Monday, August 22, 2011

What Price Bananas

The 1956 publication of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” included a handful of other poems, among them one called “A Supermarket in California.” Written in 1955, this shorter poem, like “Howl” was also an experiment with the long line form which later became a Ginsberg trademark. A major influence in Allen Ginsberg’s life was Walt Whitman, and “A Supermarket in California” is in some ways an ode to Whitman. In more than one or two poems Ginsberg strove to find resonance with Whitman both style-wise and thematically. Like Whitman’s assaults on industrialized society and its encroachment on nature, there is much of the same in Ginsberg’s poem in a California supermarket. If not all, then most readers will be aware of the poem’s sexuality, something hard to miss with Ginsberg’s hand at imagery, but I will leave that for the reader to spy out. He starts by setting the scene: He is walking down an urban street, under trees and a full moon, having thoughts of Whitman, and pulled by two sides of life—the urban landmarks around him and the natural world of trees and moon. He enters a supermarket hoping to find beauty in the natural products there, hoping to see beyond the ‘commodities’ of modern society.


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 boys.

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 detective.

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 lonely.

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

In Greek mythology Charon was the ferryman who carried the dead across the river Styx and into the underworld. The River Lethe was one more river in the underworld; drinking its water made one forget.

The photograph above was taken by William Burroughs in 1953 on the roof of Ginsberg’s Lower East Side apartment. Ginsberg was 27, publication of “Howl” three years off.

1 comment:

  1. Aahh, all those poets we read in the 60's that somehow (we thought at the time) spoke to us of rebellion, those things bubbling under the surface that were so different from our parents. Probably it was our idea of what we thought they were expressing and not so much a close reading of their works.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America