Allen Ginsberg

With Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, 1972, courtesy of the Archives of Allen Ginsberg.
With Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, 1972, courtesy of the Archives of Allen Ginsberg.

Allen Ginsberg had an open life and an open death. From the time the word went out early Friday morning, April 4, that he had had a stroke and was in a coma, family, friends, lovers, poets, musicians, artists, and fellow Buddhists came to his loft on East Thirteenth Street to be with him in his final hours. Allen himself lay on a bed next to the windows that looked out on a backdrop of red taillights of cars streaming up First Avenue and the M14 buses chugging across Fourteenth Street. Above the bed were paintings, photos, and drawings, including a photograph of Walt Whitman and a William Blake lithograph, two lifelong sources of inspiration. In chairs around the bed, his “guests” took turns sitting, watching him, holding his hand, saying goodbye. One artist was drawing deathbed portraits; others were taking photographs, just like Allen himself did at events he attended or performed in. His cousin, Dr. Joel Gaidemak, listened from time to time to his heartbeat— “His heart is fine, it’s strong”—and checked his rate of respiration, and if someone wanted to know more specifically what was happening, he would open a medical text and read the medical description. Allen was lying there very peacefully, the orange flames of his Jewel Heart T-shirt visible above the blankets. With each inhalation, his head would move upward, resembling the way he would take deep breaths between lines when he read or sang his poems and songs. At Allen’s request no artificial life supports prolonged his life.

In the center of the loft, Allen’s teacher Gelek Rinpoche and a group of Tibetan monks, along with various sangha members, chanted prayers and rang bells to give Allen the last support possible. On the altar were photos of Allen’s teachers, the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Gelek Rinpoche. Surrounding them werethankas of Vajrayogini, Yamantaka, and Chakrasamvara, and directly above hung a calligraphy of AH, painted and signed by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

At the Thirteenth Street end of the loft, people were arriving and leaving, talking, reading copies of some of Allen’s last poems eating Chinese takeout, and admiring large nude photographs of Allen with his lover Peter Orlovsky. Allen’s brother sat quietly, his stepmother Edith came by, the poet Bob Rosenthal, Allen’s assistant for twenty years, was there with his children, and Patti Smith brought her kids, explaining, “I thought it was important for them to be here.” In the office, amidst phone calls and faxes being sent and received, a Thelonius Monk CD played softly.

One week before, on Saturday, March 29, Allen had been told he had terminal liver cancer. He began making phone calls: “This is Allen Ginsberg. I have to report that I have incurable cancer.” He called Gelek Rinpoche in Ann Arbor and said, “The doctor says I have one to four months, but judging by my weakness, I don’t think I have that long.” He said to Rinpoche, adding, “I hope you’ll be around for a long, long time.”

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