A Supermarket in California by Allen Ginsberg

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?

Summary

Ginsberg begins the poem with apostrophe and uses it frequently in the rest of the poem too. This figure of speech is when a reference is made by the poet to a person who is either dead, or not present. The narrator, his head muddled with thoughts on Whitman decides to walk into a neon-coloured supermarket.

`What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman’

The narrator, who in the poem is Ginsberg himself, has a headache, is hungry and is hoping to buy some food from this Supermarket, he comes across too many options, more than what he needed or wanted. He gets nothing that he seeks, things that Whitman was a reminder of ‘with a headache self-conscious’

`In my hungry fatigue’

He sees entire families in the supermarket shopping gaily at not so appropriate hours without realizing the implications of such consumerist behaviour.

`Whole families shopping at night!’

The narrator here uses another apostrophe and refers to the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca, who he imagines to be standing by the watermelons and questions his presence there.

In the second stanza Whitman and the narrator are walking into the supermarket. Whitman acts like a guide and the narrator is only following his movement. Whitman asks a lot of questions from the staff present there some of which does not make sense in the set-up of an impersonal commercial supermarket. Everything is available in abundance but what is not available is the human touch. The entire affair is totally mechanical, wherein you abandon your individual identity and become one among the many consumers. One no longer has the right to know about the food that goes on their plate.

`Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?’

They are bewildered by the options available but they continue moving about in the store and Whitman and the narrator pick up fancy eatables from the array of delicacies available before them, taste them while in the market and leave the market without paying for those.

The last stanza is the final culmination of Ginsberg’s journey with Whitman, he feels almost silly because of his illusions and yet he does not want it to end. He also contemplates as to how long this journey can continue, since the America that they are currently in is not the America of their dreams, and the nostalgia of the past is giving way to capitalist advancements. He fears that very soon, even the memory of old America would be extremely hard to come by. In this new country there is no vacant space for them to wander freely. The poem ends with a mythical image also a reminder of the time gone by. He asks what was the country like before “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?”

Ginsberg uses two myths in these lines. Charon, is the Greek and Roman mythical figure who is the rider of the ferry which travels across the river Styx to carry the recently deceased from the living to the world of the dead, moving into Hades, the underworld.

The Lethe is one of the five rivers of the underworld, the people who drank the water from this river experienced complete forgetfulness.

The myth symbolizes the forgetting of the dream of the old America, that was free from the clutches of capitalism, where individual hopes were considered important enough to be allowed to be pursued, unlike the mechanical existence of the present. The poem ends on a pessimistic, hopeless tone without anything to look to in the future.

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