A long time ago, fifty-seven years ago, in a small Berkeley ‘silent cottage’ grown over by multiple Berkeley vines and, say, ennui, a young Allen Ginsberg, hungering for something, imagined himself and Walt Whitman, the bearded lodestar of all of our country’s poets, strolling together, alone together, down an aisle in “A Supermarket in California”. By Whitman’s tuition, Ginsberg has already entered and chanted the “peaches” he sees and their “penumbras”; he has chanted the “whole families shopping”, the visible husbands, the visible wives, the babies, and, behind them, the great Andalusian poet Federico Garcia Lorca, “down by the watermelons”. He sees Whitman “poking among the meats in the refrigerator”, “eyeing the grocery boys”, and follows him past Warholian “brilliant stacks of cans”, and tastes, with him, the various items of produce, and enumerates them. They wander back and forth, delighting, “never passing the cashier”.
But joy soon converts sadwards for Ginsberg, for the store closes in an hour, and the two men will be exiled from these aisles, and what then? “Where are we going?”, he asks. The question, without answer, echoes or drops into some luminescent void. Whitman does not answer or give the poet direction and begins to trope himself homewards. As he does, in the silence of the parking lot and its tumbleweed carts, Ginsberg imagines himself and his companion, part of himself, parting ways under a neon sign of Exit, his parting words beginning with these following three: “lonely old courage-teacher”. Ginsberg, bearded poet of his day seeks courage because he fears being forgotten, fears forgetting Whitman and his beard and this stroll, as the prior poet disappears down the Lethe on Charon’s knotty skiff. He worries about his status as poet, as person, alone and gay with no poems or energy, in this continent of families. So, he distresses by the light and the dark. So, he fears writing his poem and asks for strength.
It is, in fact, a fine poem, whose tone and diction is highly self-appropriate–which tone and diction are Whitman’s but depressed, Ginsberg never possessing what William James identified in the prior poet as the ability to refuse all negative or ‘contractile elements’–a fine poem, nonetheless, with vision far and ambiguous. Though its melancholic, incomplete, inquisitive close—Walt, “what America did you have”—would seem to indicate Ginsberg’s despair, I could not, even in the final current of the “black waters”, believe his rhetoric of defeat, his self-sense of having failed. Rather, where Ginsberg has succeeded to give Whitman a sharp, respiring form, he seemed to me to have surmounted his despair and achieved a real imaginative high, if one whose elevation was to him covert—a sort of metaphysical correction, shadowed at some distance by its practical twin. And, anyways, poetic joy can be an alloyed joy, impure or indirect, as when the blackest words rejoice in their arrangement or interrelation. So, when I first encountered the poem in 2010, I wrote a paper for a freshman seminar about its transfiguration of food-things—avocadoes, tomatoes, artichokes, watermelons—into metaphors of poetic and sexual ecstasy. And in “In Society”, Ginsberg will write of eating “an enormous sandwich of human flesh”. And Burroughs’ book is named Naked Lunch, is it not?
But in the two years that intervene between now and then, I did not once think of the transfiguration of food-things, for human flesh is not my food, and the dining halls do not transfigure, or elevate, or make really good what they make. The ecstasy of Ginsberg’s song transpires from from his labor of hand, his own mind’s selection of the select artichokes it selects. And we do little for ourselves food-wise here, with only meager fingers in our eating, and hence few opportunities for ecstasy. This year, however, I Spelman dwell and must feed myself, ensuring that taste, nutrition, and cost are satisfied equally in an economy of eat. Ginsberg’s poem has returned to me in the necessity of this basic task. This return was, in first review, improbable, given the antithesis ‘ecstasy’, as uncontrolled excess, sets to ‘economy’, etymologically opposing standing outside of oneself and household management. But if it is true that economy is necessary of the poet’s task—selecting of words, of lines and figures, of whole stanzas—and that Ginsberg’s responsible, personal work is the ground of his ecstasy, then it is right that my new task, self-Feed, recalled Ginsberg’s feeling. I, too, would now stroll aisles, and as on Fridays, so in fatigue, worried of failing to sustain myself and suffice.
And, yet, how is this so? Like Whitman, who hunts and wanders far into the wilds and amazes at his own lightness and glee, and who kindles himself a fire to broil the fresh-kill’d game, and who, sated, slumbers beside the same fire, beside dog and rifle, his only two companions, and is in this so delighted and content, Ginsberg extols the ordinary which is his. The artichokes and avocados are exalted. They are the fruit of his literary and literal hands, the succulent future fruit of his mouth and body, and, I would add, the past fruit of the Lord, the delightful fruit of divine Nature, and his own tasting and his possessing of them are exalted just the same.
I think of this, every week or every other week, as I pass forth and return through the thickly stocked aisles of Trader Joe’s, on whim plucking what I will off of shelves and out of bins and placing it delicately in this cart. I pass down Route 1 in cars with friends and pluck and return. My friend drives a nother friend’s car by manual transmission. This machine jerks and nearly stalls, but I do not mind. When I approach the Market, I think of Ginsberg entering and Whitman just inside, and I open the door for myself and enter the fruit section, whence I take apples, pears, and bananas. When I take them, I must admit, I think both of the taking of them and of how they will be fiber and potassium and sweet for me. When I take bread loaves from the next aisle, I think not only of the softness of them, but also the vigor of their grain and the multiple delights they will hold, twinned for sandwiches.
In this, I am fed by the happiness of food, the innate energy of which is continually transmuted through touch into my own. I proceed assured to the vegetables and acknowledge that they are fine; they will succeed to multiply these touching delights. The subsequent dried fruits and nuts and cereal elements, the copious figs and the copious apricots and the raisins and mango and cranberries and the papaya and the almonds and cashews and the walnuts and the other elements which crunch undertooth, will all multiply the same delights, for they can be abundant on my wooden shelves in all seasons—never rotting and never reeking and never relinquishing what is good in their selves.
Whim remains my guide in all this for all time. Some weeks, I select no figs and yet all is and will be well. Likewise, there are as many weeks when I will select a prefabricated pizza for my consumption, as there are when I will select ingredients and spices out of the strength of which I might fabricate my own. Perhaps to-day a chilled chicken breast will use its voluptuous loafing to convince me to purchase it, and, though I know I will then have been seduced by a lesser love’s manipulation of my lower sensibilities, so do I let it be, all being, at base, a matter of chanceful sight.
At his poem’s end, Ginsberg turns morose at his loneliness and his imagination, which he sees floundering, failing. He begs Whitman for courage in his poetry. Spelman, and so-called independent living, is my own sort of “silent cottage”, less silent than Ginsberg’s but no less lonely, a sort of cottage reached not by “stroll, dreaming of the lost America of love, past blue automobiles in driveways” but by journey across empty campus, across Elm, through Whitman’s empty yards, up its stairs, past kids journeying across campus to the prospects of the other side As the poet did, I chose this dwelling and its silence; I did so because it is appropriate for my book-eyed, lonesome lean. As for him there were, there are for me moments of loneliness and the falling courage, when conversations are collapsing one-by-one around me, as I slough off the great burdens of propriety and smiling politeness, having attuned in silence to the private tones of my discernible but unattained but attainable self, when I consider the social and gastrointestinal ease of the clubs, where one might recognize “whole families shopping at night”, rejoicing in company they have always known. But this despair quiets and ebbs when I reach my door and enter. When I reach my triangular kitchen and fling open the cupboard door, it ebbs. It ebbs and is replaced by a thoroughgoing contentedness, when I see the array of food inside and rightly acknowledge it as the sweet, manifold result of responsibility and whim balanced well. I then prepare my meal responsibly and nutritionally. And it is not irresponsible that, while I do so, I fancy a taste of this or that, for I may eat as and when I wish to, in accordance with what is right and the tested principles of Biology.
With plate and glass and sparkling utensils, in furnished common room I sit to eat and do, slowly reducing to energy the poetic work of my hand and the land. Though high, the anticipation built by the supermarket ingathering is never disappointed, its delight always risen to by the later delight of consumption. How could it not be? As the ecstasy of poem is equal to the economy of poiesis, the Hunt, being equally distressing and difficult, whimsical and delightful and long, and ultimately of me, necessitates the success of its product. Yet the food, in the goodness of its taste on my tongue, is only a supplementary pleasure. It is supererogatory. For the sturdiness and independence of the effort of self-Feed has already resolved my melancholy more quickly than the sun, in evening air, disappears at the doubled horizon.
I still suspect Ginsberg, on completing his poem, found his despair reduced by joy, if not altogether replaced, for, having firstly found ecstasy in the ordinary, he, by the balanced work of his own right hand, worked his ecstasy and his despair—those near bedfellows—into a poem of considerable personality and strength. Independent Feed-work confirms that he might have: work resolves itself. For in Feed, economy, responsibility, and direct delight in produce carry more delight than does Fed—which is the passive, seated, slack-jawed reception in vogue in the clubs and halls. For I must work to delight in the ordinary enumerations of the aisles and to follow my whim to what wills my plucking, but I may succeed in doing so. I must work to ensure the rhythms of money and nutrition and taste are equal and in balance, but I may succeed. I may surely rest, when my work is complete and I have exalted the avocadoes and eaten them each in silence perfect, for this is high and never base work. I will rest, in appreciation of all that is and all that is not; and rest then, as my body begins economizing its recent ecstasy, beginning its salutation to my compulsive necessity, which is living, which is the upkeep of my own life.