On the back cover of Frank O’Hara’s classic City Lights Books collection, Lunch Poems, he defines his efforts succinctly:
Often this poet, strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noontide, has paused at a sample Olivetti to type up thirty or forty lines of ruminations, or pondering more deeply has withdrawn to a darkened ware- or firehouse to limn his computed misunderstandings of the eternal questions of life, coexistence, and depth, while never forgetting to eat lunch his favorite meal….
While I have always loved O’Hara’s work and sought in my own writing to emulate his temporal discipline and culinary wisdom, what I find most useful about the form he invents is how it can present the most ordinary of moments in a way that captures the extraordinary.
For instance, in perhaps the most famous poem in that volume, “The Day Lady Died,” O’Hara is able to walk us through a banal series of errands in the midst of a Manhattan work day only to surprise us with a flash of the cover of the New York Post with Billie Holiday’s 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
And we all say “wow” in our heads, and if we know her music, her voice is invoked, and we are filled with a bittersweet melancholy. At least that’s how it works with me.
The other thing that’s wonderful about this style is that it is an easy door for the reader and aspiring artist alike that opens to the poetry of the everyday. Somewhere, outside your door, are a rare few seconds to capture the rich texture and tragedy of life. Although I don’t live in New York City, Golden Hill can suffice as the street you live on right now.
This poem, written in that spirit, was inspired by a line I happened to be reading in Denis Johnson’s Already Dead: A California Gothic when my neighborhood intervened, and this was born:
The chopper blasted down the street
As the 2 x 4s dropped heavily
In the truck bed
And the funk juxtaposed with death metal
Along with TV cop show dialogue
Leaking out from the windows
Of the rooming house next door.
There was also birdsong falling
From the treetops in the side yard
And the sun glowing in
The lush red hair of
A beautiful young girl floating
By like an angel
On her way to yoga class.
Across the way, a disheveled, cursing drunk
Sitting on the sidewalk under the 7/11 sign
Was berating a grotesquely obese woman
In nothing but a checkered bedsheet
Beaming madly at the sky
A lady from the halfway house
Saw me reading on the porch
And stopped by my front gate
To tell me that they were giving
Away free Slurpees today.
I nodded and smiled
To get back to my novel
When an angry voice cut through
Out of the top window of
The old place next door:
“They told me I wasn’t worth it,
not worth the effort,
just not worth
their fucking time!”
The window slammed
And the muffled roar went on.
I sighed, closed my eyes
For a moment,
And returned to this line—
“What is being done,
for God’s sake,
to the people we love.”
ABOUT THE SUMMER CHRONICLES – In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil (The Brazilian News) not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil. As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”
What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.” As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.” It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.
More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less—I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with three novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe. Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector. So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”