share


Cafédämmerung (or Allen in Prague, King of May Day, 1965)

It was even worse in Prague [than in Cuba]. The only reason they got upset with me — I was in Prague for a month, went to Moscow for a month, trained then to Poland for a month, and went to Prague to leave for New York. I got back to Prague on April 26 — the same day I was put on the FBI Dangerous Security List — was elected King of May on May 1, was followed around Prague until May 7, arrested, kept incommunicado, and put on the next plane to London because the minister of culture and the minister of information disapproved of an American gay beatnik, pot-smoking, mantra-chanting Buddhist (or something) being a model for Czechoslovakian youths.

— Allen Ginsberg, interview

 

He’d been in Cuba sunning, fucking. But he’d only hugged and kissed Fidel. Reek of cigars! rum!

In that embrace, two of the great beards of our time had grown into each other: Allen’s and Fidel’s, they became inseparable. Grew intertwined, then knotted. Uncomfortable for all involved. Finally Castro had to call his chief executioner, the executioner came with his chief machete but instead of cutting off Allen Ginsberg’s head a hipsterheaded angel of Yahweh arrived in sunglasses and porkpie hat to redirect the blade to only sunder their beards.

 

Fidel put Allen on the first flight to Czechoslovakia. Allen brushed his smokestained suit before disembarking. He still had Fidel’s hairs on his lapels, that’s what he declared to Customs.

 

Students of the Polytechnic School, even a few faculty members, remember: the first sign they had of Allen’s coming was the beard. It was edged out the window of the plane. Out the window of the taxi from Ruzyně (airport), as if a flag for a new order, his novy kingdom. But he was not yet King. It was still April.

 

Allen’s beard was not a religious beard, yet neither was it a beard of dereliction, of dissolution, a lazy facial hirsuteness — the mark of a man who did not care about appearance. It fell under none of those categories, contra surveillance and Nomenklatura speculation. Truth is, Allen’s beard had always been there, and his face grew from it — Allen’s face, his head, that was the effort, that was the true growth, it was conscious, its expression beatifically made.

 

The beard was of a million fingers of vermilion, ten thousand threads of rust and purple prose sunrays, flecks of recitative spittle and a dusting of light sporelife, the yellowed ermine fuzz that forms around immemorial potatoes.

 

That expression: comic, fishily bulging lips and eyes, exophthalmic but glassesed, Jewish. He’d gotten chubby during his Havana sojourn. All those fried plantains and anus. Also Allen was balding above. And he was ancient, he was forty.

 

What comes between men is the beard. The beard is philosophy, hairs on the face are a politics, what keeps one brother from another. What hides, what obfuscates. The beard is that thick fat wilderness where miscommunication causes lives to come to their ends — the forbidding forest in which compatriots would be shot, had been shot, for example outside Moscow toward the east.

 

But this was Prague, Western enough to expect Allen’s Yiddish to be understood as inept German. Here he would be crowned King of May — ‘which is Kral Majales in the Czechoslovakian tongue,’ he wrote in a poem about that experience because he wrote poems about all his experiences (it wasn’t an experience until it was a poem). The poem was called Kral Majales, and it was called that because Allen could not be bothered with diacritical marks — it should be Král Majáles, with vowels long like pleasure — here are its essential lines:

 

For I was arrested thrice in Prague, once for singing drunkon Narodni street
once knocked down on the midnight pavement by a moustached agent who screamed out BOUZERANT,
once for losing my notebooks of unusual sex politics dream opinions,
and I was sent from Havana by plane by detectives in green uniform,
and I was sent from Prague by plane by detectives in Czechoslovakian business suits,
Cardplayers out of Cé zanne, the two strange dolls that entered Joseph K’s room at morn
also entered mine, and ate at my table, and examined my scribbles,
and followed me night and morn from the houses of lovers to the cafés of Centrum —

And I am the King of May, which is the power of sexual youth,
and I am the King of May, which is industry in eloquence and action in amour
and I am the King of May, which is long hair of Adam and the Beard of my own body
And
and
and
and every culture besides America, which is not a culture but has cultures, has its own version of this, its own indigenous tradition: May the fertile month, May the month of fecundity, the First of May — before the communists usurped May Day for the sake of International Workers — the first day of an Eastertide celebration during which young student girls are whipped by young student boys with limbs of birch. Eggs are served with young alcohol. A revel. Prechristian. Bacchic, Maenadic. Pagan. And presiding over the festivities: a King who’d emerge from the woodlands every year to lead local men to potency or, alternately, to inseminate their women Himself.

In Prague, where this rural tradition acquires a metropolitan irony, the newest of folklorists — moustachioed detectives, cardplaying dolls in green business suits — have been busy constructing a throne since Winter 1948, and their orders were always to construct this throne out of books that are banned. This stipulation is intended to serve two purposes — to be both a sign of great disrespect, as if to say observe how we abuse these books of ours that mean nothing to us, and, paradoxically, to be a sign of great respect, as if to say observe how we honour these books by fashioning them into a seat for our King. They are to serve as the seat of his fattish, often violated rectum. And the books being censored into his throne are: A Handbook Of Practical Messianism (poems), Kaštan Y (a play in three acts), Hasidische Geschichte (two vols.), How to Build Bombs For Personal Use (w/ 10 full-colour illustrations), The Kitchens of North America (ed. Čapka), A Guide to the Literary Cafés of the Kingdoms of Bohemia & Moravia (non-fiction), Famous Homosexual Salons of Middle Europe (fiction), How to Prevent Parasites in Horses (fiction)…. Allen’s feet are bare. Happy happy First of May!

 

The coronation banquet is to be held in the lobby café of the Hotel Ambassador, where the waiters attending used to be writers, novelists and storywriters and poets now prevented from publishing freely, demoted to servitude. Only the best of them — the best writers making the best waiters — receive permission to work in cafés in the city centre. The cafés of Centrum, like the lobby café of the Ambassador, were allotted formerly to what might be called an intelligentsia, and still to this day retain a superior aura (lionfooted cake stands, matching the verdant tables for billiards). While the farther cafés, located toward the cemeteries, in outer districts called Žižkov, called Želivského, were once upon a time for the working class, the proletariat, and they are called pubs by some and by others bars, and a slot machine shall in time be allotted to the lone bathroom of each but no toilet.

 

Hurry hurry through the streets as you’d expect them: picturesque (a word found  scrawled as signature on only the most subversive of postcards); antiquarianly narrow but empty. Now give each the throne of a chair and an unstable table — listing left to right, if you find yourself dizzy gaze toward the iron pillar below the marble top — now grant each a waiterwriter uniformed in a worn black tuxedo piped with white gold, cummerbunded with a used handkerchief, bowtied with a cummerbund, handkerchiefed with a bowtie unravelled, armbanded with napkins and the napkins are all soiled, then each street could be — in every hour of weather, we will survive — a café of sorts. This rush through the streets is a rush for good seats along the parade route. Hurry through this human accordion. It never rains on Coronation Day. Twilight of the cafés: Cafédämmerung.

 

But we will not speak of the actual crowning, or of the processional per se. There are films to that account, the files of multiple intelligence services. Instead we will speak of the waiters. A class unto themselves, this species of priest clad in aprons. Their menus, umbrellas. Their umbrellas opened, stood on their ferrules, umbrella stands. They will perform attendance upon their King, and in this wise shall they divine his secret. Om Sri Maitreya. Om Sri Maitreya. Om Sri Maitreya. Om Sri Maitreya. Om Sri Maitreya. Om Sri Maitreya. Om Sri Maitreya.

 

Om Sri Maitreya.

 

Om Sri

 

Writerwaiters’ clothes must be, like scandal, secondhand, but their hair should be suspiciously freshly cut (this being a provision of management), while their necks at their Adam’s apples are always, but this management does not know, marked with gashes and incisions indicative of hasty morning shaving.

 

The marks — there are three — are as follows: one down the centre from just above the Adam’s apple to where the collar is buttoned for the bowtie, and then again one each down the neck’s two edges, from the dangling lobes of the ears (or, if the lobes are connected, from their connections), tapering to meet the central cut so as to form the shape of the Hebrew letter Shin, which is a name of God.

 

Their socks and underwear and undershirts and shirts are to be boiled monthly in the kitchen, on last Sundays when the kitchen’s closed and all one can order is coffee. Only the apparent portion of the shirt, the diamond exposed through the jacket’s opening, is weekly ironed. The staff is short, also heavy and tall and light. They have been reeducated in unobtrusiveness, trained in stealth accented with a hint of derision (obtrusive). They’re quick with the jokes, have you heard, but only with the jokes supplied, we have heard. They’re quick with the orders too, but are themselves constantly hungry. Always will rage their thirst.

 

Their coffees are strictly five: espressi, cappuccini, Café Au Lait, Kaffee Wien, the coffee of the Turk (available sade, or çok sekerli).

 

Service is roughly ‘cosmological’.  On each table they place a saucer, on each saucer they place a cup (demitasse), next to each they put a shotglass of tepid water, a pitcher of cool cream. A napkin. On the napkin, a spoon. In the spoon, reflection of.

 

Nothing more sexual than a spoon except, perhaps, fire.

 

An ashtray like an ancient castle defence, like a ceramic turret with a cigarette, newly rolled and licked sealed, wedged into a crenature. A box of matches adjacent. (Waiterwriters should have been rolling cigarettes since morning.)

 

This is turning into a poem, a list poem, a list.

 

Alcohol will be made available only after the festivities.

 

Waiterwriters are informally required to be familiar with an array of aesthetic trivia: Alcestis was a Grecian princess and a tragic play in Greek, Bucephalus was a horse while boustrophedon is the alteration of written lines in two different alphabets, one line — in this alphabet, the Roman — reading left to right, another line reading right to left in another alphabet, such as that of the Arabs or Jews. Rodin, a sculptor, employed Rilke, a poet. The decadent jazz ‘standard’ September Song is most often performed in the key of C Major, which is without black notes and so is, like the majority of Slavonic jazz interpretations, all white. Blake. Portraiture the lowest form of flattery, viz. Picasso’s formalistically distorted Mme. Stein. Marijuana grows wildly in America, Mexico, Cuba, from where Allen’s flown on the wings of a beard that has nine wings like the leaves of a cannabis leaf. ‘O it’s a long long while from May to December / but the days grow short when you reach September.’ Rilke was born in Prague but denied it. Near the Main Post Office. Jindřišská ul. AKA Heinrichsgasse. From which he mailed himself to Paris c/o Rodin, a sculptor.

 

Kafka rarely escaped.

 

Incidentally, what was the inspiration for Kafka’s giant bug? A local roach or desiccated scarab, displayed in a case at the Natural History Museum?

 

No, your server will tell you.

 

It was a coffee bean, imported from South America, future continent of émigrés and Mengele.

 

A bean no more impressive than a prostitute’s gnawed thumbnail, bifurcated down the middle, segmented as if an insect. Dead. It is ground in a grinder, chewed by blades into a powder — a fine powder like ashes.

 

Then warm water is pressured through the powder set in a straining mechanism: some form of filtration, whether a paper pyramid or plastic colander cone. Thiswise the powder flavours the water — and so the water becomes coffee to drink.

 

To keep you up at night, writing. The only time you have to write, all night.

 

The cigarettes are rolled of cheap Cuban tobacco. Rilke rarely smoked, Kafka never did.

 

Annotations for a translator: One drinks a coffee. One reads a poem. One writes  one.

 

However, kaddish must be howled.

 

At noon tomorrow, the waiters who write who are also the writers who wait will pause their preparations at the sound of a huge Slavic Om: the hum of the horny crowd from the Polytechnic massing in the squares — (polytechnic means the students can be taught anything: they can be taught engineering, mathematics, from which they might learn napping, dissent) — awaiting a word from their King.

 

They claw the cobbles, awaiting a word from Král Allen.

 

Krallen (meaning, in German, ‘claws’).

 

Kafka on Prague: ‘this old crone has claws’ (Dieses Mütterchen hat Krallen).

 

‘Bouzerant’ is misspelled Czech, should be buzerant: derogatory term for ‘homosexual’ (in the sense of ‘buggerer’).

 

Awaiting word from Allen:

 

A howl, or kaddish in its memory —

 

 

Do not think this was his first kinging. Thirty years before, Allen’s crazy mother brought him across the river parted with a bridge, they took the rotten yellow bus into the city of York and there walked south through its gross & inimitable streets:

 

(list poem number two)

 

and there on the streets were Whitman addicts

 

and there were Latin men picking noses with knives

 

(and which was a switch and which a butterfly knife?)

 

and there on the street was a fish scaled like brass knuckles flopped its guts open on the sidewalk alongside crumbs of pumpernickel bread that are to the pigeons, loaves and there were Negroes as tightly wound and unreliable as the G-string on a dreadnought guitar

 

(experimental) wirehanger-mobilemaking milkmen whose righteous char-ity resembled that of Engels to Marx unfigureouttable furniture movers (repomen) of the Baltics or Balkans and through mixed marriages both Polack florists glassyeyed rheumatic glaziers a chimp with erotically long toes who’d done silent movies but was now retired living alone with a chandling harem of Swedish sisters and their midget Armenian pimp, and this was just Union Square — not named as many think for labour unions like radical politics like why Allen and his mother were here but because this was where two major streets once came together, entered into Union: Broadway & the Bowery.

 

Allen and Mother passed the above on their way to an unlit storefront. They entered, stepping over the threshold — Ma lugging Allen over the threshold — that was only a drunk slumped who was also the meeting’s watchman and the, if also unremunerated until now, lookerupper of skirts. Allen’s mother’s vagina was violently dark and its lips clapped like erasers to flatulate chalky dust as she walked. She’d been a teacher in Jersey public schools before she crazied enough to stop wearing panties — but in this meeting, because meeting it is, Allen will be teaching. He’s passed up to the front, a low stage. Hands hands all hands. He stands on a chair atop the stage facing his audience, he’s already the pro, his passion has been from the very Genesis beginning memorised, stagy. He has no text with him, nothing to read from on cards or to crib in ink from the palm, he makes his memory as he goes along, he improvises. Come what may to mind or tongue. Care not lest ye be cared about, in the wrong way. L’chaim and damn the thoughtcops (later his epithets would grow stronger)!

 

He talks about socialism.

 

He talks about (another poem) everyone being equal but

 

he talks about (no but) the Worker the workers of the

 

Spanish Civil War the purges

 

the poyges! (what a family they were)

 

the show trials the executions of Zinoviev and Kamenev

 

and ev ev ev

 

Amen because Stalin has begun to sour around here,

despite

 

how he mentions the Eighth Congress Molotov the Nazis and Hitler and how Stalin though appreciated world Jewry at least Molotov did because Marx was Jewish and,

 

Allen recites: ‘the Jewish people gave many heroes to the revolutionary struggle continue to produce more fine & gifted organisers than any other,’ etc.

 

Nachas, nachas.

 

Namaste.

 

Irwin! Irwin!

 

(Ginsberg’s given name, whose meaning is ‘boarfriend’ — Ir ‘boar’, win ‘friend’ — so you can understand why he went with Allen because what Jew befriends a boar?) And the audience loved it! They weren’t a movement so much as an audience who loved and applauded Irwin Allen and hugged and kissed Irwin Allen and everybody everybodied him and this audience love told Irwin Allen that he needed to be loved and this need to be loved made Irwin Allen a poet though it was only the fact — the fact! that he hated that he needed to be loved that made him a good poet, as if against his will, as if against his nature (Europeans like the socialists applauding him had will, American hippies such as he would become had nature), but that night he was still an acersecomic toy boy reciting by rote the words of grownups.

 

Ma was triumphant — walking him out of the meeting through Union Square toward the buses where rumbling home they’d plan amid the empty seats to plan his next address.

 

Vendors swarmed the square but there was nothing to vend. A Muscovite roasting his own hairy nuts. A clutch of wilted daffodils, bouquets of week old leek, parsley, parsnip, turnip, onion, garlic. Potato. Soup starters, starches. A Chinaman making shapes out of newspapers, he was folding the morning editions into odd origami if not to sell then just to pass the time not selling: foldbeaked birds perched to graze upon the backs of wild animals that grazed on ink, a crown.

 

Two cents of a nickel, celebration!

 

Ma bought Allen that crown made out of frontpage, a headline for banded jewels: Franco Refuses Immunity to Foreign Refugee Ships. She paid the man like all other men then kinged her son, who ruled her world already. Allen kept his head down, had to hold his new crown down on his head as he walked toward the bus stop, the other hand in his mother’s hand then in his mother’s pocket — ‘foreign refugee ships,’ two sails stooped by the wind.

 

 

Allen was not allowed to leave Prague with the crown the students gave him. The police, the secret police if that is not a paradox to speak of them, confiscated the cardboard party favour before deporting him, just like Castro kicked him out of Cuba (just as Generalísimo Franco banished poetries in Basque, Catalan, Galician/Portuguese). For masturbating publicly, for stroking off on hotel balconies with a broomstick up his ass, biting a tape recorder to mute his pleasure: Allen, for that no glitter garland, for such no diadem.

 

The crown ended up on a hat rack at the headquarters of the Czech Secret Police.

 

If that is not a paradox to speak Czech of them.

 

Street, Konviktská.

 

Allen was in Prague for only a month.

 

The following people were in Prague longer than Mr. Ginsberg: Rilke, Kafka, Pan Novotný who drove a taxicab and was born in the town and died in town and was a plumber too (unofficially, for friends and his wife’s extended family), and never deserved the poem that was written for him because he was unambitious, which is to say he was honest.

 

Sources are not saying he slept with Allen but.

 

He didn’t leave the room till morn.

 

(And was the author of a novel on the subject ‘a marionette from Josefov,’ that came alive at midnight to restore the interiors of neglected provincial churches — unpublished, unless you count three copies mimeographed by friendly brewery assistant Jiří.)

 

A last word about your wraiters.

 

During breaks or at night, they wrote their poems and stories with pen on the papers they used to roll cigarettes. They rolled cigarettes for Allen with these papers and he smoked them, unknowingly, perhaps, or perhaps this too, like fluid exchange during sexual intercourse, was a form of smuggling, an alchemical samizdat — a way of internalising their precious words for later disbursal as coughs, sneezes.

 

Cancer, cancer, one for each lung.

 

Allen took their words into his lungs. He filled his wine barrel chest with verse.

 

His last Prague afternoon the King already crowned — about to be dethroned through deportation, about to abdicate to London — sat in the Ambassador’s lobby café, uncomfortably. Agents surrounded. Critics (agents) hid behind walls, their aperçus were wallpaper patterns. In the kitchen, Allen’s wraiters spit more of their poems into his coffee, thick and heavy poemspit in his coffee they served him cold because they loved him — he was their King, and they wanted to make his own poetry even better by making the life that wrote it worse.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is the author of the novels Witz, A Heaven of Others, and Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto. A book of novellas, Four New Messages, was published by Graywolf Press in August 2012, and his essay Attention came out with Notting Hill Editions in 2013. Cohen is the New Books critic for Harper's Magazine. He lives in New York City.


READ NEXT

Features

Issue No. 9

Ordinary Voids

Poetry

September 2012

Mainline Rail

Fiction

September 2016

STILL MOVING