American Buddhism irritates me. I think of lecherous rinpoches; I think of high school gymnasiums packed with cross-legged bourgeoisies chuckling with Pema Chödrön over shared foibles. At Grace Cathedral, while Chödrön considered living with uncertainty, the couple sitting in the pew in front of me were making out. I surveyed the rest of the room. Every other person was sitting stone still, but these two, a foot from my face, were squirming about like a pair of puppies. It was like Buddhism was punishing me for my bad attitude.
I bring a lot of baggage to John Giorno’s Buddhist-inflected poetry, but his aesthetics of radical acceptance surprises me at every turn. With an unguarded warmth, John speaks of addiction, suicidal ideation, sleaze, rudeness, love, the contents of William Burroughs’s coffin, glorious lovers, glorious clouds from an airplane window, failure, betrayal, a family sitting on a stoop, the genius artists he’s met. Personal and non-personal, inside and outside interweave—and like all else, evaporate. In the midst of this wondrous permutating display sits the mind, an “iron nail.”
When I met Giorno, in Berkeley at a dinner party of six people, I didn’t know who he was. This John guy knows a lot of people, I thought. I know a lot of people who know a lot of people, but John knew an awful lot. Anne Waldman. Burroughs. He knew the lying deceiving Buddhist teacher I had an affair with, and he knew that teacher’s teacher. He knew Andy Warhol. And here he was, leaning forward over his roast chicken, knowing me. A couple hours later, I closed the door behind me, and paused on Leah Levy’s doormat, while a bolt of lightning struck me. “Oh my God!” I exclaimed. “That was John Giorno!”
His is a spiritual art devoid of saccharine woo woo, of pretension, of artifice. Without the mediation of a book, John stands in front of an auditorium, bright light blocking out an audience he deeply connects with. When a performance is working, he becomes a mirror for the audience’s mind. He memorizes and practices the words, their rhythm and intonation, so that each poem becomes a song, each time recited exactly the same, and thus he loses himself in the poem. It empties him out. This has all been said by John, about John, before. Perhaps by saying it again I too am emptied out.
After the second time I had dinner with John we strolled down a street in Harlem; he linked his arm in mine as if we were old friends. He offers an easy, unaffected intimacy that is wildly charismatic. “Thanks for exploiting my big ego and making me a star for your own benefit,” he delivers in “Thanx 4 Nothing,” with a mischievous smile. This beat of confrontation jolts us out of passive entertainment mode and into an active engagement, with all our own shit raging. It’s easy to pack Buddhist content into a poem, but John has gone whole city blocks beyond
that, enacting a poetics that is structurally Buddhist, that twists and startles.
DODIE BELLAMY is an American novelist, nonfiction author, journalist, and editor. Her latest book is When the Sick Rule the World (Semiotext(e)/Active Agents). With Kevin Killian, she coedited Welcoming the Flowers Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative Writing 1977-1997 (Nightboat).