Lunch with Frank O’Hara

blue angel

What will you have for lunch? The filling and beautifully-messy pastrami and rye? The “who-am-I-kidding?” rabbit-food special of salad and soup? The send-me-back-to-the-60s special of three martinis?

For Frank O’Hara, I’m seeing on my reread of Lunch Poems, it’s a deceiving mix of prepared nonchalance with a dash of oxymoronic condiment. Seemingly off-the-cuff, many of these poems likely took more time and revision than first glance might indicate.

A good example is his poem called (exotically enough) “Five Poems,” which looks suspiciously like one poem divided into a 5-layer cake by dividers. In the first, O’Hara alludes to a “white night,” which brings Russia’s white nights and Dostoevsky to mind for this reader. It also contains two wonderful similes: “calm as a rug or a bottle of pills.” Valley of the Dolls, anyone?

Stanza (er, Poem) #2 has a line in all caps, showing that O’Hara would be a natural in the Age of the Internet (pass the emoticons, please). What I love here is how he draws a lesson from his lack of money. The guy has 16 cents and a package of yogurt (spelled the British way, yet: yoghurt) and what does it bring to mind? A leaf falling in Chinese poetry. But of course! Li Po in Central Park!

Poem #3 really hits it out of the park. O’Hara struts his learned ignorance big-time, playing casual while casually dropping names: Cadoret, Varése, and Adolph Gottlieb. Cadoret is a name recognized by connoisseurs of oysters and fine wines, Monsieur (which is why I didn’t recognize it). Et Edgar Varése was a French composer (who is now decomposing, no doubt). Gottlieb? An American abstract painter. How’s that for an unlikely holy trinity at noon? O’Hara ends this poem sleeping on the British yoghurt and dreaming of the Persian Gulf (pre-Revolutionary Guards, I take it).

In Poem #4 we get the lines “I knew why I love taxis, yes / subways are only fun when you’re felling sexy / and who feels sexy after The Blue Angel / well maybe a little bit.” Funny, but esoteric, too. More “prepared nonchalance” for the reader, thank you, The Blue Angel being a 1930 German film starring the lovely Marlene Dietrich.

What I like is the prophetic final poem, the one-liner: “I seem to be defying fate, or am I avoiding it?” Poor guy. Given his tragic end, being run down by a beach taxi only a few years after this collection came out, I’d say he was only avoiding it, as fate–greedy as it is–will not be denied. Fate and fatal are not second cousins twice removed for nothing!

Here is the poem in full, con brio!


“Five Poems” by Frank O’Hara

Well now, hold on
maybe I won’t go to sleep at all
and it’ll be a beautiful white night
or else I’ll collapse
completely from nerves and be calm
as a rug or a bottle of pills
or suddenly I’ll be off Montauk
swimming and loving it and not caring where

an invitation to lunch
when I only have 16 cents and 2
packages of yoghurt
there’s a lesson in that, isn’t there
like in Chinese poetry when a leaf falls?
hold off on the yoghurt till the very
last, when everything may improve

at the Rond-Point they were eating
an oyster, but here
we were dropping by sculptures
and seeing some paintings
and the smasheroo-grates of Cadoret
and music by Varese, too
well Adolph Gottlieb I guess you
are the hero of this day
along with venison and Bill

I’ll sleep on the yoghurt and dream of the Persian Gulf

which I did it was wonderful
to be in bed again and the knock
on my door for once signified “hi there”
and on the deafening walk
through the ghettos where bombs have gone off lately
left by subway violators
I knew why I love taxis, yes
subways are only fun when you’re feeling sexy
and who feels sexy after The Blue Angel
well maybe a little bit

I seem to be defying fate, or am I avoiding it?