Lawrence Ferlinghetti | The American Scholar | Summer 2015 | 23 minutes (4,685 words)
Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a series of travel journal entries adapted from poet and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s forthcoming book, Writing Across the Landscape. It first appeared in The American Scholar’s Summer 2015 issue (subscribe here!).
I was part of that Greatest Generation that came of age at the beginning of the Second World War. As I worked in San Francisco, the days and years fell away into the great maw of time. America went through a sea change after that. San Francisco, which had been a small provincial capital, grew up. So did I, and I started voyaging. I was usually traveling to some literary or political event or tracking down some author whose undiscovered masterpiece I could publish at City Lights Books. I didn’t keep journals consistently, so some literary capers went unrecorded, such as when I visited Paul Bowles in Tangier to pry from him his Moroccan tales in A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard. This was agreed to, and then we sat dully in his high-rise apartment near the American Embassy. And when Jane Bowles suggested we turn-on, Paul said he didn’t have any hash. I was clean-shaven in a white suit, and I imagine he thought I was a narc. Paranoia, the doper’s constant companion! I wrote these peripatetic pages for myself, never thinking to publish them. It is as if much of my life were a continuation of my youthful Wanderjahr, my walk-about in the world. Rereading them now, I see a wandering figure in momentous times. …The war ends, decades whir by, there is a rumble in the wings, the scene darkens, and Camelot lost!
SALTON SEA NOTES
TIRED OF THE FOG AND COLD? COME TO CALIFORNIA’S RIVIERA
— Sailing, Water Skiing, Swimming, Seaside Dining —
A DESERT PARADISE AT THE GREAT SALTON SEA
— promotional brochure
Henry Miller was right. “Some other breed of man has won out.” Some strange breed has taken over America. I sit in a soda fountain on the main street of El Centro, California — inexplicably I have ordered & have eaten a Mexican Combination Plate — tacos, enchiladas, and all that. Outside, at the curb, sits the junk of American civilization — cars, cars, cars. On the jukebox inside, a Mexican crooner with a tear in his voice. …An hour North of here lies the Salton Sea. I have not figured out what “El Centro” could be the center of. Not the universe. The Salton Sea may offer a clue. The Salton Sea is in America. In California, in fact. Very strange. I still have to get there.
I have two hours before the bus to that Sea. I go to the Public Library. It’s Saturday afternoon, and it’s closed. Naturally. People that work during the week naturally have no time to go to the Library on their day off. I must think of something else. I go to a barber’s, that should take at least half an hour, maybe more if I divert the barber with witticisms or dirty jokes. No luck. He whips me thru in a little over 10 minutes, including a swipe at my eyebrows and sideburns, which I duck. He drops the comb on the greasy floor several times and wipes it off on his pants and continues. In the meantime I listen to him haranguing the other barber (who looks like a local football player) about how to skin a buck & how to remove its horns & how much you can count a full-grown buck coming to in net-weight after it’s skinned. The other barber keeps saying “Yeah — yeah” like a little halfhearted football cheer. I have a feeling that if I had got this young football barber instead of the old geezer and had a hunting license to show him, he would have cut my hair for free. As it is, I have to pay for my scalping. (The old geezer keeps nicking me every time he gets to a good part of the description of how to skin a buck.) When I am down to “net-weight,” he steps back with a sour grin, as if to say it’s a pretty sad carcass.
The last hour in El Centro is pure Nowhere. In the bus station there is not even a place to sit down. Everyone must be itching to get out of El Centro. I spend the last 25 minutes contemplating a rotary ventilator that’s going round on a building next door. That’s a long time to contemplate a ventilator, turning about as slowly as the earth itself. I should have said the last 22 minutes. Three minutes before the bus is announced, the ventilator inexplicably stops. This is not allowed. The air-conditioning must work. What are we to do now? On the station newsstand is a paper that says the U.S. will have men on the moon within a year. And on the lunch counter in the bus station is an “Answer Box.” It says:
Ask Me Any Yes or No Question — Deposit Penny —
Hold Lever Down to Read
I am wary of knowing the answer to the most important Yes or No questions. We’d rather not know the answers to some, such as, Will I Die? Yet we know the answer ahead of time, so how can we ask it as a question? How can we, that is, without such a wondrous philosophy machine as this, which allows us to pose the possibility of more than one answer? I put the penny in, but do not hold the lever down. I run off to the bus. Suppose the machine lied to me — what then of El Centro?
Should I approach the Salton Sea as if it were the Holy Land? I see at the upper end, on the map, there’s a place called Mortmar (Dead Sea). The map also says the Sea is 235 feet below sea level. Desert & sagebrush all around. …
Bus driver says, This Is The Place. I get down. Bus disappears & here I am in the desert … miles beyond Death Valley. There’s some modern shacks & 3 motels down by a big puddle, a dozen palm trees around, about a mile from the highway. I walk over there, with my musette bag, thinking I must look pretty forlorn. Everyone here has CARS! Roads run off straight into desert in all directions, like a Florida development gone under in the ’30s, sidewalks lost in sand. So this is the famous resort. It’s the final Dead Sea Level of America. I find a variety store — bar called the Sans-Souci. Inside is a drunk loudmouth of about 50 and a platinum blonde who looks like she’s been thru all the mills and talks tough. The drunk is saying: Well, if you waz ever in a war, you’d see something. She says: I ain’t gettin near no war! I’m not thinkin of wars, I’m thinkin of prisons! What makes you think of Prisons, he says. never mind, she says. …Sans souci, like I say. …
All night the wind blows sand across the Sea against the “beach house” I’m in. There is no beach, but there are “beach houses.” The water in the sea has shrunk toward the center of it. On the other side is a mountainous crenellated desert. And Christ walked on that water? Anything to get away. …
Every journal is a confessional. If it’s in the first person, it cannot help but be. Unless the author of it lies to himself — and that makes it even more of a confessional. For some reason, travel brings out confessions one would never make at home. I am trying to draw the rake of my journal over the landscape. Perhaps I will uncover something.
To tell the truth, to tell the truth! Well — this is the most depressing journey I have ever been on — Imagine having to spend one’s life condemned to passing from one motel to another, one hotel room to another, all of them alike, first class, the same spotless sheets, the same glasses in sanitary wax paper, the same little soap bars individually wrapped, Gideon Bible in the drawer, no one to speak with but hotel clerks, wives running motels in forlorn corners, bus drivers. Loneliness of millions living like this, between cocktails, between filling stations, between buses, trains, towns, restaurants, movies, highways leading over horizons to another Rest Stop. Sad the bundles in bus station waiting rooms, sad the frizzled women sitting next to them, the old couples on benches talking in old languages, the Mexicans with satchels they repack in men’s rooms. Sad hope of all their journeys to Nowhere and back in dark Eternity. …In the middle of the Journey of My Life, I came to myself in a dark wood.
A vision of America, yes — Everything seems to be at a complete standstill. People, movies, the arts, politics, the land itself, everything marking time, halted, asleep or dead or — what is going on, anyway? Is anything going on? What will be the next development? Boom boom, is that it? Is that what everyone’s waiting for, that why everything seems suspended, demoralized? I’ll take another bus and let you know the answer…
By the Salton Sea, in the night, the rest of America does not exist, out there, nothing left but this undersea place, where they don’t even know when the buses are scheduled to go by on the highway. Maybe there aren’t any more buses, perhaps the one I took was the last bus in America, and it rushed off over the last Frontier. On the map it says there’s an Indian Reservation to the West of the Sea. I see nothing but desert & barren treeless mountain. …Whole tribes of Indians shook hopeless feather lances & disappeared over the horizon, to reappear centuries later at the corner of Hollywood & Vine, feet up and smoking wild cigars like Saroyan Armenians. …At the Salton Sea, nothing took their place — nothing. And San Francisco, USA, doesn’t exist, my family, wife, dog, baby, home, bookstore, buddies, friends & lovers don’t exist, at the Dead Sea Level of things. …This whole episode is an American nightmare. Yes, I will have to admit it, I am carrying Henry Miller’s Air-Conditioned Nightmare in my pocket, in the pocket Avon edition, published by the Hearst Corporation, which is the most ludicrous irony of all. The Hearst Corporation, up to now the symbol of all the worst features of America that Miller castigates in his Nightmare. I wonder if Henry had any control over this reprint, or if they’ve even sent him a copy, and what he thinks of this. He may have to write a sequel as of 1961. (Or perhaps Kerouac will do it? It happens Miller digs Kerouac and has told him so, enthusiastically.) Anyway, everything Miller said about America in his Nightmare 20 years ago has come true — and more he never imagined.
Even at the Salton Sea, the face of death has its smile. In the morning the wind is still blowing, but the sun is bright and life is stirring. Even at the bottom of a well, there’s life. A little vignette, a tableau presents itself at the resort Coffee Shop & Bar. The bar part is locked, but there’s already a man in a new cowboy hat at the door, banging on it, yelling, “When Do the Bars Open Up Around Here?” It is 8 A.M. & the bartender comes out & says, “God Not Already — I just closed up!” — The man in the hat has his cowboy Cadillac out front — a convertible with a dog in it — He plunges into bar, bolts a drink, plugs “South Pacific” on the jukebox, starts whooping for a second drink, his dog hears it outside, barks, jumps out of car, pees on palm tree trunk. In the meantime a good-looking little blonde drives up in another beat-up Cadillac & leads her blind fat mother into the coffeeshop for breakfast. …
“When Do the Gas Stations Open Up Around Here?” I hear the cowboy shouting. …That’s life in the American West, 1961. Let me out, I’m way down here at the bottom of the well, below the Sea. …I’m the cowboy and I paid eight dollars for this fancy resort beach house and I want some action along with it, even some Beauty, I want my money’s worth, I’ll take a lot of showers, use up all the soap and towels, drink out of both sterilized water glasses, turn on the air-conditioning, the refrigeration, the heater, flush the toilet a lot. I’ll go swimming in the Pool even if I freeze to death doing it. (“Please do not urinate in the Pool” the sign says.) I’ll spit on the floor as I leave, leave the lights on, forget to leave the key, and then mail it back from another state, postage due. “Just drop in any mailbox” it says on the tag, “Postage Guaranteed.” I will. I leave notes in the empty drawers in my room: “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here” and “This Is the End of the World.” What better way to enliven life at the Dead Sea?
I have to go back to El Centro to get to San Diego. I arrive back at the bus station there with a half-hour in which to get something to eat before the San Diego bus leaves. I sit down at the same place at the lunch counter. There’s the Answer Box staring me in the face again, right where I left, same instructions:
Ask Me Any Yes or No Question — Deposit Penny —
Hold Lever Down to Read
14th July — near Anacortes, Washington
Just in off the Scorpio, 28-foot sloop, after cruising the San Juan Islands with Lorenzo (14 years old) for nine days. Started on Vancouver Island (benefit poetry reading against Trident nuclear submarine in Victoria, July 5, Lorenzo’s birthday), cruised to Salt Spring Island, then to Bedwell Harbor, sailed south a day to San Juan Island, then to mainland Bellingham, Washington, where we delivered the boat …
[ad] A 14-year-old boy is a thicket of contradictions, energy and lassitudes, full of internal strife, longings + boredoms, irrational, intemperate, selfish, affectionate with animals, tender, kind and cruel at once, fresh + lovely, sweet with small children + women, respectful and rebellious at the same time, impudent, arrogant + intolerant of his elders’ failings + opinions, incapable of admitting he does not know everything about subjects that interest him, with a super-sensitive ego very easily wounded, upset easily by the smallest slight to it. …Yes, and yet — a Boy like this is a precious thing — still in a kind of dormant, lovely state, between childhood and manwar, innocent and yet not innocent, clean and open to everything, and not open to anything but himself, complete in himself, in a sense the Whole Being more than adults are, sufficient in himself (though still needing parents), ready to go in an instant, without baggage (like a dog, up + wagging, ready for the farthest trip, no toothbrush or extra pants required), his necessities very few materially, his needs very simple, give him his head and a fishing-line + he’ll do better than you, a 14-year-old Boy, beautiful to behold, not broken like a colt, carrying in his blood all that has gone before, through the ages, Italian, Portuguese Sephardic, English, Welsh, French, whatever, all in his face, asleep still, late in the morning, the bright sun coming in on his tousled hair …
Camping three days + nights by the Deschutes River, near Maupin, Oregon, with Lorenzo + Pooch, fishing for steelhead + trout — only one trout in three days, but beautiful weather + river + New Mexico–type hills like mesas — tent + VW bus on lovely greensward by the river, with fireplace of piled river rocks — Lorenzo now in bus sleeping (in new green down sleeping bag, for 14th birthday), me in mini-tent writing this, 7 A.M., sun on high hills brilliant on yellow dry grass, flooding down now to other bank of the river, 50 yards away, river rapids running all night like a distant train, and actual trains running along other bank, long freights rumbling, whistle blowing, two or three times during night. Pooch sees cows for first time in life up close + chases them off, hounds them away, with ferocious barking, skirting them, zooming away when they turn at him, performing ancestral sheepdog function … when an old bull lowers his head and charges a stumbling foot or two, Pooch runs off squealing + crying as if he’d been run through, tail between his legs. …
Full sun now, 8 A.M., a little open railroad car with four men on it, dollies down the grade across the river. Their yellow hard hats gleam in the sun. Some birds flitter above the whitewater rapids, two small dark-blue swallow-tailed birds flittering close about a swooping gull whose eye scans the running waters for fish. Good luck, gull, may you have better luck than we had with the fish. Our luck was elsewhere: in having the whole landscape, river, trees, and you, to live among, dreaming by the riverrun, for three days. …In the stillness of Lorenzo’s childhood eternity.
Jack Kerouac Conference, Naropa Institute
Staying at Chautauqua Resort, Columbine House — Rim of hills close-up against the night sky, like Mexico. …
Summer fireflies —
The moon sails out —
the old drunk boat!
At the panel on the Beat Generation and Censorship, I had the effrontery to point out — amidst the general eulogizing of Kerouac — that while books like Allen’s Howl had been busted for what can broadly be called political reasons (writing that threatened the establishment or made people see deeper into themselves than they wanted to see, etc.), Jack’s writing — except for some trouble over The Subterraneans (black-white relations) — was never busted. In other words, his writing did not threaten the status quo or the establishment, and he was “hardly a committed revolutionary writer.” This caused some heat from the other panelists and from the audience (which was large). A loud woman down front started yelling at me, “Do you consider yourself a revolutionary writer?” I did not want to seem pretentious and egotistical, and I demurred along those lines. She insisted loudly, boring in with her question. Finally I said, “Well, of course!” That brought a kind of relieved laughter from the audience.
To give some idea where I was coming from in this, I came out of the tradition of the French engagé intellectual or writer as articulated by Sartre and Camus — particularly Camus’ L’homme révolté (The Rebel), in which he talks about “guilt by complicity” in cooperating with a government engaged in “death activities.” In the case of Camus, he was talking about cooperating with the German Occupation of France; but this is applicable to the American situation and to any cooperation with a government that — while funding artists and writers through the National Endowment for the Arts — is, with its other hand, killing millions of people overseas in illegal wars. I went on to point out that perhaps two-thirds of the “supposedly dissident presses and writers in the U.S.” had taken government money through the NEA. Pressed still further on the point, I said I had — and City Lights Books had — never taken this money and had in fact turned down an invitation to be a member of the committee that chose NEA grants. William Burroughs, on the panel, asked what criteria were to be applied, and I said “not cooperating with any government that is engaged in death activities.” A questioner in the audience asked if this applied to “local grants.” I replied that, so far as I knew, the state governments of Colorado and California were not engaged in war activities — killing people — except in that there were death-related industries in these states, and I could see there was “some equivocation” possible on the state or local level. I then went into the idea that the State was increasingly encroaching on the individual and on his freedom, and that in general it seemed that the State and the modern military-industrial complex were continually killing the subjective in the individual — the Little Man in each of us — the Charlie Chaplin man — and the poet by definition as the free individual is thus the natural enemy of the State. The poet is the bearer of Eros — the life-seeking, love-seeking being, etc. Michael McClure, on the panel, then spoke up to say that I “looked richer” than he, and that I could thus afford to refuse NEA grants, etc. Allen Ginsberg interrupted as moderator to steer the discussion back to the subject of the panel, censorship, before I had the chance to suggest to McClure that he had a sliding scale of moral values, based on the idea of being able to “afford” opposition to a death-dealing State, etc. I would have also liked to emphasize that if I was indeed richer than he, then it was all the more incumbent on me to take my particular ethical stand against war and for the Individual, etc. …So much for my “purist” views. …The word “revolutionary” probably shouldn’t have been used at all. “Dissident” would have been more precise. To say one is “revolutionary” is a little like saying one is a Zen Buddhist — If you say you are, you probably aren’t.
Sometimes it is better not to know anything about a country when you visit it. Especially it is important not to know its language or languages. Thus every sound, striking the ear like a small bell or animal cry, without any associative meaning, takes on the immediate quality of poetry, the quality of pure color in painting, with the percussive effect of pure sound in a void. It is only as these sounds accumulate inside us that some sort of composite meaning forms itself. Until then, we are like children newly arrived on earth, with virgin timpani, each a tabula rasa upon which all has yet to be written. Herein lies the true fascination of travel, not in the confirmation or contradiction of what we have been led to expect by the perusal of history or the learning of local languages, neither by the recognition of native customs in their similarity or dissimilarity to our own, etc., etc.
Thus it was that I came upon the souk in Marrakesh as a space traveler in a time warp, knowing nothing of the place in which he has landed, with only his senses to inform him of the strange terrain.
And strange it certainly was. Night itself, and I arrived at night, casts its mystery even on the most familiar domestic scene, for night itself is always the eternal unfathomable darkness out of which all is born and into which all is borne in the end. We are merely time travelers in between, fleetingly passing in a patch of sunlight, from shadow to shadow. Every day is a patch of light, however somber or bright, every night a patch of that eternal mystery.
The souk was of that darkness, and it lay everywhere before me.
I must write a little book about cries, nothing but cries, street cries and distant cries of all sorts, of which there are not really many sorts. They are very few in kind, they are all poetic, they are all distant, somehow hooded, or muffled, and their source is often mysterious, even though we know who or what is crying.
There are a very few of them that stand out in my mind, echo in my memory, as fresh and vibrant today as when I heard them many years ago.
One such cry is the street cry of the glazier or window-repairer: “Vitrier!” The cry echoes down the Rue de Vaugirard, where I lived as a student in Paris. “Vitrier! — Vee-tree-eh!” The last syllable accented and drawn out in the dawn or dusk. The man carries his glass on his back, down the dim street, disappearing under it. “Vitrier!” over and over. The cry floats up to your window, distant yet close by, an offer to repair the world.
I had a recurring dream in those days in which the cry of the Vitrier! conjured up a distant figure disappearing at the far end of my street at sundown, and out from all the windows of that street hung concierges, each holding a broken mirror to be repaired, as if the man’s simple offer to repair windows somehow included all the looking-glasses of the world. The man in the dream never turned back but continued to cry, “Vi-tri-eh!” until both he and his voice were lost in darkness. It was as if he were the light-bringer who dealt only in clear glass, keeping his back turned resolutely to the appeals of broken mirrors with their lightless shadows and hidden depths full of mysteries, which he and the light he brought could not deal with.
Years later I learned that, in the infinite mirrored subtlety of the French language, there is a separate word for mirror-repairer. I can’t remember it, but will reflect upon it.
Mouths in different countries are the same and yet very different. We are talking here only of human mouths of course. Dogs’ mouths form a very separate subject, a very distinct category. So with cats. So especially with horses. “Out of the horse’s mouth” has a special meaning to us humans. Why words coming out of a horse’s mouth, or simply sounds coming out of a horse’s mouth, should be given more credence than sound out of any other mouth is something impossible to fathom, unless you have a horse’s etymological dictionary. If anyone reading this has such a book out of the horse’s mouth, please send it. Such a dictionary would undoubtedly be of much greater worth than ordinary books, books that have not been chewed or eschewed or otherwise masticated by a horse.
To get back to ordinary human mouths, I should right off say that there are no ordinary human mouths. They are all extraordinary, each in its particular way. Since I conceived of this treatise on mouths, I have resolved to notice mouths everywhere I go, especially when I travel abroad, but also locally, domestically, in every café and public and private place, in bed or in the street. I intend to “zero-in” on mouths, like a camera with a zoom-lens, like a painter concentrating his eyes with brush raised. I’ll report what I see. …This could be endless. …Let me begin with my own, out of which such absurd sounds often come. …It is a mouth for all seasons, I would like to think, a universal mouth, a large and delicate mouth, capable not only of emitting every conceivable sort of sound but also of consuming everything, a kind of omnivorous maw, symbolic of man’s universal hunger and thirst. In other words, an ordinary, extraordinary mouth, assuming everyone has the same hungers, the same cravings (some of which there is no mouth for).
I hate lipstick, like any true libertine. (You can imagine what Don Juan thought of lipstick, but that is beyond the scope of our present enquiry.) I hate lipstick for what it does to mouths. It of course paints a “false reality” — but since it is always impossible, even with the latest electronic instruments, to determine what is “true” reality, there is no reason to assume that lipstick reality is “false.” Perhaps in fact lipstick is the psychedelic agent that allows us to see the only reality. Why not, and who am I to judge, I whose perception of my lipstickless self is certainly to be questioned.
Nevertheless, a face is a face, a lip is a lip, and the lower lip is sometimes said to be a true indicator of a person’s character, sensibility, or psyche. No doubt it is a sensual key to the whole body, together with the clitoris, or the penis. Everything that goes on in between the two can be divined from them.