

Allen Ginsberg is on my iPod reading
"America." I listen to it all the time --
on airplanes, working out, walking
down the beach. It's different each
time I hear it. It's completely fresh.
The sound of his voice continues to
amaze me.

It's good to know many of us are still
grateful to him for what he continues
to teach.

love,
Kim Dower

On July 19, 2009 at 3:18pm aris janigian wrote:
Sweet piece, Aram, the gist of it, i
think, that delicate observation about
surrender. How far from that spirit
we've travelled. My generation, in our
mid-forties now, grew up under the
influence of philosophers of bad faith or
no faith at all. Derrida, Foucault, Lacan-
--they all told us that there is nothing
out there or even in here to surrender
to; spiritually bereft we were left only
to exalt the surface our own neuroses
or our own egos. Sadly, most of us
did not take the food that ginsberg and
kerouac and rexroth and saroyan and
so man others gave us. By the time
the post-structralists were done with us,
we were afraid to even smell it.

On July 19, 2009 at 4:39pm Paula Brancato wrote:
The Trungpa/Allen story is hilarious. Probably a lot of things Trungpa should have given up -- but like the rest of us, he just couldn't :)

Nice to see this article. And be a part fo your blog!

On July 20, 2009 at 2:05pm carolyn See wrote:
Sweetest Aram, I love your thoughtful, studious tone, the dignity you lend these people. These essays that you're doing, these memories seem so translucent, transparent. It's like you've given up yourself to let these guys shine through your prose. I love this aspect of your work.
Carolyn See

On July 21, 2009 at 12:52pm Raymond Foye wrote:
Thank you for this humble yet memoir. It's always a gift when someone sees around the stereotypes of these great writers. (You really conveyed Allen's practicality...)

On July 21, 2009 at 3:55pm MAXine Landis wrote:
THIS IS A GREAT PIECE ARAM. I MET
GINSBERG ONCE WHEN I WENT TO
HEAR
HIM READ AND HE WAS AMAZING AS
HIS POEMS.
THE MEANING OR TRANSCENDING
DUALITY ? OR POETRY 101

The Language loungers sat in the field
meditating on the meaning.

The Transcendentalists wrote
long detailed expositors
explaining.
The Romanticists went around dark
intuition
shooting down Gothic ghost
theories.
The Enlightenment group painted
pictures
on the ceiling looking in crevices
for cracks.
Meanwhile, the Colonists organized
into columns that said No
Trespassing.
The Symbolists sirens played two sided
notes in hieroglyphics.
The Pagans pumped up pleasures
orating into orgasms.
The Neoclassic's went off camping
in the deep edges reasoning.
The Confessionals combed
the country for rotten roots.
The Modernists mused
then made up their own.
The Postmodernists
used short cuts.
The computer E-Mail Gang
minimized gluts of infomercials.

I joined a band of roving Pastoral
gypsies simply deciding
it was time to smell the flowers before
winter came.
After all, looking backward lying in the
firelight
the cave Classics came up with the
answer--- they figured it all out.

On July 22, 2009 at 9:55am Victoria Barlow wrote:
Wonderful, tender essay Aram. Beautifully written and remembered.

On July 22, 2009 at 11:05pm Linda Ohlson Graham wrote:
Hyannis Poet Laureate Joe Gouveia thought my -Zen Piece-
had a resemblance to Allan Ginsburg-s work ... :

Notes taken during a Zen master's talk … interspersed with my own writing …

© Linda Ohlson Graham
September 11th, 1997

Zen
Life is here Life is now
Do it …
Be it …
Wisdom softening
In our presence …
What is it we need to hold up to face the World?
Who am I expecting myself to be?
We are so blessed by the presence of presence.

Ah-h-h
Time to trust more …
Sense of space which will allow clarity.
Make contact. Be OK with who we are.
Center ourselves. Make connection. Find the space
that has clarity and openness.
Reach a place of settled-ness and centeredness.
Remember to connect … to open …
Have a way to support ourselves to remember who we are.
Our capacity is to bring forth a sense of connectedness.
Learn how to make that contact … Explore how to do that.
Deepen our sense of being … Soften the face … Open the Heart …
Learn to trust …
Start to see the face I bring to everything in the World …

Look at it …
If it has anxiety … depression … if it has inadequacies that need to be covered up …
SEE … who is this person ?
These questions are like jewels that we have to savor.
Everything is an answer relating to how we relate to the World.

Sit on a spacecraft … read poetry …
Then try to bring that home to places of intensity
and potency and expression of my existence.
Buddhism suggests: Start off where it's easy …
Notice the obvious mystery of being alive …
Carry it forward … Start to see …
Remember 1) that we do it our way 2) then we have to find a way.
Find out what touches our Heart … Then: look at the teachings …
They offer us a map.

Every spiritual discipline offers us compassion, patience, etc.
Spirituality transcends the tradition … It goes underneath it.
Then ask the way to bring spirituality … compassion … etc. into my life.
When we see where we're separate … that's our Path.
When we see our yearning: 'If only' … etc.
The spiritual Path asks us to make this amazing turn around.

Look at : 'What is the source of this discomfort?'.

If we're angry, greedy, etc. … It's a start to actually seeing.
Have compassion for ourselves.
In the Zen path we develop the capacity to notice 3 qualities:
1) Attention 2) Attention 3) Attention
Honesty facilitates attention … humility contributes.
Be candidly honest with ourselves …

'The Dark Night of the Soul' … What does that mean?
In Zen … sit there … be with it. Stay open to what's going on.
In the craft of meditation it's OK to experiment …
Ask: In what way does the breath facilitate this opening?
Allow the struggle to be turned into acceptance.

The World has not abandoned us … it is also the source of our joy.
We have to experience it by ourselves to trust it completely …
Allow myself to trust ! which has to be earned !
Discover that experience and deepen it right down into our bones.
Each person must find their Path and explore it for themselves …
What supports us ? What will guide us ? What will inspire us ?
Be willing to have a more honest radical perspective of our lives …
Greet it with an open hand …
Allow them to become our allies instead of our enemies.

Can you imagine what it must be like for a dying person to REALize
how there's no turning back ?
Can we be satisfied by the softness of the sheets ?
Have the blessing of meeting each such experience …
Let it be a clue …

Keep our Heart open … We will see there are teachers everywhere …
The World guides us …
The contact we're making with our experience
is where we'll start to see our authentic face.
We don't have one single face that faces our World or our lives …
The occasions when things drop away are real.

Turn towards our ordinariness …
Have honesty and acknowledge these moments …
It's OK to put ourselves in situations where there's growth.

HAS THERE BEEN A SHIFT ?

It's
time
to
settle
in to
transformation
and accept
our divinity.

As
we
become
quieter
and calm
our hearts
and minds …
I feel THE Peace
will come.

www.earthoceanheavens.com

-Writings- and -poems- pages of
www.lindaohlsongraham.com

On August 7, 2009 at 10:55am D. Bifford wrote:
Like everyone else who has commented, I owe a great deal of gratitude to Ginsberg and Kerouac. They were my way into poetry when I had no other. As much as I continue to value their literary contributions to the world, I've become more suspicious of their religious ones, especially Ginsberg's Buddhism. (Kerouac's "Catholic-Buddhism" seemed more a private affair, not really either, and certainly no excuse for drinking). At any rate, I recommend a short brilliant and fairly (but not unreasonably) scathing essay by Eliot Weinberger in his collection "Works on Paper". I forget the exact title of the essay itself; the short of it, however, deals explicitly with W.S Merwin scandal mentioned by Saroyan, but from a usefully different perspective than the one that he seems to assume. That said, I enjoyed Sanoyan's piece very much.

On August 13, 2009 at 10:47pm Sam Kuraishi wrote:
As I was transfering from a Greyhound bus to Trailway bus to take me from Knoxville to Johnson City, Tennesse to start my sophomore year at East Tenesse State Univercity, I saw a paperback leftover on one of the bus seats.
The Title of the book was"On The Road"
by Jack Kerouac. That was in the fall of 1963. I kept the book and read it later.
After reading "On The Road", I began searching for more books by Jack Kerouac and othe beat generation's
writers and poets.

At the university library, while I was reading a book by Ginsberg, a friend approched me and told me that Ginsberg is a trash. "Why a Muslim Arab from Iraq reads a Jewish homo's book?" he asked me. "I want to see what that bastard wrote about us," I replied sarcastically.

I prompted myself to read as many as I can about the beat generation. It was a joyful period in my time. In addition, I started reading Burrough, Amiri Barakat, Di Prima, Ferlighetti, Corso, Kaufman and many
other Beat Generation writers and poemts.

Because of the influence of the beat generation, I published a monthly journal for many years and my poems were published.

Eventually, I think I am a leftover from the Beat Generation.

On August 15, 2009 at 11:07am Lori George Alexander wrote:
I love the writers of the Beat Generation. I was very young at their peak and only picked up the commercial image of them until I began to read them starting with Jack Kerouac.

I especially enjoyed reading this piece by Aram Saroyan. There was much to savor about the Beats in this article and I am glad Saroyan included it here.

On August 27, 2009 at 5:12pm ray gibbs wrote:
thank you, your encounter, learning from
Ginsberg, as you write, "...the higher
literary physics ... moral example of
literature ... empathy."

unforgettable, changes part my writing.

best,

On September 19, 2009 at 8:56pm bumdhar wrote:
I was just beginning to read poetry, in
particular, Ginsberg, the winter of his
death. Had no idea of his persona, his
celebrity. Just the poems in a anthology of
other 20th century poets. This pure
reading changed my life. It was only later,
reading the Rolling Stone memorial issue
after his passing that I got some insight
into who he was as a person. Which blew
me away. This was a poets life. But like
you said, he always paid the bills first...

On October 30, 2009 at 6:27pm gary daily wrote:
“It's literary legend, how Jack Kerouac wrote his breakthrough novel On the Road in a three-week frenzy of creativity in spring 1951, typing the story without paragraphs or page breaks onto a 119-foot scroll of nearly translucent paper.”

That “nearly translucent” buzzed me through the doors of my memory bank and provided all I really need to remember about Kerouac’s unlikely, timely masterpiece.

Nearly fifty years ago I was sitting in a blazingly bright all night restaurant on the southwest side of Chicago. It was either the The Beacon or The Wheel, two favorite haunts. My copy of On the Road sat next to a piece of apple pie and ice cream. I somehow remember today these staples of American life were Kerouac's favorite forms of secular communion. The pie was dished up by a tired waitress with a frilly handkerchief in her breast pocket. She called me “hon.” She asked me what I was reading. I stammered my answer then and I stammer it now.

But what remains clear is that for a long moment during those Nighthawk nights at the equally well-named Beacon or The Wheel, life understood through this book seemed to turn “nearly translucent.”

Then the military draft got me and the moment was lost for two years and a lot more after that.

On December 10, 2009 at 5:55pm Bill Pearlman wrote:
Just spent two weeks in NJ, went to the Passaic Falls remembering WCW, bought a copy of AG's Selected at a Princeton bookstore. Allen meant a lot to me, actually read at Naropa once and he attended and liked it; he also years back in Placitas at the old Thuderbird Bar talked me out of suicide, saying it would scare my friends. So here I am still writing, and living in San Miguel de Allende, where Neal checked out. Poetry is a vast celebration of living and in spite of all the rivalries in the small field, it still constitutes one of the greatest loves of my life. Thanks for the reminder, Aram.

On December 12, 2009 at 1:17pm Quinn wrote:
"The moral example of literature wasn't judgment, that is, but empathy..."

So true. I needed to read this. I think it will help.

Thank you, Aram.

On January 28, 2011 at 10:15am Don Lee wrote:
I enjoyed the piece, especially the parts involving Berrigan. My favorite poet always. Just reading it made me want to dig out my beat up copy of The Sonnets and scribble down some lines.

On July 20, 2012 at 10:35am steve wrote:
"the Jews, like the Armenians wronged by history on the
scale of genocide, are obsessed by morality, and this can
swiftly segue into self-righteousness."

i wish i could allow myself to say something like that.
actually i do say stuff like that when i run out of
vikatin pills.

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Biography

Aram Saroyan's Door to the River: Essays and Reviews from the 1960s into the Digital Age will be published in October by Black Sparrow/Godine. He made his debut as a writer with six poems and a review of Robert Creeley's novel The Island in the April 1964 issue of Poetry magazine. Saroyan's Complete Minimal Poems received the 2008 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. He lives in Los Angeles and . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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