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