Benjamin Goluboff

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In Old Age Ho Chi Minh listens to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band

The LP arrived in a diplomatic bag
from the East German consulate,
and was purchased,
he saw from the paperwork,
in Amsterdam.

Le Duan wanted to study the album
because Party analysts reported
that the youth of the West
had rallied around this music.
They were said to find in it
both an expression of
their collective anomie,
and a vehicle for protest
of the American war.

Le believed there were opportunities
to leverage the music on the diplomatic front
and in the international popular struggle.
And so one evening in his seventy-seventh year,
with diabetic neuropathy in both feet
and a cataract in his left eye,
Ho took the record to his rooms
and put it on the little Sony.

The song with the tabla and the sitar
was transparent to him.
Here were disaffected sons of Empire
battering their fathers
with mimicry of the colonials.
In the song about the girl leaving home
he heard illustrations of Engels’ thesis
on private property and the family.
And in the absurdist dissonances
of the recording and in the gaudy cover art
he recognized the contradictions
of a capitalist logic grown old like himself.

But to much of what he heard,
Ho failed to bring a revolutionary critique
because the music beguiled his memory.
This decadent, counterrevolutionary music
conjured the scent of roast chestnuts,
of ale and bitters, the powder and sweat
of the pressing crowd in the Shoreditch Empire,
or the Old Bedford of Camden Town.
London. Fifty years ago.
Ho remembered how he’d sought
the bourgeois crowd of the music halls,
night after night, to become lost there,
invisible and embraced.
Had they sung, that year,
“Keep the Home Fires Burning,”
or was this a trick of memory?
So remote, those old days,
so insistent.

Ho played the disc a second time
and felt the pathos of change.
Our younger selves, he understood,
are strange to us as the worlds they lived in.
Who was the frail young man so rapt
by that alien music?
And who is this ancient one
dwelling in a montagnard stilt house
on the Palace grounds,
and hearing the echo?

A refugee in time that night
Ho heard in the album’s closing chord
(thundering from the piano, reverberant,
prolonged, uncompromising)
the sure approach of death.

In Exile Ho Chi Minh Reads Ovid

Exile, he came to understand,
could be experienced as lightness.
Light as a balloon untethered.
Light as the mission tracts the French sent outre mer:
Bible paper, translucent in its thinness, made to travel.

Picture him in the Crimea, 1927,
recovering from tuberculosis and Chiang Kai Shek.
The road back is sealed; the way forward is uncertain.
He lies upon his cot as though it were a thermal column
of rising air, pressing him upward
to a high cold vantage
where the outlines
of the peninsula
are revealed.

Exile as lightness and loft.

On the cot, his breath shallow and whistling,
picture him reading the Metamorphoses,
a battered French translation from the turn of his century.
His intelligence on fire, Nguyen Ai Quoc reads hungrily:
Daphne with her thighs in bark.
Myrrha pierced by a nameless lust.
Tithonus dwindling and immortal in another sunrise.

Form is mutable.
Self is Eurotas’ stream that bore
the severed head of Orpheus,
still singing, on its waves.

Could he have known that on this very Black Sea coast
the maker of these lines had borne an exile kindred to his own?
Comrade Naso, driven by empire’s wrath to empire’s edge,
for carmen et error he wrote:
no other reason known
for banishing a poet
past the frontier
of his mother tongue.

Aloft and weightless on his cot Nguyen closed the book,
and as the shallow sleep of illness came he knew
that if he lived he would be metamorphic.
Nguyen Tat Thanh had passed.
Nguyen Ai Quoc must some day be disavowed.
Who else might he become?

A grandfather who never was a father.
A soldier who never bore arms.
A lover who exiled love’s memory.
A waxen corpse in the state’s glass case.

On a Photograph of Allen Ginsberg at the Falls of the Passaic, 1966

​​​​​It would be more about the roar and the plunge,
the rainbow caught in the spume,
or more in reference to slick-wet granite and the smell of cold,
than to the hum and buzz of implication in the culture,
or the interfusing, consubstantial, of the poet and the genius loci.
It would be more about the falls as falls. 

And yet:

Allen smoking weed on the catwalk,
where Hamilton had dreamed a national mill,
where Williams, rampant on a field of gold,
had dreamed each brick and fairy casement 
of the town already in decline.

Then how, indiscreet and evangelical at the Y.M.H.A., 
Allen had told them all about it: 
getting high at the falls and Paterson made holy.
How Mayor Graves would take him to court for this,
send detectives to Manhattan after him,
where, erring, they arrested a luckless Hasid.

Yes, Allen was indigenous here: a pure product.
The nymphs of the Passaic sang above his infant head
and bound their liquid tresses
as a sign upon his hand,
and to be for frontlets between his eyes.

We see him from the back and half in focus;
the camera is watching the falls.

Passaic is at flood and swirls about the slender trunks
of saplings growing on the channel bar. 
Perhaps the photograph is bleaching out; 
perhaps a mist moves over the water
that rises smooth and glassy, pressured from below
before it breaks at the brink. 


Benjamin Goluboff teaches at Lake Forest College. Aside from a modest list of scholarly publications, he has placed stories, poems, and essays in many small-press journals. His poem "Ho Chi Minh's Sense of Humor" will appear this fall in War Literature and the Arts. Some of his work can be read at