— from a work-in-progress, I, Duluoz!: An Appreciation of Jack Kerouac
If I had to pick my favorite poem of Jack Kerouacʼs, it would be “Strange Cemetery in Jamaica” published in Some of the Dharma (1997). Strangely, or even tragically, it was omitted from the Library of America volume of Kerouacʼs Collected Poems, as it signifies Kerouacʼs creative breakthrough of spontaneous prose in the early-to mid-1950s. “Strange Cemetery in Jamaica” was originally written in September 1953 in typescript and then inserted by Kerouac into his typescript for Some of the Dharma which almost wholly consisted of the contents of his “Dharma” notebooks. I remember reading this poem at the New York Public Library and recall that the entirety of the poem was squeezed onto a single sheet representing a cramped urgent display of furious expression. I remember being quite impressed by Kerouacʼs virtuosic typing and economy of space and how so much was said with so little.
The actual cemetery, Maple Grove Cemetery, is located close to his 92-21 134th Street home in Richmond Hill in the Queens borough of New York City. Itʼs a little over one mile away if one walked northward from this abode that Kerouac had been living with his mother from 1950 until 1955. It was here that he conducted the brunt of his voluminous sketching (as well as Maggie Cassidy, the 3-day benzedrine composition of The Subterraneans and parts of Book of Dreams). Though he typed his novels in that home, he often walked for hours at a time with his notepad and sharpened pencil and collected his impressions much as a honeybee gathering pollen from flower-to-flower.
Only a few years before Kerouac had taken a walk on October 24  after he had left the San Remo bar on Bleecker Street. He was in an intoxicated state when he boarded a train and promptly fell asleep. He woke and missed his stop at the end of the F train line on 179th Street and walked home, hungover, for two-and-a-half miles until reaching the gastank yard where his tired feet splashed through rain puddles. He wept for his “lost youth in Lowell” for his walk had reminded him of Lowell. There his favorite haunts were never more than a mile away from his home on Moody Street and its close proximity rewarded him with a sense of eternal comfort. Now, in Long Island, Kerouac missed Pawtucketville. The “sprawling terrifying dark hells” of Long Island didnʼt hold a candle to it. Unlike Lowell, Long Island with its millions of inhabitants, meant living in a world that was at once too “enormous,” “incomprehensible,” and “frightening.” This he pondered in a dazed state as he returned. By the time he reached home at 5:30 in the morning, thoughts of his father hung in his head. His mother was just waking up and he was haunted by the “thought of the darkness of my youth in Lowell.” Despite his dour perspective of Long Island, the area became a hotbed for his new writing technique that elicited a new form of spontaneous prose capturing the immediacy and startling clarity of his mixed emotions. The notebook sketches were, in his estimate (on October 26, 1951) the “greatest Iʼve ever done.” I would have to agree, Kerouacʼs notebooks are documents of attenuated consciousness, perhaps even to this day still under- appreciated as a literary mode of purest expression.
My first attraction to “Strange Cemetery in Jamaica” was the strange desperation of its contents; of the author pondering his mortality among gravestones and railyards. Jamaica was formerly an ancient Native American thoroughfare for tribes passing through from as far away as the Great Lakes where they traded wampum beads and furs (Jamaica is unrelated to the Carribean nation of Jamaica, but instead is a corruption of the Lenape tongue, “Yameco,” a word used to describe the aquatic beaver that were then in abundance). The main thoroughfare became the Kingʼs Highway after the encroachment of English colonialists, and then thereafter, Jamaica Highway. It was only in the 1950ʼs that a “white flight” took place (to put it nicely, the exodus of whites of European ancestry left en masse to the suburban areas out of fear or disdain for other mixed color nationalities).
The Jamaica neighborhood of Queens makes several appearances in Visions of Cody, in the early pages of Part I where we read of the “klaxon moaning horn” heard in the fog that makes Kerouac think of Cody (Neal Cassady). It is the “gloomy Jamaica night” that Kerouac sketches. He is “mad” and “bearded” as he watches the waitresses “brighten” up the Merit Food Shop. This observation in turn resurrects thoughts of Gerardʼs desk at Kerouacʼs Phebe Avenue home of his childhood, and the “gray” bed sheets of his rheumatic father, and the invention of his marble game of racing. Later, in Visions of Cody, he mentions a “Jamaica, New York nigger cottage with pickaninny picket fence.” The Maple Grove cemetery and its neighboring water tank on nearby Austin Street (Jack mistakenly calls it a “gastank” in the poem) became a landmark for Kerouac as he walked. One such instance can be found in Book of Sketches (p. 369) titled “Alley Gastank Jamaica” where he is drawn to a “side alley,” the domain of “hidden thieves” that brought to mind the Thieves Market of Mexico City where he lived for a short while. In the opening lines of “Strange Cemetery in Jamaica,” Kerouac pays special attention to local fauna, describing various kinds of underbrush growing around the cemetery in the proximity of the water tank. Across Austin Street, opposite the tank, are the train tracks where Kerouac hears the “far off chuggle of the diesels waiting in the yards for the herderʼs come-on” (which would be the transfer station of the Long Island Railroad called Jamaica Station). The smell of diesel, vegetation and the autumn air eradicates the smell of the dead Kerouac imagines somehow still lingering from the long- dead bones of those buried in the cemetery.
However, Kerouacʼs naturalist tone takes a sinister turn once he focuses his attention to the cemetery only a stoneʼs throw away from the tank yard. Signs of homeless men are apparent from left behind cardboard sheets near the “old graves” where they slept. Kerouac creates a specific picture so vividly described that you can at once put yourself in his shoes and appreciate the depths of his desperation:
[_ _ _] So too now
I sit leaning on a plot
stone, shoes on grass, with
pencil & lonely poor un-
oratorical unworded mind,
rather be dead & deadʼs
not real, waiting for my
in a graveyard
full of bugs & longtail birds
& bottles of Old Tokay —
In Buddhism, the term parinirvāṇa is used most commonly to refer to “nirvana- after-death,” a phenomenon occurring upon the death of one who has attained nirvana during their lifetime. Here, among the rubble and bones and graveyard holes, Kerouac considers his sanctified state and yearns for release from samsara, which is the endless cycle of birth, life and death. Specifically, for Kerouac, samsara is the Gorgonʼs head of his unsettled, agitated mind through which he so vividly perceived his reality. Kerouacʼs Buddhist preoccupations are made plain in “Strange Cemetery in Jamaica”:
[…] — None of
us were born, none of us die,
this is a message from me
to the dead and from the
dead to me who have no
self & am not alive any
more than theyʼre dead—
Kerouac imagines the gas tank exploding and the buried dead oblivious to its destruction. They can no more hear the explosion than they could the “diesel whines” blasting from the train yard. At such a catastrophe, Kerouac is no more concerned with the world of the living as he is with the dead, declaring:
No more poems from poor Jack
Who disappeared just in time
Before form could claim him
And turn his essence to shambles
This poem has become, not just a poem, but a meditation, a “Graveyard Samadhi.” Samadhi stems from Buddhism (and Hinduism, Sikhism among others) and represents a yogic school of teaching that attainment is one of the highest levels of concentrated meditation. Samādhi is the ability to transcend the highest realm of mind, body and spatial intellect. It is where the logical and analytical ability of Being becomes silent. It signifies an utmost detachment from the body state. “The dead are just as glad as me,” Kerouac declares and the “old gray Worries” has transformed into “luminous love.” The curious last turn Kerouac makes, is often dismissed as misogynistic: “PRETTY GIRLS MAKE GRAVES Fuck you all.” Kerouac alludes to his “entire year” of self-imposed celibacy in The Dharma Bums which possibly correlates to the period in which “Strange Cemetery in Jamaica” was composed: “Iʼd also gone through an entire year of celibacy based on my feeling that lust was the direct cause of birth which was the direct cause of suffering and death and I had really no lie come to a point where I regarded lust as offensive and even cruel.” In September 1954, as indicated in a letter written to Neal Cassady (on September 9), Kerouac experienced a meltdown of a sort. His dependence on alcohol caused him hit rock bottom (“Iʼm just the biggest drunk that ever hit town,” he writes to Cassady). His celibacy made him desperate for intimacy: “I spend all my time in lost lonelinesses blasting and masturbating and thereʼs no hope, and yet, thereʼs plenty of hope.” Derailing at a high pitch by the close of the letter, Kerouac fills in the margin of the typewritten letter with pencil, scribbling graphic sexual descriptions from his “Book of Memory” recollecting the Beland sisters of Lowell. In “Strange Cemetery in Jamaica,” Kerouacʼs end to his poem (or meditation), “fuck you all” lashes out to those sitting in judgment over his determination to follow through with his vows though they be in vain. As if to remind himself, he follows the poem in his Some of the Dharma typescript with the “8 FOLD PATH”:
As this productive time period came to a close, for Kerouac had more than a handful of writings in various stages of completion he was desperate to see published, his vows of celibacy became all for naught. Typing from the contents of his Dharma notebooks into a 300+ page typescript, he included snatches of poems like “Strange Cemetery in Jamaica,” prose experiments like “tics,” and sketches, to create a synthesis of original literature that continues to breathe new life into the consciousness of its readers. This, Kerouac realized, would ultimately serve him and his future readers as a way of preserving his precious insight despite the limitations of his perishable self caught in the spokes of ever-turning samsara.
Kurt Phaneuf says
As usual, I stand in awe of your wide-ranging Kerouac interests and research acumen, Paul.
I eagerly await the finished product!