We gathered in a circle, some of us in chairs, others of us on blankets, on a sunny afternoon, celebrating a friend’s 40th birthday. It’s a lovely day — quality time with friends, all of us pleased to be together, laughing, telling stories, sharing observations and enthusiasms. Afterwards, I reflect upon Allen Ginsberg’s centering of Carrie Nation in the midst of the vortex in his antiwar poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” Nation was a temperance zealot. She ran around cities like Wichita attacking alcohol-serving establishments with a hatchet in the decades prior to Prohibition. I recall there being a straightedge band named after her in the 1990s, as well as a fictional band in Russ Meyer’s 1970 film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Is Ginsberg suggesting that Prohibition birthed Vietnam? What is a vortex? In his 1914 essay “Vortex,” modernist poet Ezra Pound described the latter as “the point of maximum energy.” But of course, Pound was a fascist. Is his essay one we need to read to understand Ginsberg? It’s a modernist manifesto, one that launched the short-lived movement known as Vorticism. (British fascist Wyndham Lewis is the other major figure linked with the movement.) Pound was obsessed with “race” and “race-memory” and attacked hedonism. Yet he’s widely considered one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century. The “Vortex” essay ends with a quote from Pound’s lover and contemporary, the modernist poet H.D. The latter is a curious figure, for sure. H.D. experienced “visions,” sought treatment from Sigmund Freud, and dabbled in the occult. For further discussion of H.D.’s interest in the latter, see Matte Robinson’s book The Astral H.D.: Occult and Religious Sources and Contexts for H.D.’s Poetry and Prose.
Here I am once again reading Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” a poem I’ve been reading for most of my adulthood. Today, though, is the first time I see the supermarket through which the poet wanders as both sacred and profane: a supermarket of neon and concrete, certainly, but also a supermarket of the spirit. Ginsberg wanders amid Whitman’s “enumerations” and “penumbras,” the catalogued universe of American consumerism — but he dwells there with his ancestors, in an afterlife like the one imagined by the ancient Greeks. Whitman is addressed and invoked throughout the poem. Ginsberg questions him as if Whitman were an American Virgil leading Ginsberg through the inferno of the American Century. The poem travels from the bright light of the new postwar supermarket to a lonely American night. The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca shops here, too, apparently. Ginsberg wonders what Lorca was doing there “down by the watermelons.” Lorca was executed by fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Ginsberg follows these figures, though he also imagines in a somewhat paranoid manner that he himself is being followed or trailed by “the store detective,” as if the poet were a character in one of the era’s films noir. All of this thinking occurs on the night of a full moon. It’s a “weird” poem, is it not? Weird as in the way Erik Davis uses the term in his book High Weirdness. The supermarket is as much in Hades as it is in California. I read it now while tending a small fire in a fire-pit in my backyard. Whitman seems dismayed by the country’s development in the half-century since his passing. The “lonely old grubber,” who always said he was immortal, appears in the poem eyeing and questioning the grocery boys. “Who killed the pork chops?” he asks. “What price bananas? Are you my Angel?” The questions suggest confusion, suspicion, bewilderment, and indignation. Why do we find ourselves in this world, he seems to be asking, rather than “the lost America of love,” the one we dream? Why, though, does the poem end beside the waters of Lethe? Perhaps that is where the poet locates America spiritually and psychogeographically.
Pantheism is a condition of democracy, is it not? Athens is a many-voiced cosmos. I imagine it would be a condition of any polis built atop slavery and conquest, no matter the imperial ambitions of passing and changing monotheocratic regimes throughout history. Even “secular” states, monotheocratic in their own right, possess those who believe in angels, demons, spirits, ghosts, ancestors. Western rationalism demands adherence to a realism that denies these realities. The West imagines itself to be superior — more “Enlightened.” It brandishes its weapons and says “Might Makes Right.” Police keep a bloody peace, the latter maintained through ritualistic violence. The poet Allen Ginsberg recognized this; America worships a bloodthirsty god — a god like Moloch, the deity denounced in the second section of Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Yet rebellion persists; people rise up, riot, live communally, wage culture war, reclaim land. To win, we must ease the Other’s fears so as to prevent further violence.
Di Prima was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1934. Her maternal grandfather was an active anarchist — a friend and confidant, in fact, of another author I’m teaching this semester, Emma Goldman. Like her fellow Beat writer Allen Ginsberg, Di Prima grew and evolved over the course of her long career alongside the leading countercultural movements of her time. She protested the Vietnam War; she experimented with free love and lived communally with others; she promoted mind expansion through use of psychedelics. After editing a newsletter called The Floating Bear with Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Di Prima spent much of 1966 with Timothy Leary’s crew of utopian psychonauts and psychedelic spiritualists at Millbrook. Her Poets Press published the first two editions of Leary’s Psychedelic Prayers in Spring 1966.
I’m planning to teach Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters (or excerpts therefrom, not the book in its entirety) in my course this fall. The work is a serial poem begun by Di Prima in 1968. It was published as part of the famed Pocket Poets Series from City Lights Books — the same series that released the original iconic edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems a decade earlier. Di Prima lived for much of 1966 with Timothy Leary’s crew in upstate New York on the Hitchcock estate in Millbrook.
I haven’t been much of a late-night DJ lately, speaking out across the airwaves, broadcasting via trance-script. Sarah and I have been hard at work. Time to relax, clink glasses, admire a mason jar filled with roses and azaleas picked from our garden. But work calls and the baby calls, placing demands upon our time. A student shares with me Allen Ginsberg’s plea to the Hell’s Angels, a piece the poet read at San Jose State College, asking the Angels not to violently disrupt a peace protest. Why did the Angels refuse Ginsberg’s plea? Was there a flaw in the poet’s telling of the difference between poetry and rhetoric? It’s the same difference Audre Lorde struggles to master in her poem “Power.” How does one ease the Other’s fears so as to prevent further violence? Gene Youngblood says leave the culture without leaving the country. Secede from the broadcast. Build the worlds that will be the destinations and destinies of those who walk away. Use these worlds for meditation and transform oneself. “You’re either leaving,” Gene notes, “or you’re not.” Invite alterity into one’s media universe. Gene calls the current era “The Build,” as we detach from the corporate-state broadcast into that which comes next.
She’s growing quickly. She’s active, inquisitive, communicative, discerning. We hang out. We go for walks. We return home to home cooking and mother’s breast. The household looms large around the edges of each day. I come home from walks eyes heavy with pollen. Allergy season. I’m interested to see what students do with this week’s readings: texts by Abbie Hoffman and John Sinclair. I dig in and learn about Abbie’s friendship with Allen Ginsberg. The two writers admired each other’s work. Ginsberg influenced Yippie politics and Hoffman’s brand of revolutionary political theater through a piece he wrote called “Demonstration or Spectacle as Example, As Communication.” (Abbie’s archives are available, by the way, at University of Texas at Austin.)
The backs of my hands above my knuckles are chapped from the cool winter air, so I apply lotion. Can self-care of that sort act by law of correspondence upon the circle, the cosmos, the whole? Is that what was meant by books like Getting It Together and Centering? Is that what M.C. Richards sought at Black Mountain College? How does one “center”? Can it mean gifting oneself and the others with which one lives one’s attention and love through dance and play? I picture myself and my daughter as Luke and Yoda, the one carrying the other. Time to teach, time to practice pedagogy, each teaching each. I imagine my Moby as the garb of a Jedi. What do I say to F. to help her find her way? Perhaps I should read aloud to her the passage from Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas quoted at the start of Allen Ginsberg’s The Fall of America. Show her the “half-hid warp,” the threads of friendship, intense and loving comradeship, the milk of human kindness. Read Ginsberg’s “Beginning of a Poem of These States” in light of the Black Snake or Zuzeca Sapa prophecy of the Oceti Sakowin. Note for the sake of remembrance via time capsule the lovely sounds F. makes at four weeks of age (or there about) while breastfeeding: lip-smacking exhalations, small gasps of pleasure, relieved sighs.
Students and I discussed Allen Ginsberg’s “America” today. What if instead we had taken the poem’s use of apostrophe — America addressed as though it were a person — and performed it together as a class? What might we have said to one another? Would any of us have dared to be as candid as Ginsberg?
My relationship to food is bound up with my discontent under capitalism. The latter arranges within me a libidinal economy, an internal punishment-reward system, an internal calculus of hours for work and time for play, with no allowance for the planning and prepping of meals. By the time I contemplate dinner each day, cooking appears difficult, time-intensive. When Sarah and I arrive home each afternoon, neither of us wants to grocery shop — so we opt to eat out at restaurants in town, despite the undesirability of most local fare. To will change, I imagine, one would have to plan. One would have to commit to a recipe and buy ingredients. One would have to anticipate one’s appetite –becoming, in a sense, known in advance. It needn’t be a chore, though. It can be as simple and as pleasurable as going to a supermarket and eating more veggies. Kim Gordon can soundtrack it with her song “Hungry Baby,” head frequented afterwards by the owl on her song “Olive’s Horn.”
By these means, we quiet ourselves temporarily to hear the speech of the birds. Ginsberg cranks up afterwards, addressing the nation by way of apostrophe. “America” appears in his poem of that name as an “absent third party.” Those of us who receive the poem find ourselves implicated in this party, just as it occurs to Ginsberg mid-poem that he is America and that he’s talking to himself. Childish Gambino uses the same mode of address in “This Is America,” speaking candidly toward song’s end, confronting listeners with the line, “America, I just checked my following list and / You mothafuckas owe me.”