My friend Peak called to see me for the first time in months. During his visit my wife pretended to be busy, mostly by clattering about in the kitchen but also by thundering up and down the stairs and above us on the landing. I know it was only Peak and he didn’t seem to notice but I was annoyed. He was one of my oldest friends and I felt that her behaviour was unacceptable. I wanted to confront her and so wasn’t really listening to Peak. In fact, I wanted him to leave, to go, so that she and I could thrash this out.
Of course he didn’t. Peak always outstayed his welcome, demanding our attention and beer or, on this occasion, my attention. My wife had obviously decided not to make the effort, that I was responsible for his being here and so could face Peak alone.
The problem was that Peak hadn’t moved, not forward, backward or slant ways. There had been no troughs, no highs or lows. Peak’s life was forever on hold and in order to connect with him, in the way I once had, I would need to step back in time, to unwind the clock at least ten years.
The prospect of the next few hours in his company, whilst my wife sulked noisily in the background, was pretty daunting. I grabbed more beer for us from the fridge, hoping that it might help.
When he asked if I had heard of Gregory Corso I was taken aback. If beforehand I had been asked to list the subjects Peak was least likely to raise that afternoon the Beat Generation I am sure would have rated fairly high.
Had I heard of Gregory Corso? Yes I had. He was a poet, one of the Beats. But I wanted to impart with more than this and although I was intrigued as to why Peak was suddenly interested in Corso, I wanted to impress and so wracked my brain. In my teens I had flirted fleetingly with the Beat Generation. I had read ‘On the Road’ and most of a Kerouac biography. Also a memoir entitled ‘Minor Characters’, the female perspective as told by one of Kerouac’s ex-girlfriends. He had marginalized the women in his fiction and likewise in his life. But what of Corso? He was also a misogynist and a junkie and a petty thief. He had stolen repeatedly from Ginsberg and Burroughs but I wasn’t sure if this was true and had to admit that my knowledge of the Beats was somewhat hazy.
So grudgingly I conceded that yes, I had heard of Corso. That he had been one of the Beat Poets. Of this much Peak was already aware and nodding his head enthusiastically he then asked if I had any of his books. I told him no, answered him abruptly, perhaps a little too sharply. Peak’s face caved, just for a second. Not in disappointment but surprise and hurt.
Then Peak smirked. He had something to tell and wanted me to ask. I didn’t. He was going to tell it anyhow. It was obvious, given Peak’s excitable demeanour, that he felt what he had was big, that I was about to be amazed. I felt strangely apprehensive and I suppose it was mostly from relief that, on hearing Peak’s absurd declaration, I laughed so hard. I had the upper hand in this after all. I knew something about Corso, something that I had thought was inconsequential, a given, I KNEW that he was dead.
Whilst I struggled to regain my composure, Peak was able to have his say. Insisting that I was wrong and, yet again, that Corso was alive and well and residing at present here, in our town, on the Ivel Estate. He was becoming more irritated and irascible and demanded that, before making such a statement, I should be aware of my facts. I hadn’t seen him like this before, so in thrall to something or someone and suddenly the news that a man on the Ivel was purporting to be a dead American poet didn’t seem so amusing.
I had laughed at him but that was only a part of it and he refused to join me as I reached for my laptop. Feigning indifference, he stated that no matter what I might find it wouldn’t change anything. I didn’t push it, not wanting to drive in the final nail. Nevertheless, there it was emblazoned on the screen. At the top of the page Corso’s date of birth: March 26, 1930 and date of death: January 17, 2001. I scanned the text below; a troubled childhood and adolescence. Reform schools and eventually prison where he discovered the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. His connection with the Beat Generation’s big hitters. I scrolled down. A bibliography, further reading and suggested links. But I closed the page. Corso was buried in Rome, in the Protestant Cemetery, the Climitero Acattoclico, as was Shelley.
When I raised my head I realised that Peak had been watching closely and he stared defiantly. I said nothing. Christine now added bursting into the room to her repertoire of clattering and thundering and she began to tidy around us noisily, huffing and sighing. When Peak murmured, almost inaudibly, that I should meet with him, that he would introduce us I didn’t hesitate and told him yes, okay.
I hadn’t been on the Ivel for at least ten years and by the time we had reached the tower block where ‘Corso’ lived, I was well and truly lost. Usually, when we revisit places, particularly from childhood, our old school for instance, or the once familiar haunts from family holidays or simply a place where we used to play, where we came to escape in early adolescence, we are reassured to find that these places seem so much smaller. There is a sense of sadness, of course, and also regret, but ultimately it is reassuring that the place has diminished rather than ourselves.
It wasn’t until we were in the elevator and rising toward ‘Corso’s’ floor that it dawned on me Peak was once again leading me astray. But we were children no longer and this was going to be different.
Whilst we stood in front of ‘Corso’s’ door I remembered Christine and her noisy protest from earlier that afternoon. It felt like it had been days ago and I imagined her sitting quietly, anxiously awaiting my return. But she hadn’t any cause for concern, had no need to worry.
She would still be angry and spoiling for a fight, of this much at least I could be certain, as the dead poet’s door began to open.