Allen Ginsberg’s “South American Journals”

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Retroscope is a monthly series that mines the past for literary travel writing gems.

Incan citadels, flying saucers, white puppy barkyipes, naranjada, incandescence, human shortcuts, bright yellow daisies, adventuring ducks, widows & Peru.


W      hen Allen Ginsberg set out for South America at the beginning of 1960 to attend an international poetry conference in Chile, it was ostensibly a two-month trip. But he clearly had much more in mind, and would end up traveling for six months through Bolivia, Argentina and Peru, seeking to recapture visionary experiences he had had in college—this time with the help of ayahuasca, or yagé, which his friend William S. Burroughs had used and described several years earlier.

The thirty-three-year-old Ginsberg, who would become the best-known American poet in the second half of the last century, was already a leading voice of the Beat Generation, along with Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. His early major work “Howl” and the obscenity trial that followed its 1956 publication had made him one of the most provocative critics of mainstream 1950s conformist and materialist society, but he was not yet the internationally recognized counterculture spokesman and hero of the social and political upheavals that were just around the corner.

Ginsberg in Panama, on the way to Chile.

Ginsberg spent most of a week visiting Machu Picchu, well before the fifteenth-century abandoned Incan citadel had become the Peruvian tourist mecca that it is today. His account of arriving and departing, excerpted here from his recently published South American Journals, betrays a poet’s eye (and ear) for startling detail and personal experience. As editor Michael Schumacher observes, “His journals became his poetry,” serving as the raw material for later finished work. The account includes very little description of the setting or ruins. Omitted in the passages below are some dreams and other tracks of inner life, but the seemingly instantaneous verbal transcription of experience is an indelible imprint of Ginsberg’s mind and spirit in the place.

Compass Rose


Machu Picchu

April 25—Machu Picchu

Express train roar down green below the movement of white Vilcanota water amongst the tracks & footpaths.

Constant cricket chirp, the loudest from a near mount side.

A flock of lambs running away from its owner over the green steps and down a field, a white puppy barkyipe, can’t follow fast enough.

Lovers picking each other’s noses—an amber black & white spot tropic butterfly on the brown soil under the sun’s hitching post on which I sit.

Compass Rose

April 26—I put my black hat over Machu Picchu—Climbed up to Gatepost then walked down from heights Machu Picchu to the R R track & along track with basket & cane & black hat into Peruvian R.R. tunnel—looking back apprehensively—to the Pension—Alojiemento 2 km. down the track—huge wood room whitewashed with tree-pole center, 4 big tables with worn red linoleum fruit-pattern covers, old dusty calendars showing red girls in the fields of Calif. showing their legs—at one table a captain in green, police, two widows in black, one a dwarf, eating pasta and boiled beef, tastes slightly rotten—a baby boy standing on chair to sip his little plate—

At other table an Indian couple, he in brown leather jacket, finishing with coffee—ducks waddling around the floor, a black cat, and a dog with an injured paw.

The radio is too loud, and wobbles in and out of synchronization with the bare transparent blinding electric light that seems only to disturb the eye and sheds a pale irritating light against the red linoleum.

Moths have been wavering and gyring around it and slowly climbing with tremulous wing against the centerpost only to fall off and gyre again around the incandescence.

One fell whirling below the level of the table finally to the floor, exhausted. A nearby duck extended its neck, waddled over quickly and snapped it up from the floor, gobbling rapidly with its flat beak.

The dog yipes for food at the side of the policeman The widow girls are laughing “ahhh-bueno.”

Cover of one of Ginsberg’s original journals he kept while traveling through South America.

The young couple pass from the table to the outside darkness—“Buen provecho” at the side of my ear as I write.

Three vast Calla lilies in the shadow of the counterpole, including a juajua baby in dress, standing on chair with a spoon in the darkness, staring at me.

Thru the door, a great dark smoky black kitchen with pots on charcoal fires—a boy barefoot torn sleeves in baggy pants, serves coffee & carries off the plates. The geese flock on the kitchen floor, one adventures into the eating room.

My hat has a bright yellow daisy set against its blackness. There are four different calendars against the wall, with picture of another in addition, and a filthy green Cuzquena Beer sign.

A tin can with sausage label, holding a bunch of wilted small flowers, over the lintel of the door to the street-railroad track. Glass missing from several sections of the windows, a big pink table against the opposite wall, in front of a large pink rack holding several dozen bottles of Coke, Pilsner Beer, and Naranjada. And in a glass case, a few pieces of bread, a bowl of large yellow eggs, cups, and cheese.

A voice, crooning like that of Pablo Neruda, “Da me saus manos,” breaks off and over a whistle of static 3 men warble in cadence with accordions. A tin roof.

Compass Rose

[. . . May 1…]

N    ightmarish walk down Machu Picchu to R.R. station at nightfall, with heavy clouds over the evening, twisted my knee, with bedclothes wrapped round my shoulders as I’ve seen Indians carrying their bundles, finally dark fell as I got halfway down & had to take the auto road roundabout way instead of human shortcut: a beast rustled in the grass & my toe burned in the dark. Many fireflies hundreds of feet up in the bush, and on the road, crawling express train light-bugs-worms, as if seen from airplane; finally made it down to the Uilcanota Bridge which rusted & leaned over the locomotive sound of the white flood below—And along the R.R track two kilometers to the station—last look back as I turned the curve, the hotel light & campemento corporation light burning way high up on the peak, in the dark mount, high as a Dantean peak in Inferno, a single star-like light revived the impression of utter high remoteness I first had seeing the Ruins from the trail on arriving—way up there in the sky, a city, dead, like an ancient idea of heaven.

Cover of one of Ginsberg’s original journals he kept while traveling through South America.

Now back at Hotel after coffee, by the R.R. tracks, the mad dog still chained to the back porch with 3 feet of rusty iron, barking hysterically with rabid inhalation of growl everytime I stumble on the rocks of the front porch & step up the rickety wet stairway in the blackness—in the café downstairs they are all getting drunk for May day, poetic youths that make 40c a day working clearing the ruins or cleaning the R.R. track—all up the single street barefoot women following barefoot after the drunk men—and the radio blares from Puno, Mexican music too loud to stand, so that I have to shout to ask “How much?” for my coffee & Inca cigarettes. The drum throb below from the whorehouses—cantina next door, the dog still barking, and myself lain back in bed with two candles at my head burning like funeral tapers in this wooden room papered with last year’s newspapers filled with stories about the white smoke announcing a new Pope and the Einsteinean significance of the Flying Saucers with photos in Spanish.

In the Railroad tunnel darkness, with sack on back, I tapped my cane against the rails to find my way thru Death.

Alan Bernheimer’s latest collection of poetry is From Nature. Born and raised in Manhattan, he has lived in the Bay Area since the 1970s. He produces a portrait gallery of poets reading on flickr. His translation of Philippe Soupault’s memoir, Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, was published by City Lights in 2016.

Lead image: Willian Justen de Vasconcellos

Excerpt from South American Journals: January–July 1960, by Allen Ginsberg; edited by Michael Schumacher. Copyright 2019 by Allen Ginsberg, LLC. Reprinted by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.

Journal images: Courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg Papers, Stanford University Archives and Special Collections

Allen Ginsberg passport image: Courtesy of The Estate of Allen Ginsberg

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  1. Alan, beautifully done, thank you. Brings back with sudden clarity the elements I loved and didn’t love about Allen’s writing. Thrilling, always, the way he almost throws himself into deep experience itself in details. And yet, in that same rush to dive in, his dropping of articles always made me anxious. As if he was taking us on a careening ride, going too fast to use the word “the.” Scary! Pulling everyone along, while also showering and drenching us all, with relentless generosity, in the maddening beauty of non-stop experience. Can’t describe it, have to do it!
    That was Allen. For any readers here who wonder at my arrogance, I lived across the hall from Allen for decades. He was the embodiment of generosity, in life, in writing, in all things. Great to be reminded.

  2. I am an admirer of the Beat writters. W Burroughs visited Colombia in search of Yage, a sacred plant that would help him overcome his stong addiction to heroine. Traveling was important for the beatniks because they wrote about the experiences of their trips.

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