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.
Reading High Weirdness is a bit like reading Dante’s Inferno. Davis performs admirably as the book’s Virgil, poking around amid radioactive embers while touring readers through the literary remains of various occult ground zeroes and psychedelic Superfund sites of the 1970s. Like the weird fictions it analyzes, the book activates one’s internal Geiger counter. Readers are warned at the outset to proceed with caution — and rightly so, as what follows provides cause for both awe and dread. I can think of no other book that resonates so readily with the opportunities and perplexities of our moment.
Home again, stretching, settling in after seven weeks of travel. Initially I find myself needing to focus on nesting, repair, self-care, readjustment. Vacuuming feels like manual operation of a Photoshop airbrush. I get better results and greater satisfaction when I kneel down and clean the floor with a wet rag. If that’s what the life-world needs, then so be it. I give gladly. Throughout the day, I catch myself renegotiating use of will, contemplating my relationship to various entities and objects. Slugs, spiders, chairs, old bits of clothing, bottled water: all of these things require care and attention, as does Erik Davis’s High Weirdness, a copy of which I pluck from the pile of mail that arrived for me while I was gone. Also in the pile is a copy of Fredric Jameson’s new book Allegory and Ideology. Time to start reading, I tell myself. Both books feel weighty, but High Weirdness is the one that warrants immediate attention, I decide after some hemming and hawing, the Stranger Things soundtrack modulating through my head. The Davis book is the one I’ve been waiting for these last few months. It feels timely. It speaks to present hopes and concerns. As Jeffrey J. Kripal notes in his blurb on the back cover, “May this book, like a glowing UFO, land on your lap, and every other lap, and weird our world beyond all measure.” I approach it with a degree of trepidation — but also with great excitement. Across from me on the wall of my dining room hangs a reproduction of the famous Ambrosius Holbein engraving from Thomas More’s Utopia, looking suddenly like an emblem representing macrocosm and microcosm: Genesis, Paradise Lost, and Frankenstein woven into a single grand narrative, the figures down at the bottom reminding me of the debaters from the garden of branching paths. “The devil in the details,” as one commentator puts it. The figure I’ve imagined in the role of Adam wears the name “Hythlodaeus” in the engraving, referring to the character in More’s text whose name means both “God has healed” and “Speaker of nonsense.”