Ginsberg Goes Behind Enemy Lines: A Review of Iron Curtain Journals

In 1965, Allen Ginsberg jumped at the chance to peek behind enemy lines with a visit to communist Cuba. He was only asked to judge a literary competition, but his trip was expanded time and again due to bizarre complications, meaning that he instead visited Mexico, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Poland, England, and Paris, before finally returning home some six months later. In Iron Curtain Journals: January-May 1965, Michael Schumacher (author of Dharma Lion) has collected Ginsberg’s notes, poems, and dream journals into a valuable resource for Beat enthusiasts.

Allen Ginsberg’s expansive travels during the previous two decades had taught him much about the world, but perhaps most important was an outsider perspective on the United States, which he viewed as a global bully, enforcing its law upon the world and bombing Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. For Allen, communism and socialism held a vague allure. He felt they may offer a better way of life than the materialistic capitalist systems he knew. Not one to trust traditional media or government reports on foreign matters, Allen took off for Cuba in early 1965 to see for himself.

A little over a decade earlier, Ginsberg had visited Cuba and hated it. He didn’t quite hate it on this second visit, but he wasn’t hugely impressed, either. The communist government had little tolerance for things he held dear – gay rights, marijuana, and free speech. In his journals, and sometimes to other people he met, Ginsberg was typically outspoken. He asked many people about homosexuality and drugs, which made them uncomfortable. He asked if Raul Castro and Che Guevara were gay, and wrote about his sexual fantasies for these men, and even Fidel Castro. Eventually, his actions and ideas resulted in soldiers showing up as his door and taking him to the airport, where he was deported.

Iron Curtain Journals

Due to travel restrictions, he was put on a plane to Czechoslovakia, which seemed comparatively liberal. Now very much behind Soviet lines, Allen took his chance to explore further, seeing a few parts of eastern Russia, as well as Poland. He found that communist governments here didn’t place much value on individual freedoms, either, although Poland wasn’t nearly as bad as Russia, where he was ferried around by officials and nobody seemed comfortable talking about anything remotely controversial. Returning to Czechoslovakia, Allen was crowned King of May and paraded through the streets of Prague. This incensed the authorities, and he was deported once again.

This time he landed in England in the middle of the Swinging Sixties. Although his travels had been illuminating, Ginsberg was much more at home among the hippies and free love ethic. He had gained a new perspective on the world and felt a new appreciation for the freedom to write what he wanted without going to prison or being executed. In particular, conversations with Russian poets who’d lost friends to the gulags, and had even done time themselves, made him realize how privileged he was to come from a more open society.

In Iron Curtain Journals, we follow Ginsberg’s wild ride from a stopover in Mexico, through both deportations, to London, Paris, and finally an unpleasant stop at customs back in the U.S. We get inside his mind and gain a new perspective on some parts of the journey – presenting a pretty different take from what appears in the major Ginsberg biographies. In fact, beyond that I also noticed a number of differences in dates that had appeared elsewhere – although this is hardly unusual, as Allen constantly made mistakes in dating his letters and journals. (There are also pretty big gaps between some of the Ginsberg biographies, too.)

Ginsberg's Iron Curtain Journals

I was surprised to see that he had enjoyed his brief time in Mexico City, as elsewhere I had read he was bed-ridden for this leg of the trip, and utterly miserable. The bulk of the book is made up of his time in Cuba, with little given over to the final hours when he is booted out of the country. This was interesting, as I know of no other source which really gets into his time there, and most dwell instead on the departure. I was surprised by the extent of his anxiety and depression issues while there, and many of the stories – which I have never seen anywhere else – are fascinating. It’s not all depressing; in fact, much of the Cuba section is highly comical. At one stage, he suggests that: “The only way for govt. to curb homosexuality is to encourage heterosexuality.”

Alas, none of his journals from Czechoslovakia survive (or have been found, at least), so that part of the book is padded out with letters already published elsewhere, and a half-hearted attempt (which ends very suddenly) to recall events that he had written some time later.

Ginsberg’s journals from Russia and Poland are beautiful but inconsistent in terms of depth, as sometimes he presents copious details, and sometimes says nothing for days. I don’t know if this was an editing choice or just related to how much he wrote. In any case, it is really wonderful to see his take on life in the Soviet Union at this point. In Poland he writes beautifully about the people he sees on the streets, and in Russia there are more conversations with people. This is all, of course, in stark contrast to the exuberance of London and Liverpool, which come next. This part of the book is a little sparse, made up mostly of early drafts of poems rather than journal entries.

Allen Ginsberg's Communist Journals

Near the beginning of the book, Ginsberg writes: “I made a mistake. I should have written daily descriptions like this years ago.” Indeed, much of this book is tremendously valuable to scholars, and doubtless entertaining to Beat and counterculture enthusiasts, too. It offers insights into Ginsberg’s mind at an important stage in his life, as well as a look behind the titular Iron Curtain from a very unique perspective. Though it is a shame that the Czechoslovakian portion remains hidden (I had half-hoped the journal had been found when I heard of this book), there is plenty here that will be news to even ardent Allen aficionados.

My only criticisms of this book are superficial ones. It is Ugly with a capital U. The fonts used throughout the book are inexplicably horrendous, particularly for titles, footers, and the table of contents. Cutesy hearts are used to separate certain sections, and the crude retro designs near the beginning of the book are truly off-putting. The cover is pretty horrific, too, but one knows not to judge a book by that standard… In any case, as obnoxious as these things can be, it is still a superb book and deserves a place alongside the other great collections of Allen’s work.

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Find out more at the publisher’s website.

David S. Wills

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David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. He travels a lot and currently lectures in China. He also runs an ESL website. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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