Holding The Empty Mirror

Sabine Huynh

It was cold out when I saw the small black letters
advertising Allen Ginsberg’s book signing.

It started to rain when I pushed the door into Choc Corridor, a bookstore
specializing in detective and fantasy novels,

Beat literature, old and new finds, in the heart of Lyons’ old quarter,
where I lived in 1993. It was Friday, November 12, I was 21.

A hungry philosopher apprentice, without books at home and a job outside,
I wandered a lot off down empty corridors at the public library.

I badly wanted Ginsberg to lay his eyes on me, but couldn’t afford to buy any book.
I stood empty-handed, like Alice in the hallway, not knowing which door to try.

What was real? What was illusory? The answer was to steal a second-hand copy
of Ginsberg’s Empty Mirror in French—sand-coloured and stained Miroir Vide—

and line up with the devotees. Ginsberg himself, after leaving the mental hospital
where he’d spent a few months, stole a book by T.S. Eliot

at his publisher’s office after picking up his mail, and wrote to his friend Jack
Kerouac that the world owed him at least “that $3 worth of heart balm.”

Empty Mirror was Ginsberg’s first collection of poems published in 1961.
Choc Corridor opened its doors in 1977 and closed them

twenty years later when Ginsberg was dying in New York,
aged, spectral Russian.

He looked frailer and older than I thought, more dignified too
—tamed hair, white shirt and tie—, thick-lipped, one eye noticeably bigger

than the other, and was sitting behind a small table
signing away, dominating the whole room.

A gaunt man who claimed Ginsberg was his father seized the poet’s hands
and told him that he was who he was thanks to the American master.

Ginsberg freed himself, and coldly said in French:
“I certainly cannot endorse such responsibility, you go your way, I go my own.”

Then came my turn, shaking and holding the Empty Mirror. The beaten book was falling
apart and so was I. “Oh, that’s an old book,” he said,

“It’s not very well made,” he added, before signing it, the round letters of his first and
last names attached above the date, his initials in a circle.

“Thanks a lot,” I said, “Thank YOU,” he replied, touching his forehead with the book.
I was no longer a ghost.

I asked him how he felt about seeing such young people coming to him
with Howl or Kaddish in their hands, “Je me sens good.” Such were his words.

He told me he liked Philip Glass’s operas, Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Sonatas,
Verdi’s Requiem, Berlioz’s Requiem, and shook my hand.

Music for the missing, I thought. Listen to that.
After all, what else is there to say?

“I am French-Vietnamese,” I said. He looked at me, and answered:
“I am a poet, I am Jewish, I am American,

I am gay, I am also Russian, from my mother.”
“I write poetry too,” I said boldly, “any advice you can give me?”

His eyes narrowed and he told me: “One has to be aware
that there is reality and emptiness.

There is reality, rich with dreams. You have to be precise, do you hear me?
I refuse to sign if you don’t give me the full name, I want both names, the full name.”

Walking home at night, I carried his words as my own
letter to a young poet, my own

explanation of how mirrors work, my own
voice and certainty that there is no other world than poetry

for the other side of the bay,
is Heaven and Eternity.

Note: Phrases in italics are quoted from the following poems in Allen Ginsberg’s Empty Mirror (1961): “A meaningless institution”; “Fyodor”; “In society”; “This is about death”;“After all, what else is there to say?”; “Walking home at night”; “Metaphysics”; “Cezanne’s ports”

Sabine Huynh lives and works in Tel Aviv, and writes in English and in French. Her first novel, La mer et l’enfant, was released by the French publisher Galaade Editions in May 2013, and her first poetry collection, Les colibris à reculons, will be published by Voix d’encre in October 2013 (with drawings by Christine Delbecq). A collection of short stories, En taxi dans Jérusalem, was published by Publie.net editions in July 2013 (with photographs by Anne Collongues), and the publication of her second poetry collection, Tu amarres les vagues (with photographs by Louise Imagine), is due out with the same publisher sometime in 2013-2014. She is currently working on an artist book about Tel Aviv, with French painter André Jolivet.