Last week would have been the 99th birthday of William Burroughs. A great writer (in patches) and a key member of the Beat Generation Burroughs was also infamous for killing his wife, apparently accidentally, in a drunken reenactment of the old William Tell trick but with a pistol.
I loved all things Beat Generation as a teenager but it’s difficult, looking at it now, not to feel sorry for the women like Joan Burroughs who were caught up in it. None of them achieved the artistic success of the men, Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, or Allen Ginsberg. Reading Kerouac’s books now you wonder if that wasn’t because they were too busy doing all the cooking and cleaning for their oh-so-creative menfolk. The women in Beat novels are generally maids or whores, preferably some convenient combination of both. Those who aren’t, who want something more for themselves and the children the Beat writers occasionally father (and generally abandoned) come out of the Beat novels as pushy harridans cramping the guy’s creative style.
So, as I got older, one of my favourite pieces of Beat writing became Allen Ginsberg’s poem Dream Record: June 8, 1955. It is one of the few looks at and acknowledgements of the women behind the Beat Generation, who fed and watered the men, almost always anonymously and often at great cost. I figured Joan Burroughs “leaning forward in a garden chair, arms on her knees” deserved remembering today just as much as the famous man who killed her.
A drunken night in my house with a
boy, San Francisco: I lay asleep.
I went back to Mexico City
and saw Joan Burroughs leaning
forward in a garden chair, arms
on her knees. She studied me with
clear eyes and downcast smile, her
face restored to a fine beauty
tequila and salt had made strange
before the bullet in her brow.
We talked of life since then.
Well, what’s Burroughs doing now?
Bill on Earth, he’s in North Africa.
Oh, and Kerouac still jumps
with the same beat genius as before,
notebooks filled with Buddha.
I hope he makes it, she laughed.
Is Huncke still in the can? No,
last time I saw him on Times Square.
And how is Kenney? Married, drunk
and golden in the East. You? New
loves in the West–
Then I knew
she was a dream: and questioned her
–Joan, what kind of knowledge have
the dead? can you still love
your mortal acquaintances?
What do you remember of us?
She faded in front of me–The next instant
I saw her rain-stained tombstone
rear an illegible epitaph
under the gnarled branch of a small
tree in the wild grass
of an unvisited garden in Mexico.
– Allen Ginsberg
This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine