The Day Lady Died, by Frank O’Hara

3 April 2012

Posting Kosovel’s ‘Poem No. 1’, with its purchase of ‘four Zeta’ allows me to jump to Frank O’Hara also visiting the tobacconist, in this this poem which I just love. (The ‘Lady’ of the title is Billy Holiday.)


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


(If you’ll allow me a tangent, and an out of context comparison, consider Kosovel’s ‘four Zeta’, and his sense of Europe absolutely being at an end in the early ’20s (which we’ll get on to some time), and then O’Hara’s ‘casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton / of Picayunes’ in 1959. This isn’t fair to O’Hara – it’s perfectly reasonable to pick up a couple of packets of cigarettes (even fancy foreign ones) – and it’s a crude contrast, but since we’re here… Its nicely suggestive of the place and period that J.M Ledgard’s describes as ‘the high-water mark of abundance on the planet, the maximum moment, of consumption without a sense of an ending.’ Ledgard is writing specifically about Princeton in 1949, but I think New York in the period between the end of the Second World War and the Cuban Missile Crisis can fall into the same bracket.)

[First published in Lunch Poems (Pocket Poets Series #19) by City Lights Books. Ripped from The photo of the Five Spot is taken from here:]


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