Campbell, P. Michael, ed. Occident: Special Issue on Michael Davidson and Michael Palmer CIII.1 (1990).
Aldon L. Nielsen
"THE DAY LADY DIED" FRANK O'HARA
(1964) This postmodern elegy for Billie Holiday is an example of Frank o'hara's tendency to write occasional poems and often to write them on the occasion of death. It is also a prime example of what he called "I do this, I do that" poems, wherein the speaker catalogues events in a running commentary (Gooch 288). O'Hara likened his poems to "unmade telephone calls" (qtd. in Gooch 150), and, indeed, this poem has, at the end of the second line, the implied listener found in a dramatic monologue when the speaker confirms something to the listener (the recipient of the "telephone call") as though the listener has spoken. In fact, the poem's "call" was merely delayed a few hours because O'Hara read it that same evening to the friends he buys gifts for, according to the poem's account. The poem is, on the surface, what its title claims for it; it is about the day itself, and not explicitly about the death of Billie Holiday (or Lady Day) until almost the end.
Implicitly, however, the poem points to its conclusion through the variety of specific references to African and African-American subjects. The first of these occurs when O'Hara has his shoes shined, presumably by a black man because of the poem's explicit situation in place and time, America in 1959. He also mentions Ghanaian poets seemingly in passing and includes Jean Genets (1910-86) play Les Nègres among the books he considers purchasing. It is only from the perspective of the jazz bar, the renowned Five Spot, at the end of the poem that the poem's investment in race becomes clearly visible. O'Hara, yielding to his personal preferences, also salts his account with all manner of things French: brands of cigarettes, names of playwrights and poets, even a national holiday (which again neatly suggests his somewhat-secret subject's identity). The poem is filled with very specific names and places. O'Hara does not go into an unidentified shop to buy an unnamed item for an anonymous friend; rather he states that "in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine / for Patsy" and through these details grants readers intimate entry into the poem's places and events. By the time he arrives in the past— in his memory of Billie Holiday singing—a reader is there with him, "leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT," just as that reader has already eaten lunch, bought liquor, and sweated in the summer heat.
In this poem O'Hara captures an experience everyone knows, and does so best because he does it through a specific surreal experience. He demonstrates how mundane activities can become significant retrospectively, how things that otherwise would never be remembered are magnified by their proximity to something that makes the world stop breathing. And he gently makes a reader remember a moment when it seemed impossible that the world could go on shopping and shining its shoes because something cataclysmic has happened.
Was this article helpful?