Tuesday, November 26, 2019
real human beings
Thanksgiving week. This afternoon the table linens turn in the dryer, the glasses and plates and silverware sit washed and ready. I have shopped, and will shop again. Ryan and I have been near-vegetarians for two years now (eating only some fish from time to time, but no animals) so this holiday finds us getting creative with vegetables. I have pounds of parsnips, and a bouquet of long green stalks of leeks, and a bag of red potatoes, ready to be chopped and cooked. I am going to poach some salmon and bake some haddock, for ourselves and for the near relations who will soon visit our table. I am planning a spice cake with apples, a big batch of cranberry sauce from local fresh cranberries, and a casserole of stuffing. Ryan is making biscuits from his grandmother's recipe. And pie. There will be pie. I feel full already. Too full perhaps. Honestly, the day looms, and I worry, about all sorts of things far beyond my attempts at preparation. I don't need to talk about any of that here, however. Gratitude for my ordinarily quiet life pools like still November lake water. Gratitude for books anchors me, as always. My winter reading project continues. I keep wandering through the forest of Frank O'Hara's poetry, not ready to leave yet, following his lines as if they might actually lead somewhere, a path to something real. But they are real, written first by a real person, then collected in real books, which we can touch and hold like the hands of friends. They make me think and feel. They wake me up and surprise me, and offer solace, no matter what. They make me laugh. For all of that I am far beyond grateful.
Snippets from Poems Retrieved (City Lights reprint).
"I see my vices
lying like abandoned works of art
which I created so eagerly
to be worldly and modern
and with it"
"There's nothing more beautiful
than knowing something is going
to be over"
"How wonderful it is that the Park Avenue Viaduct is being rehabilitated
I wish I were too"
And a few more, from Lunch Poems (City Lights reprint).
"I can't even find a pond small enough
to drown in without being ostentatious"
"the soft air wraps me like a swarm it's raining and I have
a cold I am a real human being with real ascendancies
and a certain amount of rapture..."
Books remain. The holidays come and go, family likewise, all of us real human beings. We sit together for brief hours then scatter again and return to the regular round of our individual lives. We hold hands around the table first though, and regard each other with the fondness built on the foundation of years spent together, long ago.
Twilight now, and I have warm clean laundry to fold, and a fire to light. Hodge is asking for his supper, early. Two books arrived in the mail today, they look good! Thanks for sharing a quiet hour before the busy times begin in earnest, this week. Blessings on all our tables.
Monday, November 18, 2019
Opening lines, opening lines. How about these:
"I am ill today but I am not
too ill. I am not ill at all.
It is a perfect day, warm
for winter, cold for fall."
Oh I wish I had written them, but no, they comprise the first stanza of Digression on Number 1, 1948 by Frank O’Hara, in his poem about the Jackson Pollock painting of the same name. There is so much I could say about O'Hara, but it feels like it's all been said before. Maybe a few pictures will do the trick instead.
A few books from my New York School collection, such as it is. I recently bought the Perloff book, which I'd known of for years but had never tracked down until now - Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters by Marjorie Perloff (Braziller 1977). She gives us a close reading of O'Hara's poems in relation to his life and friends. Well worth reading. Several times she points to exactly why O'Hara's poems are so loved, noting their "emotional vibrancy" (p.173) and, regarding one poem in particular, which could stand for so many, "its racy, slangy, concrete language, its nervous rhythms and purposely foolish alliteration, its exclamatory fervor and intimate, personal tone." (p.193) Another book in the stack is one I've had for years now and just re-read - City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara by Brad Gooch (Knopf 1993). I bought this copy from a local bookseller-friend, secondhand, and it turned out to be author Doris Grumbach's review copy, with her old mailing address label and a publicity photo tucked inside:
I can't say the Gooch book is my favorite, but it has its moments, and sure packs a lot in to over five hundred pages, considering O'Hara's short life. The chapters on his years at Harvard, where he met poets Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, and his first years in New York, are particularly informative. Gooch quotes from O'Hara's college diary:
"The fragility of things terrifies me!... everything fades fades changes dies when it's meddled with; if only things weren't so vulnerable!" (p.130)
Gooch also quotes John Ashbery, on first meeting O'Hara:
"'There was a sort of legend about Frank... that he was this brilliant young writer who talked sassy. Someone who looked like he was going to be famous one day.... He didn't look like a very friendly person. He had this pugnacious look with a broken nose. He wasn't someone one thought one could just go up to and say 'Hi' and start chatting with. In fact that was completely misleading as it turned out. He was exactly that type of person.'"
I think that's why I love to read his work, and read about him. It is blindingly obvious that he loved the world and his world loved him right back. He is the opposite of dry academic poetry, he is enthusiastic, romantic, kitschy, name-droppy, starstruck, funny, deadly serious, and unapologetic about all of it. I can't say I like or even understand a lot of his work - he practiced some surrealist techniques, such as cutting up lines and rearranging them, and some of his writing becomes too opaque for me - but in the main, there are poems of his I return to again and again, and my love for them continues to deepen as the years go by.
Not in the book stack above, but recently acquired, are these staplebound pamphlets:
A two-volume set, this pertains to me which means to me you: The Correspondence of Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara 1955-1956 edited by Josh Schneiderman (Lost and Found, The Center for Humanities at CUNY 2009). These are quite short and generally fascinating and leave me longing for more of O'Hara's letters in print. WHERE ARE THEY, I shout quietly to myself. A note in the back of Marjorie Perloff's book (p.224) says that Don Allen, who collected and edited O'Hara's poems, was working on his collected letters too. A major undertaking. What happened?? I would love to know. But I do not. Meanwhile I just bought a second copy of O'Hara's Lunch Poems (City Lights 2014) because this recent hardcover reprint celebrates its fiftieth year in print and adds a short introduction by John Ashbery and several pages of facsimile letters after the poems:
The letters are between O'Hara and City Lights proprietor and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and concern the publication of the poems for this very book, which took O'Hara years to gather together:
I love seeing the bookstore letterhead, and their handwriting, and typewriting. It all brings them vividly to life once again, and the stamps and postmarks only heighten that feeling:
As does the little scrap I find most poignant, a detail from the photo above, turned sideways so we can better read what it says:
Nothing special, just a postcard from someone who wants to publish one's poems - and thus a handy scrap of paper for jotting down a brief shopping list - cigs, olive oil, toothpaste, tp, bread. That postcard is from 1964. O'Hara will only live another two years and change, before a terrible accident takes his life at age forty. Oh my heart.
I think I will change the subject. Or try to, at least. Ryan and I had a good day out last week, visiting one of the local museums. The Colby College Museum of Art has a stunning exhibit called Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry. From their website, it is: "...an exhibition of contemporary art of the First Nations people of what is now Maine and Maritime Canada. Collectively known as the Wabanaki, the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Abenaki, our people have lived in and paddled through our homeland for thousands of years. Basketmakers, canoe makers, carvers, painters, and beadworkers, the artists in this exhibition carry the beauty of their ancestors and culture into the future." The exhibit is thought-provoking, heart-engaging, sad, and joyous. I took notes from the wall texts, gazed at paintings, baskets, carvings, clothing, and objects of birchbark, wood, metal, and grass. People began living here as soon as the glaciers receded. I think about deep time a lot, and who the artists were and are in cultures past and present. And how they have been honored, or not.
We walked around the rest of the museum. One wing is devoted to the work of painter Alex Katz, who spends his summers in nearby Lincolnville, Maine. He's in his early nineties and still painting up a storm. He paints landscapes, flowers, the ocean, the pond near his summer studio, New York City at night, his family, his friends. He has given many paintings to the Colby Museum, including a freestanding one, a cut-out. It was on display when we visited. I came around the corner and saw it, and said, Oh! Hi, Frank. I forgot you were here. Of course you are here. The freestanding painting, Frank O'Hara, oil on wood, 1959-60, 2016 gift of the Alex Katz Foundation. He is 7/8 life-size. Ryan snapped me standing behind, first, so he looms large.
And then in front of. Just me, hanging out with Frank O'Hara. A regular old day, like any other. (...)
His face is beautifully painted. Especially the eye, and that nose, and the flesh of his cheek. And Katz always has a brushy way with collars and ties that I love - the snappy uniform of men of the fifties, even avant-garde poets.
The piece of wood the cutout stands on breaks my heart in one more small way. It looks like a slice of loft floor, circa 1950, when a group of young painters and poets got togther for a party one night, and carried on, and talked, smoked, drank, and laughed, and went home with each other at dawn. Am I reading too much into a little block of wood? Perhaps, but I always read too much into everything, don't I. So why not this, like another line from a city poem. Studio floor, with Frank O'Hara's feet:
I want to mention one final book I recently bought, before I sign off for now. I have both editions of Selected Poems, but I don't have the Collected Poems, and I just bought this Poems Retrieved. edited by Don Allen (City Lights reprint), which has poems that he didn't find in time to include in the Collected Poems. The cover is so great! Cats, getting right into the middle of your business since forever! I've been browsing in this and not finding a lot I really love, but rather interesting bits of this and that, alongside some truly memorable lines and poems. So it goes.
I am refusing to be distracted (too much) by current events so I find myself moving along at a fast clip in my New York School winter reading project. On to other poets and writers and painters, like Alex Katz, who loved O'Hara and has a lot to say about him, and the frighteningly incomprehensible John Ashbery. Let's leave it for now with Frank O'Hara though. His poem Having a Coke with You. That last line says it all.