It's my lunch hour, so I goFrank O'Hara, "A Step Away from Them" (Lunch Poems, 1964)
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.
to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET'S
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, é bell' attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they'll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
I've loved this poem since I first read it. I love the way it depicts the desultory, haphazard, interrupted movement of the poet's attention ("And chocolate malted") and the way it captures the vibrant, sexy feeling of walking around Manhattan at lunchtime. And I love the poignant mystery in this poem: amid all the life around him, the poet is suddenly reminded of those who have died, after which the poem comes to a quiet and moving end, pondering things to be lost (the Manhattan Storage Warehouse) and things that remain (a book in a pocket). Was the volume of Reverdy's poems a gift from one of the people the poet remembers? We don't know. Frank O'Hara's heart is in his pocket, not on his sleeve.
This poem has come to have a more private significance for me: it's the poem that I taught in a freshman lit class on September 10, 2001. All of its details--the "beautiful and warm" day, the sudden fact of mortality--now look different to me, and the day that Frank O'Hara's poem memorializes now seems itself a memorial to that earlier New York, before September 11. I offer the poem here in memory of the lives brought to such a sudden and vicious end on September 11, 2001.
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