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Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara

Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara

nude and empty: 

frank o’hara’s lunch poems 

the city is never as dirty 

as frank o’hara would like it to be 

ran my thumb along my no-moss mind and all 

around my head crows 

soared and sobbed. 

coyotes yelped like a band of hyenas 

and then sang like crazed loons 

who have discovered a feast of whatever 

loons like best, salamanders or tadpoles. 

i don’t feel like o’hara invented the ‘i do this i do that’ style 

that distinction belongs to john skelton. 

just kidding, it belongs to gwendolyn brooks and countee cullen 

and the poets of the harlem renaissance. 

and tho historically i liked ohara 

when i was put on a steady diet of white man poetry 

in the 90s by well-meaning adults 

and into the aughts when there was still a shakespeare 

requirement in school (is there still ‘now’? i mean the now 

of when you are reading this poem?) 

i suppose it was exciting to at least come across a Gay Poet 

and one with a witty and trenchant and 

kind of heartless style but one he made clear concealed 

some real emotion. 

but really in lunch poems which is still universally lauded

he gets to talking about Black and Brown people a lot 

usually as taxi drivers or leering sexual objects or 

‘Puerto Ricans keeping the street warm’ 

reading him again now i feel like he is the son of walt whitman who once wrote: 

‘the Nigger and the Injun will be eliminated, it is the law of the races, history. 

A superior grade of rats come and then all the minor rats are cleared out.’ 

and tho o’hara’s racism is more of the noble savage variety 

and the conflation of Indians with animals variety 

(noble animals mind you) 

and the sexualization of Black men variety 

rather than the ‘kill em all’ kind propagated by that rat whitman 

it is not casual and he writes: 

‘it means something to exercise 

in Norfolk Virginia 

it means you’ve been to bed with a Nigra’ 

in a poem called ‘mary desti’s ass’ 

which is about sexual tourism and why a woman’s ass 

is the title is not clear. 

mary desti was a seer and the lover of aleister crowley. 

in ‘personal poem’ o’hara has amiri baraka who was then leroi 

enter the bar and tell him how miles davis was clubbed 

12 times outside birdland by a cop. 

actually it was three cops who beat up miles davis when 

he had stepped outside for a smoke 

in the company of a white woman and they asked him to ‘move on’ 

and he points to the marquis with his name all up in lights 

and he says ‘that’s my name up there’ 

and a cop comes from behind and hits him on the head with a billy club 

there are pictures of him with blood 

streaming from his head. 

miles davis beat his wife too and that is a sad fact. 

i didn’t want to unpack o’hara’s lines about the Iroquois 

and how they should be nude and empty like an orphic painting 

and to avoid it i go down a wormhole about the title of the poem 

in which those lines appear, ‘naphtha’ 

naphtha which is a flammable liquid hydrocarbon 

mixture of condensed gas, distillate of petroleum 

and of coal and tar and peat. 

‘naft’ means wet in middle persian 

and also appears in aramaic and semitic languages. 

in the apocryphal prayer of azaria naphtha is used 

to stoke the fiery furnace. 

maccabees describes a ‘thick water’ 

that caught fire in the sun. 

it’s where we get the word

napalm. in czech and bulgarian 

and argentinian spanish nafta means petrol, gasoline. 

in polish it means kerosene. 

but we should really look at these lines from frank o’hara’s poem 

‘naphtha’ together so i don’t feel so alone about it: 

‘the gaited Iroquois on the girders 

fierce and unflinching-footed 

nude as they should be 

slightly empty like a Sonia Delaunay’ 

delaunay’s paintings in case you didn’t know 

(i didn’t) are full of holes they are called orphic. 

girders are like the support beams of a building 

and while it is true the Iroquois and specifically the Kahnawake Mohawks 

are well-known as ironworkers in new york city 

the word ‘gaited’ is used principally of horses and the way 

they walk. he goes on: 

‘there is a parable of speed, 

somewhere behind the Indians’ eyes 

they invented the century with their horses 

and their fragile backs 

which are dark’ 

so but the gaitedness and the stoic-footedness of the Indians 

and the fragility of their dark backs, presumably 

to be ‘ridden’ to be trodden upon and finally he says 

‘we owe a debt to the Iroquois 

and to Duke Ellington’ 

we meaning white people i guess 

and i guess ‘lana turner has collapsed’ is a pretty good poem 

if you can subsist on pith 

so what should i let slip 

across the gathering moss of my mind 

—Julian Talmantez Brolaski 

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