Thursday, September 19, 2013

ModPo 2013 #8 What Price America? On Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California"

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Note: I am currently taking a course on called Modern and Contemporary American Poetry taught by Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania. I will be posting my thoughts on the course discussions here.

A Supermarket in California

          What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for
I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache
self-conscious looking at the full moon.
          In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
          What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families
shopping at night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the
avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you, Garcia Lorca, what
were you doing down by the watermelons?

          I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,
poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery
          I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the
pork chops?  What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?
          I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans
following you, and followed in my imagination by the store
          We strode down the open corridors together in our
solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen
delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

          Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in
an hour.  Which way does your beard point tonight?
          (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
          Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The
trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be

          Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love
past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
          Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,
what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and
you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat
disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

Berkeley, 1955  
From Collected Poems 1947-1980 by Allen Ginsberg, published by Harper & Row. 
Copyright © 1984 by Allen Ginsberg. Online source

I see the passage of time from 1855 (Whitman's "Song of Myself") to 1955  in Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California." Whereas the "blab of the pave" describes very physical, very outdoor scenarios, Ginsberg's poem deals with an "inside" and an "outside" that describes the America of 1955.

"Inside" is inside the neon-lit supermarket. Inside the supermarket, we encounter the goods from the outdoors: tomatoes, peaches, avocados, watermelons. And these are not merely from the farms of America, these are from the farms of the world. I see this in the questions, "what price bananas?" He asks this not in the sense of "how much are these bananas?" he asks "what price?" which has heavier implications. Where did the bananas come from? Was the distribution of the bananas under the conditions of fair trade?

When Ginsberg says "never passing the cashier," I see here a rejection of the supermarket of America, a non-participation in the commerce. Instead, he chooses to follow this grubber that he has christened Walt Whitman outside, outside to where it is dark and after store-hours, outside where blue automobiles are within the driveways of suburbia. WCW in "Danse Russe"...he talks about the loneliness (perhaps the loneliness of being an artist?) of being on the outside, late at night.

The last stanza talks about a lost America and about death. I think, here, he mourns the passing of an America in Whitman's time.

While America is real and thriving, America is also an idea. For many Filipinos, America is the American Dream. America comes at a price.

I look at this from 2013 eyes as well. The America that produced the supermarket in Ginsberg's poem continues to come at a price. There are rich countries and there are poor countries. There are rich countries that produce the biggest biological footprints and there are poor countries that live below the poverty line. And all of this, of course, comes from an idea, an idea about the pursuit of happiness, an idea about power and commerce and welfare and entitlement and capital. I see the loneliness of contemplating the silent cottage outside the spheres of supermarkets and automobiles in driveways.

I like his question: Dear Walt Whitman, dear courage-teacher, what America did you have when you passed?

What America was inherited by Americans? What America was inherited by this world?

I like looking at this from three levels: against the America of Walt Whitman, the America of Ginsberg, and my America (or America for me in 2013).

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