Monday, October 28, 2013

ModPo 2013 #48 Crossing The Stinky Bridge and Keeping Art Alive: On O'Hara's "A Step Away From Them"

Pre-colonial barangay scene from


It's my lunch hour, so I go
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
a Thursday.
                   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, รจ 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
Show there.
                   A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.

From Lunch Poems. Copyright © 1964 by Frank O'Hara. City Lights Books. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

I, too, always keep poems in my pocket, well my proverbial pocket since I'm not a man and I don't keep things in my pocket but rather in my purse. I keep a short poem by Jane Hirshfield in my wallet. And I have another poem by Robert Hass in a small cosmetic kit in my purse. Why do I keep them there? There was once a poem-in-your-pocket day and I never took them out again. It (the act of keeping a poem close to me all the time) reminds me that poetry is my life, that life is poetry, that if I stop keenly observing the moments of my life it will slip me by...un-lived.

That was why I liked this poem. For that last line. I found the attempt at diversity a bit awkward. I don't like seeing the word negro, especially when it's connected with an agitating one. It might have been politically correct at that time. Now, maybe, it's more polite to say African American. But why say African American? What about white people? Are they English Americans? I know there are Irish Americans and Italian Americans. But no one ever says English Americans... the first migrants from England. And it's funny that people say Native Americans or American Indians. When they're not really from India and were just mistakenly called Indians by Columbus (a persisting mistake). And they are technically the most American Americans by virtue of having been born there way before the first migrants came. But I digress.

I spent some time looking up the people mentioned in this I-do-this-I-do-that poem. And I appreciated the video discussion's identification of said dead people as bastions of Modernism. Also, I wouldn't have caught the transition from the mostly "I" activities into the reflective "we" in the last stanza. I appreciated that: the idea of finding one's place in a teeming world. I liked the question: Is art dead (through the deaths, one by one, of artists)? No, art is alive in the city. And then the reflection reaches out to the end of the poem where he identifies his heart in his pocket, a fitting end. Art is never dead. It is not only in the city, it is also constantly in your pocket if you choose it.

I should try writing writing a lunch poem. However, I don't live in NY and I feel sadly bereft of art unless I really look for it. The only decent museum I can think of is all the way in the next city. And no, I haven't really studied the art movements and I don't know the art movements here in my city. Over here, we have great artists, the potential of great art (they end up migrating) but we are more concerned with surviving.

Crossing The Stinky Bridge

It is the brunch hour. We wake up, skipping
breakfast. It's time to vote for barangay officials.
Our maids are off for a funeral and to vote as well.
We wake the kids, help them take their showers.
We cross the street, wondering why there are tents in front
of the NEDA building. It's not where people vote. There's
a sign that says "INFORMATION" but no one is asking
any questions. There are coolers with juice in them and
boxes of Jollibee meals waiting to be served to "volunteers."
We walk over to the university covered court and look
for our names on a printed roster taped to a blackboard.
The kids stray towards the boxes of footballs as we
figure out where exactly we should vote. We vote
for incumbents because our daughter gets free daycare
in our barangay. And that's enough.
                                                         On to Pancake House
in Pearl Drive with our index fingers stained with
indelible ink. We pass the stinky bridge that cuts across
Gold Loop leading us straight from Escriva Drive
to Gold Loop. It's stinky because loads of trash are rotting
in the canal below the bridge. And no one will ever
fix this.                                        
            We order a Halloween pancake, a couple of
cheese pancakes, a salted caramel pancake tower and
a waffle. I don't know what we're celebrating. Maybe
just the holiday. I don't know anyone who died today.
But the death toll count from the earthquake in Bohol
and Cebu is at 185.
                               After brunch, we cross the stinky
bridge again. We quiz our son about why we need
to vote. "Because we need to choose the leaders
of our barangay," he says, dutifully. I wonder about
that, inhaling the stink that won't go away.
                                                                    A glass of
water and I'm back on the computer. This is the only
art I'll see today.

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