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”?
After a month abroad, reentry into American society is inevitably going to be experienced as a bad trip. Screaming children, lousy music, conspicuous patriotism and religiosity among one’s countrymen, time bled away in cars. The south shore of Long Island is no country for old Dharma Bums. I love the food, and the beaches, and the proximity to Manhattan — but this place that my extended family calls home is in most respects the cultural equivalent of a Superfund site. As I noted a few days ago, however, Eden remains in potentia all around us. That sense of possibility is the one worth keeping at the forefront of our collective imagination going forward. (Plus the sunsets here on the water these last few nights have been fabulous.)
Colored flags lift and flap in the air above a parking lot as I ease myself back into the patterns and rhythms of life in the United States. People here seem hard-shelled and prickly, the air between them charged with menace. But the sun is out. The sky is clear. Allowances have been made for potted plants and beleaguered trees amid rows upon rows of strip malls. Hulks with tattoos order breakfast sandwiches at deli counters, but birds still sing outdoors, despite idling motorists, in the silences between waves of traffic. Next thing I know, we’re in crisis mode: an afternoon visit to a pool thrown into disarray when a nephew bangs his head on a diving board while attempting a back flip. Within a few hours, he’s back home with eight staples in his head playing Fortnite on his Nintendo Switch.
Aggro roadways, Trump paraphernalia, landscapes crusted with ill-gotten wealth: up from these like a seagull I rise and take flight. Goodbye America, and good riddance. The mere fact of you bankrupts the world of justice. No theodicy could ever correct your persistence there on the other side of the Atlantic, burning the earth, melting the poles, laying waste to all prior ways of being. Yet here I am, a product of this spoiled history: an American abroad.