There are many themes in the poem titled A Supermarket in California by Allen Ginsberg. One such the theme of desire. The poem starts by saying “What thoughts I have of you, tonight, Walt Whitman” (1), indicating that the narrator is thinking of Whitman and imagining that he is seeing him and has an internal conversation with himself throughout the poem. As a result of desire, the narrator imagines of seeing Garcia Lorca. The theme of desire is also seen when the narrator is seen alone, imagining of being together with Whitman in “our odyssey” (18). This is hinged to the fact that Whitman was homosexual as this is made pronounced when in the second stanza, the narrator alludes to the notion by saying “I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing grocery boys” (8-9). In the narrator’s lonely journey in the store, the theme of desire also aligns the narrator with his imagined friendship, telling the extent to which he is feeling a desire for Whitman.
Throughout the poem, the theme of desire is as well communicated through a sense of loneliness and sadness. The narrator feels “self-conscious” (2), “absurd” (18), and “lonely” (20 & 23) as he walks around the supermarket and dreams about his literary inspirations. The desire theme is also conveyed through jealousy. The narrator is jealous of the people/families that he sees doing shopping in the store because of his desire for Whitman since knowing that he was a gay man, he would never have his own family despite his desire to have one. Out of his admiration of the families that he sees shopping in the supermarket, the narrator creates his substitute family of gay lyricists. This is in agreement with Bennett and Royle’s view that one can be in love with a woman’s image (Whitman) he (the narrator) asserts to love, implying that desire is radically contingent and mobile (255).
The literary technique(s) employed by Ginsberg also depict the theme of desire. Ginsberg employs an apostrophe, a device that is employed to show that the poem’s narrator admires an individual who is actually not present or does not exist (Shreiber 47). As at the time the poem is written, Whitman had already died several years ago, yet because of Ginsberg’s gay lifestyle, he still feels the miss of Whitman with whom they had had a homosexual lifestyle. In his imagination, out of admiration, says “What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the streets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon” (17). According to Bennett and Royle, literary texts also solicit or produce desire, making us desire (252).
Also important to note with regard to the theme of admire is that while the narrator sees families shopping in the supermarket, he asserts seeing Whitman. He also makes mention of Lorca, the three of whom were gays. Since he admires how the families are shopping, which prompts him to imagine of being with Whitman, he depicts himself as following the Whitman around the supermarket. This could only happen because of the desire to have his family with which he could be shopping. The deceased poet is heard asking all manner of questions, with the last of such being “Are you my Angel?” (20). This also brings to mind the theme of desire since it appears that Whitman is looking for salvation of various kinds that would save him from the miserable state of existence in which he is in.
In the last stanza, the narrator well knows that it I getting late and soon the supermarket will be closed. For that reason, for the desire of continuing the intimacy developed when they were in the supermarket, he implores Whitman to say to him where next they will be going. He accepts that he was feeling “absurd” (18) that he was touching Whitman’s book and dreaming or admiring their odyssey in the grocery supermarket. While he feels that way, he feels that the journey should not end, and asks if they will together be walking the streets, lonely and alone as the city will be closing up and going to sleep. The narrator writes, “Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?” (20-21).
Various themes are depicted in the poem, one of which is the theme of desire. The poem suggests that Ginsberg, having seen his mothers’ whole life, desires to do his more justice, and honest justice for that matter. She is not merely a mother, a patient, or teacher or an individual battling with psychological health, but she is all these and even more as supported by the fact that desire is so strong that it generates an absolute identification (Bennett and Royle 256). Ginsberg desires to show that Naomi’s life was much more than what people saw, and as such he seems to eulogize her, possibly because he missed Naomi’s funeral, and so he desires that Naomi be given another chance to live again or to rest from the problems that she underwent when she was a live. Ginsberg states, “Ultimately, O mother, what have I left out, O mother, what have I forgotten, O mother, farewell” (Raskin n.p). In desiring to show that he had comprehensively captured her mother’s experiences when he was still alive. This is informed by the fact that Naomi Ginsberg experienced several mental breakdowns that impacted her life, her marriage (which culminated in divorce), her in-laws, her sisters, her sons (who eventually decided to authorize her lobotomy), and so on. From the poem, it is evident that Naomi spent a substantial amount of time out and in of different sanitariums. Nonetheless, Ginsberg desires to imply that these things did not fully define Naomi, his mother, indicating that Naomi is not merely her difference or her disease. She came as a child from Russia, was a teacher, played piano, endured a number of surgeries, was beautiful, was political, and had hopes, to mention but a few qualities. Out of his desire to ensure that she covers everything about his mother, Ginsberg ultimately askes himself “what have I forgotten?” (Telushkin n.p). This also brings to the mind of then reader that Ginsberg desires that his mother could come back to life and tell him what he might have failed to include in describing her.
Since Bennett and Royle argue that desire is fundamentally mobile, having no proper object, essence, beyond a child’s hallucinatory desires (253), Ginsberg desires to portray the fact that death is incomprehensible or unknowable. Out of desire, Ginsberg seems to be wondering about what it is like for Naomi new that she is dead and buried. In his view, he desires to justify that death can be regarded as a “Mercy” (Breslin 24), a respite breather or relief after a painful and long life’s journey. Ginsberg states that “Death let [her] out” (Schumacher n.p), and that she may realize a kind of purity that we lose when we get into the world. She implies that after death, his mother can have an opportunity to get back to that state that she existed in “before the world” (Podhoretz 31). Nonetheless, he desires to know where this place is and whether it is bright or dark. He desires to know whether his mother, now that she is buried, is able to see God or eternity merely appears as a “void” (Shreiber 48) to her. Despite his desire to know this, it is revealed that he cannot, neither can we. She does not desire to consider the likelihood that her mother has only become a body in her grave.
Another aspect of desire is revealed by Ginsberg when he depicts life as beautiful and painful and full of awe and awful. Ginsberg desires to depict that life is made up of moments and memories of joy and moments and memories of horror. Ginsberg implies that Naomi becomes unknowable to herself after death and to her husband. He equally implies that life is awful, yet it is never always. This is supported by the fact that desire is bound up with several kinds of social institutional and institutional discourses and practices – with questions about, gender, law, and sexuality.
Tone has also been employed to convey a desire. The tone is that of forgiveness, of coming to agreement with improperly buried moments. Ginsberg brings into mind the hopeless bus hunts, crying jags in hospitals and bathrooms, and the terrifying tantrums. The reader’s desire to know about such moments is well elicited by the depictions by Ginsberg in the poem. Ginsberg also portrays himself a frightened, simple child who is unable to help his mother, implying that Ginsberg desired that he had the ability to help out his mother. Naomi begs Ginsberg to take her home and he responds “No, you’re crazy Mama — Trust the Drs” (Herring 539). It is evident that the mother desired to be taken home. The most shocking components of the poem give detail of Ginsberg’s viewpoint regarding his mother as a sexual predator. Ginsberg writes that “One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her — flirting to herself at sink … Would she care? She needs a lover” (50). From this quotation, it is evident that Naomi had desired sexual intimacy. However, she could not get it. As such, the theme of desire has variedly been employed in the poem.
Bennett, Andrew, and Nicholas Royle. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Pearson Longman, 2009. 250-259.
Breslin, Paul, “Allen Ginsberg as Representative Man: The Road to Naropa,” The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry Since the Fifties, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987, pp. 22-41.
Herring, Scott. “‘Her Brothers Dead in Riverside or Russia’: ‘Kaddish’ and the Holocaust.” Contemporary Literature. Vol. 42, No. 3 Autumn, 2001. 535-56.
Podhoretz, Norman, “My War With Allen Ginsberg,” in Commentary, August 1997, Vol. 104, No. 2, pp. 27-40.
Raskin, Jonah. American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation. Berkley: University of California Press, 2004.
Schumacher, Michael, Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
Shreiber, Maeera Y. “‘You Still Haven’t Finished with Your Mother’: The Gendered Poetics of Charles Reznikoff and Allen Ginsberg.” Singing in a Strange Land: A Jewish American Poetics. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007. 46–97.
Telushkin, Joseph. “Kaddish, a Memorial Prayer in Praise of God.” Jewish Literacy. Oct. 25, 2005.
Trigilio, Tony. “‘Strange Prophecies Anew’: Rethinking the Politics of Matter and Spirit in Ginsberg’s Kaddish.” American Literature 71.4 (1999): 773–95.