Sunday, March 26, 2006

a train and a poet's grave

I am driving home on the New Jersey turnpike as the inside of the evening sky lights up with salmon-colored clouds. I hold my camera atop the steering wheel and try to shoot the sky—a grainy wash of blue and orange above a blurry highway—to remember a second afternoon spent in this lonesome industrial marshland looking for the grave of a poet. A poet I don't even really like.

We found the grave more easily this time. I'm with a man I know more by instinct than by experience, whose face I've only seen three times, two of which have been in this neglected stretch of grass and granite. Mt Olivet Jewish Cemetery is an island of graves shadowed by the pale lines of an electric power station and hemmed in by train tracks, the Newark airport, and the crumbling pavement of parking lots and empty buildings. I hold the yellowed butcher paper as Shawn carefully rubs a charcoal pencil over the gravestone, his strokes angled softly downwards. The Star of David stands out in high relief at top center.

Spring is coming: the day is cool but not cold, my pink cotton scarf keeps out the last of winter, a bird sings in a scrawny tree.

Visiting his grave for the second time, I find I am growing fond of Irwin Allen Ginsberg, even though I tire of beat poets and their bohemian causes. His poetry is passionate and potent, his voice liquid. But in my college tome, Contemporary American Poetry, it is the poems of Adrienne Rich, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, and Syliva Plath that are worn and scribbled on. On a page of Ginsberg's Howl I pencilled "madness is an avenue to escape." One line is marked: "who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside / of Time, & alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next / decade." That understandably struck a chord with my college fears of the future. I wish now my alarm clock would fall on my head.

But today I am humbled by the this cold stone, this empty isolated home of memories; the damp lot of lives busy, chaotic, beautiful, forgotten. I see the gravestones of Ginsberg's parents, uncles, siblings perhaps. I think, I know so little about this man. A truck sits idling in an adjacent parking lot. I know little more about Shawn, who hands me one earpiece of his ipod, and reverently plays Kerouak reading Ginsberg with jazz playing. A train passes suddenly. In the darkening light we see sparks alight atop the lines, crackling, as the silver passenger train shoots by. Lives speeding past. I lean against Shawn, wind at my back, and listen.

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