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 happens when we enter the imaginative space of Walt Whitman’s America? The country widens. Through it strides the Spirit of Hope — “in the Mannahatta and in every city of these States inland and seaboard…Without edifices or rules or trustees or any argument, / The institution of the dear love of comrades” (128). But Whitman’s also a poet of settler-colonial Westward expansion, is he not? Rather than referring to indigenous people as “Indians,” Whitman called them “the red aborigines.” They appear in Leaves of Grass only as people who have “vanished” — as if there was no violence involved in this “melting” and “departing.” In “Starting From Paumanok,” they’re mentioned in a single stanza, remembered only for “charging the water and the land with names” (26). Whitman’s epic whitewashes American history. During the years of Whitman’s production of Leaves of Grass, Indian Wars were fought by the United States government everywhere west of the Mississippi. The first edition appeared in the wake of the Trail of Tears. The Wounded Knee Massacre occurred at the end of 1890, the year before Whitman’s death. Whitman seems to have thought little about his complicity with the evils of a government that wages war on Indians. This despite the fact that he spent the year of 1865 working in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior. So, it wasn’t like he was unaware of indigenous people — he just regarded them as “savages,” doomed to demise by the settler-state’s imagined “manifest destiny.” Beyond just casually dismissing indigenous struggles, however, Whitman was also an appropriationist, his English decorated with words poached from native languages, particularly names of tribes and names of places. How do we make Whitman and the past he represents “useful,” as Frederick Douglass said, “to the present and the future”?
Ishmael Reed may have been present at the founding of the East Village Other — indeed, he seems to have been the one who gave the paper its name! — but many of his poems of the 1960s, the ones gathered in Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970, are quite scornful in their assessment of the counterculture. In his “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” for instance, Reed calls out Theodore Roszak, noting that in the latter’s famous book The Making of a Counter Culture, “there is barely any mention of the Black influence on this culture even though its members dress like Blacks talk like Blacks walk like Blacks, gesture like Blacks wear Afros and indulge in Black music and dance” (20-21). Speaking of neglected black influences upon the counterculture, why am I only just now learning that the acid trip sequence in Easy Rider was shot at or near Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1? Hopper and Fonda filmed the sequence guerrilla-style, without permission … while tripping on acid. Reed’s collection also includes a poem called “catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church” — a self-conscious response of sorts, I imagine, to Millbrook resident Art Kleps’s Boo Hoo Bible: The Neo-American Church Catechism and Handbook. Several of Reed’s associates were participants in the psychedelic revolution — including East Village Other co-founder and publisher Walter Bowart. Bowart’s second wife was Peggy Hitchcock, the director of Leary and Alpert’s International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF). Peggy’s brother Billy is the one who arranged for the Leary crew to live on the Hitchcock Estate in Millbrook. Bowart went on to publish an important book on MK-Ultra in 1978 called Operation Mind Control.
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.
Craftspeople need studios, workspaces, benches, tabletops, tools. When I look at my desktop, I see wires, devices, stacks of books. Time to invest in bookends. Make ’em or buy ’em. I struggle, though, with guilt, shame, fatigue. A deer lies dead on the side of the road — struck by an automobile last night, I suppose — crows munching its corpse as it festers in the sun. The sight unsettles me — and the feeling lingers even after a truck comes and removes the deer’s remains. Let us assign in the creature’s honor Gary Snyder’s poem from Turtle Island, “The Dead By The Side of the Road.” (Re-reading the poem again at dusk, I mourn the fact that I failed to offer the creature cornmeal by the mouth. I pray to its spirit and try to make amends.)
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.
Sustainability depends upon acts of reparation. Property needs to be redistributed. Families are struggling. Digital communication penetrates the life-world with anxiety. Demand a general strike. Or just slog through, do one’s best, whatever that means each day. Behave joyously. Memes have me wanting to re-watch The Big Lebowski. But when is there time? Hop in, do what is necessary, step out. Thus I scramble through the work-life balance complexities of remote teaching and parenting amid shelter-in-place. (While also trying to buy a home.) Seated, arms up across the top of a bench like a slouched cowboy, the protagonist eyes the room. Tips an imaginary hat in greeting. “In Dorn’s allegorical scheme,” writes Marjorie Perloff in her introduction to Ed Dorn’s poem Gunslinger, “characters exist, not as particular individuals but as functions of a larger mechanism, relational properties that take on meaning only in their interaction” (viii).
How does one read Dante’s Inferno here at the ass end of 2019 without concluding A) Dante’s a vindictive prick, B) the universe is a cruel joke, and C) thou art that? Not to be Doug and Wendy Whiner or anything — but man, what a slog. The only good thing, I suppose, the only thing keeping me reading, is the fact that at the end of it lies Purgatorio and Paradiso.
Sarah and I discuss the name thing. The act seems weighted with all kinds of symbolism. It’s a commitment to a different future. Taking the mother’s father’s last name while with the first name honoring matrilineal roots on the father’s mother’s side of the family. What does it mean to relinquish a given name? It’s not like I have to become Mr. Mom or anything. Should I rewatch that movie and report back from Michael Keaton’s 1983? Should I shift into third-person? Or is that the same as reducing oneself to another’s shadow? Does the Author worry he’ll be rendered anonymous? Author as ego-dissolved invisibile man? But I do wish to practice poesis, don’t I? Are those things related? Is the poet one who, operating on language, practices a kind of wizardly freedom, not legislating so much as renaming certain things anew? Hard to say. But of the names, whichever we go with is the one that sounds best.