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

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