Thursday, July 24, 2014

The intimacy of art leaves us breathless ex. O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died"

In O'Hara's signature poem, "The Day Lady Died," the almost breathless last four lines give the illusion that the reader and writer arrive at the closure at the same time. The poem ends with a flashback, though, so the present tense, insisted on from the first line, just like time itself, is a willful fiction. The speaker's passionate connection with Billie Holiday is ecstatic, transforming time and space while altering the self and the speaker's sense of identity. Art leaves us breathless: its intimate connections prove to be simultaneously exciting and dangerous: they not only bring us closer to feeling but also expose us to the danger of contingency and loss, expressed in the poem in terms of destabilizing time, space, and identity: intimacy touches and breaks the heart. The experience is both communal and isolating (consciousness attenuates and abstracts). All of these matters are foreshadowed in the speaker's restlessness: he thrives because of his friendships, his feeling for art and other artists. But the world of feeling is at odds with the counter desire of the poem: the speaker's attempts to thwart and defer uncertainty and contingency keep him dislocated and existentially alone. His anxiety is expressed in his exactitude about time and date, in specificity of book titles, and names. Every stanza begins with an assertion of these certainties (as it turns out, an evasion), and ends with those qualities effaced, diminished or dissolved. The stanzas end in strangeness and isolation because, in O'Hara's view, temporal experience by nature is always shifting, constantly moving. O'Hara, in his typically anti-effete fashion, talked about his "I do this I do that" poems because he was interested in action and gesture, but also, as a Modernist, he was keenly aware of movement. He was drawn to painters like Pollock, Klee and de Kooning because of their movement, color and composition. In most poems he embraced that movement as energetic and vitalizing, but in "The Day Lady Died," the loss of love and art takes away his capacity for sheer lightness and acceptance.

        "The Day Lady Died"

  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

Later in the poem...distance is transformed by art, art as gift and celebration and sign of friendship. Once again, though, when the speaker wants to turn away, the stiff and formal Miss Stillwagon suddenly trusts the speaker--miracle of miracles, a person momentarily supplants the pecuniary. So with the poets of Ghana on his mind, with the possibility of a human connection, the speaker chooses gifts to show friends his care for them, and in some way to suggest his alienation at this moment from American culture. He chooses foreign artwork for his friends (Genet and Verlaine and Behan--all proponents of the passionate and the irrational) and he chooses foreign pleasures for smoking and drinking. But, as in the closure of other stanzas, these strategies also fail both to enliven and to distance. So he "practically go(es) to sleep with quandariness," an odd and elevated choice of diction. He's perplexed, uncertain, he seems almost paralyzed and depressed by so many choices: he's alienated and helpless. O'Hara intensifies this helplessness during the present tense climax of the poem, when the speaker sees the headlines about Billie Holiday's death. She becomes the emblem in the poem for the ecstatic: his love, his passion, the heart in art, in song...the speaker's been all avoidance, preoccupied with errands: he's aimless until he sees the headline and is cast back into the past, where the immediacy of art crowds out everything else. - Ira Sadoff

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Happy first anniversary (in anticipation of your thirty ninth)" by Bob Hicok

I don’t have much time. I’m an important person
to chickadees and mourning doves, whose feeder
was smashed last night by a raccoon. Soon
I’ll be wielding duct tape, noticing the dew,
wanting to bathe in it, hoping the awkwardness
of yesterday (three instances of people talking
with bear traps for mouths) never repeats itself
and we all go forward as if to a party
for a five year old who refuses to smash candy
out of a burro. It’s too cute, the burro, too real
for him not to ask his mother, can I keep it,
and when the other children cry, they’re given
lake front property, it works out, this
is what I see for you, the working out. Think of the year
behind you as a root or think of going to Spain
and feeling sorry for bulls or don’t think,
this isn’t the SATs, don’t think but stay.
Stay happy, honest, stay as tall as you are
as long as you can using giraffes if you need to
to see each other above the crowd. I have these moments
when I realize I’m not breathing, my wife
is never why I’m not breathing and always why
I want to lick a human heart, remember that each of you
is half of why your bed will sag toward the middle
of being a boat and that you both will sag
if you’re lucky together, be lucky together
and acquire in sagging more square footage
to kiss and to hold. And always remember
that I hate you for being so much closer
than I am to where none of us ever get to go
again - first look, first touch, first
inadvertent brush of breath or hair, first time
you turned over and looked at who was surprising
you by how fully she was there.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Serenity and Vitality of Proust

My great adventure is really Proust...I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped - and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical - like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. - Virginia Woolf

The eruption of [Proust's] work - distinguished by its huge proportions, its complexity, and a difficulty caused by the unparalleled extravagance of its web of language - into the world was so sudden and so thorough that it is difficult not to see it as a result of some kind of spell that had been cast. For how else might we explain the way that in those restless times, hundreds of thousands, all across Europe, gladly made their way through thirteen densely printed volumes, enjoying page after page devoted to conversations with no identifiable theme, to a few trees, to an act of waking up in the morning, and to the inner development of a jelaous feeling, so that they might take pleasure in the variety of an individual’s emotions that lay hidden in every sentence? All the more astonishing is the fact that a great number of Proust’s admirers are not French. - Erich Auerbach