Poem [“The eager note on my door said, ‘Call me’,”]
by Frank O’Hara
As an under-read undergrad, I inhaled Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency for a seminar, and have been smitten with his work since.
I met him exactly when I needed to be shaken up. In high school—like so many other girls from dysfunctional families—I overdosed on Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who spoke to me from the Slough of Despond and (largely) formed my preliminary ideas of What Poetry Is.¹ Finding Frank O’Hara was like wandering into a sun-dizzy room crammed with monkeys and Russian cigarettes after being locked in a dim garret for years, squinting to make out print.
I threw away every poem I wrote save one² from my first 2 ½ years of grad school, then hustled out my thesis over some very stressful months. Most of what I’d scribbled could’ve been summed up as: I’m sad, by Courtney Queeney. One of the hardest things about writing, for me, is how to translate the most basic human emotions—grief, love, fear—in a way that ratchets open a reader’s chest so that she’s simultaneously sucking for air and hyper-aware of her own iambic pulse. And this is how “Poem” affected me—years after it was written, the poet decades dead, when I was a sorority girl pulling an all-nighter in the Daryl Hart Reading Room.
This “Poem” fuses elegy, irony, and wonder into a distinctive tonal alloy. Entering an O’Hara poem is a little like being asked to sit at the cool kids’ lunch table—unexpected, heady, and a bit unnerving. This one opens like the start of a fantastic anecdote:
The eager note on my door said, “Call me,
call when you get in!”
As a rule-follower, I would’ve obediently called as instructed, because my life is like plain beige wallpaper, too boring to warrant mention.³ But phoning would’ve been too eye-rollingly mundane; instead, the speaker announces:
so I quickly threw
a few tangerines into my overnight bag,
straightened my eyelids and shoulders, and
headed straight for the door.
The zeal seems legit, but there’s something bizarre in his (campy, random) preparations—tangerines would clearly bruise en route; his preening consists of adjusting arbitrary body parts. As a former suburbanite who’d never gotten an A- before, I wondered, No toothbrush? And then, giddily: No toothbrush!
My mini-epiphany wasn’t exactly on par with Stephen Dedalus’s in Portrait, but it was a real revelation that poems could create alternate universes (embarrassing, I know) where the true did not have to equal the actual. In O’Hara’s world, rules are not broken but outright reinvented—and reading him was freeing, like tumbling down an adult-sized rabbit hole.
The initial momentum flags in the second stanza, as if the speaker’s mojo is growing more anemic line by line. It’s abruptly that adult season, autumn. Active verbs dwindle to passive constructions and description; the speaker “got around” the corner, “oh all/unwilling to be pertinent or bemused.” His zest has been replaced by ambivalence, while he shies away from committing to what he does want to be (like every skittish boyfriend I’ve ever had). Conveniently, he evades taking a stance, as there’s a convenient distraction at hand: “…but/the leaves were brighter than the grass on the sidewalk!” The landscape blots out any concern for his friend, the way bright plastic blocks can coax a gap-toothed grin from a fussy toddler.
The first half’s whimsical (if convoluted) stroll veers into darker territory in the second, as unease insinuates itself:
Funny, I thought, that the lights are on this late
and the hall door open: still up at this hour, a
champion jai-alai player like himself?
He has a hunch something’s amiss—it’s as if we can see a light bulb gradually glowing brighter above his head, not with a switch being definitively flipped but as a dimmer is slid slowly upward—though he’s still more concerned with his friend’s jai-alai game than the gaping door.
The poem’s first three sentences are long, brimming with dependent clauses, and meander like the speaker’s pilgrimage. Then all at once, the poem starts speaking in tongues:
for shame, what a host, so zealous!
O’Hara channels Shakespeare with “Oh fie!” (rhyming with the eccentric ‘jai-alai’4). This interjection works both as an actual and facetious expression of disgust, embodying the poem’s tension between genuine emotion and flippancy. Then he shifts registers again, parroting a parent wagging a finger at a child who’s smashed a toy: “for shame!” It’s sounding a little schizophrenic. “What a host, so zealous!” seems to recover some of O’Hara’s buoyancy—until we discover what spurred these outbursts.
The phrase “And he was” is the hinge on which the fourth stanza swings further away from the poem’s initial whimsy. The enjambment holds the friend momentarily in the limbo of white space. If poems have cliffhangers5, this is one: was he painting? Sneezing? Playing jai-alai? No. “And he was//there in the hall, flat on a sheet of blood that/ran down the stair.” It’s the most direct, declarative statement of the poem so far. For a beat, the speaker (finally) pauses: “I did appreciate it.” Here’s where the poem halts me, and I imagine the speaker similarly stopped in his tracks as if he’d been slapped across the face with an audible thwack. Faced with his dead friend, he abandons his breeziness for a condolence note’s corseted and inadequate language.
The speaker attempts to recover his light-heartedness, but the speaker’s guilt simmers beneath his words. “There are few/hosts,” O’Hara writes, “who so thoroughly prepare to greet a guest/only casually invited, and that several months ago.” The extent of his guilt is clear in his revision; we know he was eagerly invited and set out earnestly—he told us himself!—yet now he backpedals. The invitation is now ‘casual’ enough that he wandered there months later, perhaps just because he happened to be in the neighborhood. The energy here is like that at a party after a couple has just concluded a loud, public row; guests finish their drinks politely, then hurry out the door still stuffing their arms awkwardly into coat sleeves.
The banter in “Poem” ultimately fails to stave off grief. It’s an attempt at evasion that begins with the title “Poem,” which admits to nothing.6 “Poem” could be about anything—daffodils, puppies, hurricanes, sex. As a title it’s both coy and self-protective, like the markings of a viceroy butterfly, which both attract mates and deter birds, who mistake it for the more unsavory monarch.
So why this poem? There are other, more famous O’Hara poems about mortality—“Poem [Lana Turner Has Collapsed]” or “The Day Lady Died”—which also use irony, understatement, and hyperbole to get at such slippery subjects by almost-but-just-not-quite-ducking them. But “Poem” stuck to me like a burr early. The dead host’s anonymity—from a poet who name-dropped as if it were an iron-clad clause in his job description—makes the grief more immediate. The privacy he allows his friend transforms this poem—for all its initial flippancy—into a raw experience of grief, one that halts me.
I confess, I didn’t take Frank O’Hara seriously, when I first read him. I was puzzled, if intrigued, by Meditations. And I was a little miffed my professor had made us move on from Louise Glück (the previous week’s reading) for this buffoon-ish goofy guy. But I kept re-reading O’Hara, and have in the decade-and-a-half since. He upset the rigid rules I’d forged for myself about poetry, and gave me not one new outlet for my own work, but countless ones. O’Hara was the first poet I’d ever read who could combine hilarity and despair, who gave me a million ways to stop hitting the single note of I’m Sad, by Courtney Queeeney. He makes me grin, but he also guts me. I did, and do, appreciate it.
1I still love both Plath and Sexton, and now see the wicked humor in their work I missed before, but when I stumbled upon them in high school I was possibly the least chipper Prom Queen in the Midwest, and it was the darker poems that drew me.
2It was actually the first one I brought to workshop. I saw it on my professor’s stack with the word RADIOACTIVE scrawled across the top. It turned out she meant this as a compliment, but when I saw it I almost sprinted out of the room.
3Disclaimer: I’ve also been known to mutter Dorothy Parker’s famous quip, What fresh hell is this? under my breath when interrupted unexpectedly.
4Jai-alai is probably a perfectly graceful, respectable sport. My only personal experience was in gym class, where every activity seemed designed for maximum humiliation. Jai-alai was second in this regard only to the year we were forced to perform choreographed dances with ribbons.
5A nerd can dream.
6When I was finishing my first book, and faced with the daunting task of actually titling poems, my dumb twenty-something self whined to my editor, “Can’t I just title everything ‘Poem’? Like Frank O’Hara?” His response shut me up: “Sure, when you write like Frank O’Hara.”
Courtney Queeney is the author of Filibuster to Delay a Kiss and Other Poems (Random House, 2007). Her work also appears in Three New Poets (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005), American Poetry Review, The Antioch Review, The Believer, Dossier, McSweeney’s, Michigan Quarterly Review, Notre Dame Review, and other journals.