Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Day Lady Died by Frank O'Hara

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
                                                        I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

 "Lady" is, of course, Billie Holiday, who died in July of 1957 and whose death greatly affected the cognoscenti in the arts world.  O'Hara sees the notice in the newspaper as he goes about a variety of errands during his lunch hour, all of it rather typical of someone preparing to depart the city for a weekend in the Hamptons.  In the midst of this frantic activity, he pauses as he recalls a special moment when Holiday performed at the 5 Spot Cafe in The Bowery with Mal Waldron on piano.  The juxtaposition of the mundane with the transcendent is a familiar poetic technique; here it is made all the more accessible by references to places that would have been known by O'Hara's audience.

[An aside: For literary surfers, O'Hara is a kind of poet laureate. While he never surfed nor wrote about surfing, he was killed when run over by a dune buggy on the beach at Fire Island.]