- To Help the World
Michael Schumacher, ed.
University of Minnesota Press
392 pages; Cloth, $29.95.
Iron Curtain Journals is the first in a series of three of Allen Ginsberg's unpublished travel journals, covering his peculiar journey in Cuba, the Eastern Bloc, and England in 1965. Edited by Ginsberg's biographer and author of Dharma Lion (2016) Michael Schumacher, this publication offers for the first time in Ginsberg's own words a depiction of his most talked-about experience in socialist countries. A natural-born storyteller, Ginsberg offers a day-to-day account of his travels in a vivid and sometimes provocative manner. The journals span a variety of subjects: Ginsberg's troubles with the authorities and the journalists; his encounters with poets, scholars, and artists; the parties and orgies with Cuban and Czech youths; his visit to his maternal family in Russia; his dreams and his sexual fantasies; his abrupt expulsions from Cuba and Czechoslovakia; his notorious coronation as the King of May in Prague—all the way to his concluding sojourn at the heart of Swinging London.
In his instructive introduction, Michael Schumacher first examines the history of Ginsberg's travel books publication, presenting at the same time the evolution of the poet's position on the release of his most intimate texts. Schumacher also emphasizes that the Iron Curtain Journals document an important moment in Ginsberg's life during which the American poet gradually transformed into an international voice with a political appeal for protesting youths. A new dimension that proved difficult to handle in socialist countries, where Ginsberg's liberal ideas on sexual freedom and drugs will be met with strong disbelief, if not repressive actions against him and his contacts.
Over a third of the book is devoted to the transcript of the five notebooks written while in Cuba, covering his month on the island. Allen Ginsberg fled there in January 1965, responding to an invitation by the Cuban Ministry of Culture to attend a writers' conference in Havana.
Shortly before his departure, Ginsberg had testified in Boston against an obscenity ban on Naked Lunch. This testimony concluded a year marked by the poet's strong involvement in public fights against censorship and for drug legalization. An obstinate mind, Ginsberg brought these political issues with him, which strongly influenced his analysis of the Cuban and Eastern countries societies.
While in Havana, Ginsberg grudgingly participates in the cultural propaganda activities organized for the authors' delegation. As he states: "being treated as guest is subtle form of brainwash." With little appreciation for this "superficial Summer Camp bourgeois distraction," Ginsberg prefers to wander in the streets, and quickly meets a group of young poets who tell him all about the repression instigated by Cuba's Vice squad: "3 boys. . .stopped me asked was I Ginsberg and told me they were trying to reach me all day . . . they complained about crackdowns on homosexuals, crackdowns on 'los Infermos' arrests in the street of sick or Beat types."
He decides to tackle these issues head on, and publicly advocate for marginalized young people and sexual freedom, opposing the government policies of the Castro regime in front of journalists and officials. As a response, some of Ginsberg's young Cuban friends are arrested by the police. From then on, he gradually delves into paranoia and loneliness. He starts using initials of his contacts in his journals, in fear the police will confiscate them: "I have to shut up & stop blabbing. Close down. Afraid to write in the book. That's why style so short."
On the morning of February 18, immigration authorities finally expel him. He leaves for Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union (the itinerary followed by Allen Ginsberg was dictated by a series of restrictions due to the diplomatic tensions in the Cold War).
While in the East, Ginsberg tries to stay discreet to avoid troubles. He, however, investigates the situation of Russian poets and Soviet dissidents [End Page 12] Joseph Brodsky and Alexander Sergeyevich Esenin-Volpin, and will eventually meet Esenin-Volpin in a spy-like encounter.