Words That Change

Diary #55 – Tristessa

In diary, essay, literature, review on 23 April, 2010 at 18:20

Thanks to Wikipedia for this image

SPOILER ALERT!! But it doesn’t matter because you can’t ruin that immediacy of intent by describing it.

Tristessa is my favourite book by Jack Kerouac. I have read two.

It tells of his travails with a Mexican junkie, whose name he changed from the Spanish for sorrow. Her real name was Esperenza.

Tristessa tells of the gutter, a chicken under the bed and a dove that sits on top of the wardrobe, comically surveying the scenery while Kerouac yearns and spurns Tristessa. Himself drinking gaily in the slum, while she shoots up and philosophises. Kerouac knows he cannot have her and desires her all the more. His words move over her body, a pristine opposite of the destitution that surrounds.

Jack poises heartbreak with hilarity. The destitute beauty of the heroine undermined by his humourful gaze. When he switches into despair it is like glass moaning in your stomach. At one point he castigates God for the situation He created. Meanwhile reminding us of His immensity with all his Buddhist learning.

I wonder about the beats and Buddhism, if it gave them any values or served as another avenue of mental exploration. Ginsberg’s Indian Journals weave as much morphine as they do contact with yogis. (There’s a beautiful line in the acknowledgements where Ginsberg thanks a Yogi who told him that “poetry is also a Sadhana, and even Yoga gives way before the end”).

Kerouac’s giving way here with all his conscious might. Having left Tristessa refusing her offer of love – he can’t bring himself to accept the junk – he returns, gets drunk and takes morphine and finds that she is now in love with another junkie and friend of Kerouac’s Old Bull. The combination of Tristessa nearly dying, Kerouac coming down off his hit and his heartbreak at finding his desire cannot be his is one of the most vital and moving prose passages I have ever read. The atmosphere and dead-end pit Kerouac creates is one of the greatest moments in fiction, or that tiny fragment I have read.

As a writer Kerouac reminds me to break all the rules, let go of form and let the flow do the talking and in that flow he creates forms and moments you cannot believe in until you have the pleasure to pick up the book.

He is one of the reasons that I often write with an American accent. How the New World has taken our Mother Tongue further than the Old World could enjoy.

~ o ~


I knew you last summer as a student and wrote you what I thought to be my greatest poem to date. You told me you found it awkward and left. There was no junk but there was Queen’s Day and our friendship was blooming as I sat you on a bench and began to read. You killed me, though I like to think that I could not have chosen to stay silent. An excuse to persuade the distance it was not there.

You’re in America and your Aztec hooded eyes waved goodbye wordlessly as awkwardly working in the same room we couldn’t say anything to the other. My stomach was in boils.

I have loved others more but none hurt quite like you.

When I met you I was reading a book. It was by Jack Kerouac and entitled:


The old man was warning me but intoxication can’t let a man see sense in reappraisal. And you were like wine.

Sipped but not forgotten.

  1. I see in you the heart of a poet, of a romantic and yet you feel a need to be so aggressive, so negative. What has the New World done to your native tongue? I want you to keep it, to spill it, to allow it breathe with your Old World sensibilities.

  2. Hi Alexandra,

    It wasn’t so much negative as an upswell of irritation. Sorry it spilled out on your blog. It’s sometimes better that these are said than bottled up.

  3. […] Diary #55 – Tristessa April 2010 2 comments 5 […]

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