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.
What are white people whose grandfathers fought on behalf of the settler state to do? Silko would say begin by acknowledging one’s ancestry and one’s relationship to the land. The land upon which we stand is like the back of a turtle. Native people, along with their ancestors, including nonhuman relatives and kin, are the ones who made this world. I, meanwhile, am a child of people who called themselves “immigrants.” Before that, they were Europeans; upon settling, they became thinkable to themselves and others as “Italian-Americans,” “Irish-Americans,” or what have you. Assimilated into whiteness but for a hyphenated attachment — a sometimes-proudly, sometimes-guiltily-clung-to trace of ethnicity. These latter were everywhere present among members of my extended family. Dialect; manners of eating, speaking, and being together with others; a tendency to gesticulate; a regional accent. Some of what I myself possessed, I lost when I left home for school. Yet here I am now, with a home, and a family, and a bit of land. From this property mortgaged to me by a bank, the settler state exacts its fee.
Leslie Marmon Silko’s prose is rich with description of inner and outer landscapes. Her 1977 novel Ceremony couples an anguished, grieving, war-wounded protagonist with a loving, persevering attention to and care for the land and its people. In her telling of the story of Tayo’s ceremony, Silko conjures before us the space, the territory, the land in and around the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. A couple appears at a key moment in Tayo’s narrative. They go unnamed during this encounter, yet they provide Tayo with the assistance and safekeeping he needs to prevail in his quest to recover his dead uncle’s stolen cattle. Silko floats the idea that this couple might exist in “time immemorial.” They’re indigenous spirits, we might say, who descend and lend a hand. Whatever we make of the ontological status of these beings, they produce effects of a positive sort in the lifeworld of the protagonist. Later in the novel, however, Tayo reconnects with the woman. She tells him she’s a Montaño and that he can call her Ts’eh. Yet her knowledge, and the advice she offers, suggests that she’s not quite of the same substance as Tayo. One suspects that one is reading a kind of ghost story.