Saturday, October 26, 2013

ModPo 2013 #45 Thirty Years After The Impatient Man Died and Surviving Cultural Translation: On O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died"

Image from

The Day Lady Died

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 Nègres
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 Theatre 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

Information from Frank O’Hara, “The Day Lady Died” from Lunch Poems. Copyright © 1964 by Frank O’Hara. Reprinted with the permission of City Lights Books.

Source: The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara (1995)

I never would have known that this was about Billie Holiday if it wasn't for the video discussion. Apart from the fact that her death is very incidentally mentioned at the end, I am not familiar with Bastille Day (another clue as to what day it was).

I like how the poem goes from simple present to continuous present ("I am sweating a lot by now") as mentioned in the discussion, taking the reader from the mundane world of "doing-this-then-doing-that" to a moment when she was alive and when she sucked out the breath of everyone.

It was indeed moving to remember such a great artist...not with a traditional elegy or a traditional re-telling of her life but rather with a moment, a single moment celebrating her impact on the speaker and on the audience contrasted against an everyday kind of day with all details recounted, ending with the discovery of her death and then that tribute.

I appreciate the non-narrative and ant-narrative poems. There really is no narrative in real life. Narrative happens to make things neat and understandable. Of course it has a purpose. But there are moments that are really grief, for instance. It can be a spiral or a repeating moment. There are many other alternatives to the straight-out narrative and I appreciate what O'Hara was trying to do here.

I'd just like to point at, though, that this kind of poem goes against the "defense of poetry" argument that was discussed in "Some Trees" by John Ashbery. The poem is supposedly self-contained and requires no external biography or context imposed upon the poem for the poem to be understood. On the contrary, for this poem to be truly understood, one would need to research and understand who Billie Holiday was. For someone coming from South East Asia, Billie Holiday might be a remote figure. Personally, though, I am acquainted with her and her music because I did some research on jazz and the 1930s, making a collection of jazz songs for my wedding souvenir. Actually, for someone coming from 2013 lenses, the music of Billie Holiday might be something that isn't even familiar. Without the context of Billie Holiday and her impact on the speaker and her times was...this poem wouldn't really make sense. We would lose full appreciation...especially because Billie Holiday isn't even really named. "Lady Day" is a monicker that I didn't know was associated with Billie Holiday. In fact, the only character I know whose name is Lady is a dog in a cartoon.

What am I saying? Sometimes, poetry needs context to be appreciated. When poetry crosses culture, some framework needs to be put in place for its full appreciation. No amount of close reading will unearth the significance of cultural references.

Thirty Years After The Impatient Man Died

Sunday, it is 9:00 at Boracay, Astoria, we go out
to the buffet breakfast of beef tapa and scrambled eggs.
It is 2013 and we pass the Havainas store in Station 2,
as we've done for the past three days. In Manila, the city is recovering
from habagat, flooding the streets, making them impassable.
We pass REAL COFFEE where we buy calamansi muffins,
the beaches are boarded up with clear plastic tied to bamboo
poles because the whole day and the whole night the wind
will be whipping up, the aftermath of the storm in Luzon.

It is a gray day, it is the rainy season, we walk up along
the beach looking for that place where we will have dinner,
past D'Mall, we walk towards the back of the shops,
along the line of small eateries
                                                We go on inside SMOKE
and look at their menu. We can't get there later than
7:00 or else they'll run out of bulalo. It starts to rain
again so we walk back to the hotel, sand in our slippers.

We leave our slippers at the door. The room is cold.
The glass door has beads of sweat on them.
We turn on the TV and I see his face.

And I am leaning forward to listen to the radio,
eight years old, while they say his name over and
over again. We are far from the news, an island
away but I hear the gunshots and also, somehow,
all the yellow ribbons swaying forlornly
from the trees.


Tell me if you know who I'm talking about. If you're not Filipino and you have no context of our history or what months of year belong the the rainy season, would you have any clue? And who would this impatient man be? Only Filipinos would know who this person might be. That's my point. Some poems need context to survive not just translation but cultural translation.

So, here's the context: A similar day for me (as O'Hara's poem) would be the death of Ninoy Aquino, Philippine senator, murdered / shot/ assassinated in the airport as he was returning home to either serve out his sentence or lead a dwindling opposition to a dictator. According to biographies and his fellow senator in the opposition, Jovito Salonga, Ninoy was an impatient man. I was only eight years old at the time, still in grade school but I knew something significant had happened, a shift in the everyday life. People were shocked, crying, confused. People were listening to the radio, the news spread fast. It was then that a wave began, the wave that culminated in the bloodless EDSA revolution in 1986, three years after his death. His death was the rallying point around which people could protest. By 1986, I was wearing a yellow shirt with his face imprinted on it, the words "The Filipino is worth dying for" underlining his face.

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