What They Tell Me

I was thinking about Tenney—my old prof—today. He taught my very favorite poetry class. We read all the greats, Frank O’Hara, Akhmatova, Bishop, Rich…O’Hara has this ridiculous joy that is more like melancholy. A lilt. He lilts. He flits. He meanders seemingly and yet is directive, has direction, is insistent. For me, sometimes I pick apart his poetry to just lines. These killer one-liners that leave me breathless. Almost literally. I still have my books from that class. God they are so old now. The pages are brown and bent every which way. They are worn out. Taped on the binding. Comforting. I’m one of those nerds that believe books are family. We bicker. We cry. We laugh. Sometimes that sly sort of laugh, sometimes a gut one. Sometimes I sneer. Or I ignore because they glare at me. Are aloof. Whisper to me: you can be better. You should be better. You should work harder. You are not smart enough. Push. Push. Feel it all. Let it all go. It’s inside you.


Frank is the worst gossip of all. “I had a quick hear/and my thighs clutch her back.” I’m not sure what he’s talking about he was so gay, gay, gay. Loved a painter. A fine one at that. There was something so special about that class. Who was there? Dennis, Matthew, Jim, Brett – was Brett in that class? Hmm, a few others whose names I can’t remember but whom I was once close. It’s like that. I have the worst memory. Too much of this or that. Back then. Dennis and Matthew. I adored them both. Couldn’t be more different. One older and brilliant and a recluse. He was another teacher of mine, I mean in reality. Not formally of course. But he was. He changed my life. I think everyone has those friends. The ones you listen to, who help you see you’ve got it all wrong. Guide you. Help you fix yourself up. Spiffy-like. Dennis. Dennis was about the best poet I ever met. Snappy. I looked up to him a lot. Funny but I always felt like I was the one who didn’t belong. Not sure why, just was. My perception. Which was maybe or maybe not, wrong. I am often wrong.

My father says, “Often wrong, never in doubt.” Now my partner has picked up on that and highly agrees. It is true. I am stubborn. I am often saying things very convincingly. And wrongly. I wonder if others worry as much as I do. I worry about everything. It sort of defines me. My worry. I wonder what Frank would say about that. He’d scoff. He’d smoke his cig and scoff and keep walking down 5th to Lexington. Turn right. Ignore the taxis. I think everyone should have books that are more psychologists: the ones who analyze and spit you back. One of my oldest and dearest friends (not in age, mind you), Todd, his number is scrawled into the Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. It’s old and disconnected. Probably from 1993 when I was drunk in a bar. And now here I am with a partner and child and how’d it all happen?

All this past tense is because Uncle Oleg died. When one person dies I remember all my friends. All the people in my life who’ve impacted me one way or another. The joy, sorrow, mistakes, triumphs—the things I’d do differently, if I could (would I though? Okay, yeah, a few things for sure!) According to the World Fact Book by the CIA, in 2009, there were 353,015 births every day and another 146,357 deaths each day. So, in fact, he joined another 146,356 departed on the next phase of the journey, whatever that might be. And 146,357 families, including my own, are mourning the loss of someone we loved. Someone we thought fondly of – someone who held them when they were little or watched over another child as they grew to become (whatever it is they would become) and this living and dying is cyclical and inevitable and all the same it seems to knock the air out of my lungs for just a bit. Which is what brings me back to O’Hara and really great poets, who capture a moment. Of time. Just a bit. When something happens and we stop. At least for a moment. To reflect. Reflect upon all that is, was, and will be.

The Day Lady Died
By Frank O’Hara

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 Negres
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 theater 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

Jennifer Harris

Author of PINK! and resident Poetry Editor, Jennifer Harris, is an active literary organizer and served on the Board of Trustees for the Poetry Center of Chicago. She earned her MFA in Writing from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago.

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One comment


  • Beautiful and thoughtful as always.

    12, January 2011

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