Sleeping on the Wing
by Frank O’Hara
When we take into consideration the concept of the volta in relation to Frank O’Hara’s poetry, it’s tempting to suggest that the briefest enunciation of his aesthetics reveals him to be primarily a poet of the turn. After all, he called the poems that would comprise what is arguably his most famous single volume, Lunch Poems, his “I do this, I do that” poems, a witty tag that suggests at once the battery of that work and the insouciant—though precise—delight he took in it. The shift from “this” to “that” is, at base, a turn from one action to another. As we all know, those poems have remained in the poetic consciousness of those who demand that their poems keep company with surprise and the material world ever since. I would argue that this is due in no small part to this particular kind of strategy. Perhaps the most devastating moment of extraordinary power in Lunch Poems for me is the climactic turn in his rightly lionized and highly anthologized gem, “A Step Away from Them”:
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? (33-38)
Even now I get chills reading, typing and re-reading that passage. It is a moment of potent gravitas turned out of a catalogue of more or less mundane—if vibrant—observations, accomplished so deftly and subtly that I reel with marvelous shock every time I read it. To be more specific, I’m utterly taken with how he moves from making the poem “beautiful and warm. First” before walloping you with “Bunny died, then John Latouche, / then Jackson Pollock” and then pulling you down powerfully with “But is the / earth as full as life was full, of them?” I use these physical descriptors quite intentionally; I would submit that O’Hara here operates in such a way as to provoke a physical response in the reader that corresponds to the body-in-motion of the speaker, as well as the sudden arrival of emotion in that speaker’s body, a turn made even more powerful by the awareness of the speaker’s friends’ bodies, stilled and interred. I’d refer to this move in O’Hara as a physical turn, and I’d further suggest that such turns in O’Hara are often simultaneously metaphysical. In these moments, the representation of movement of the body in the poem and the corresponding effect on and in the reader becomes the occasion for insight or inquiry that dramatically amplifies the poem’s scope. To demonstrate this, let’s look at a roughly contemporaneous poem that appears in the collection Meditations in an Emergency, and was apparently dashed off in one sitting, “Sleeping on the Wing.”
With a flexible voltaic understanding, it’s possible to recognize several turns in this poem, of course. However, if we limit our investigation to moves that fall under what I would term the physical turn, then there are three that announce themselves quite clearly, one for each of the stanzas. In the first stanza, we’re led by the poem’s opening into the turn by way of a curious simile: “Perhaps it is to avoid some great sadness, / as in a Restoration tragedy the hero cries ‘Sleep! / O for a long sound sleep and so forget it!’” (1-3). Alone, this may encourage us to expect some forthcoming exposition describing the great sadness, but O’Hara throws us for a loop. Instead of an end-stopped third line we find an enjambment that, despite the indicator that punctuation (in the form of the exclamation point and closed quotation marks) seems to give us, continues the sentence to the end of the stanza:
that one flies, soaring above the shoreless city,
veering upward from the pavement as a pigeon
does when a car honks or a door slams, the door
of dreams, life perpetuated in parti-colored loves
and beautiful lies all in different languages. (4-8)
The physical turn here is announced by thwarted syntactical expectation, broken by enjambment, and succeeded by a sudden ascension that identifies the movement of the poem’s “one” with a pigeon bolting up into the air after being startled. Looking back over the stanza, we see the subtle progression of what the one at the center of this poem does. What begins, perhaps, as an effort to avoid the unexplained “great sadness” quickly migrates into a physical shift into flight (now in two senses of the word) whose initial veering turns to soaring. The sadness is only further identified in the figurative landscape of the poem as the sudden, somewhat violent surprise of a car horn or a slammed door. The sudden physical locomotion of this turn from earth to air occasions the consideration of dreams, life, loves, and lies that constitute a particular kind of being, actual or desired. O’Hara further linguistically yokes the physical turn to metaphysical rumination by constructing the stanza from one sentence, underscoring the simultaneity of movement of body and mind. This structural tactic continues to develop in diverse ways in the second and third stanzas.
The second stanza continues the ascent begun in the first, with fear “drop[ping] away too, like the cement” and the “one” flying becoming a “you” soaring “over the Atlantic” (lines 9-10). As the metaphysical inquiry accompanies that ascent—“Where is Spain? where is / who? The Civil War was fought to free the slaves, / was it?” (10-12)—we’re led once more into a physical turn: “A sudden down-draught reminds you of gravity / and your position in respect to human love” (12-13). Anyone who has been on an airplane or a rollercoaster and experienced a split-second of weightlessness as their seat dropped beneath them in an instant of turbulence or rapid descent, or even just watched a seagull navigate the wind above a barge full of garbage, can identify with the motion, the sensation of this down-draught. And, as with its precedent in the first stanza, this turn opens a deeper sense of the physical position and metaphysical status of the body, the body’s capacity to soar above the shoreless city limited by physical laws and its correspondent capacity to soar in the realm of human love just as limited and every bit as liable to fall out of the sky. It bears noting, further, that with the shift from the first stanza’s use of the impersonal pronoun “one” to the second-person personal pronoun, the reader is no longer merely offered an example of such a turn but is encouraged to identify with the sensation of that turn as well as its metaphysical correspondent. This correspondence is amplified considerably with the conjecture that being helpless paradoxically results in freedom:
Once you are helpless, you are free, can you believe
that? Never to waken to the sad struggle of a face?
to travel always over some impersonal vastness,
to be out of, forever, neither in nor for! (15-18)
Here again enjambment keeps a line seemingly end-stopped with punctuation aloft, and after, the mind continues to suss out the new conditions of this physical turn. The down-draught has served us a reminder that enacts the motion of the mind not at some later point in tranquility, but in the moment of movement for the body. This meditation, if meditation is what it can be said to be, is meditation at the sensory suggestion of emergency. What is useful about this recognition in O’Hara’s (meta)physical turn is that the arrivals of intellection may be more lively and searching in the moment of active physical awareness than they might hope to be in supine recollection. This is not to denounce indolence and reverie, it is not to revile those periods of physical leisure and relative calm which may also yield dynamic, moving work, but rather to point out that O’Hara’s maneuvers enlarge our understanding of how metaphysical inquiry may be rooted not just in the mind, not just in the body, but in the body and mind in motion.
These exploratory attentions reach still further in the third stanza, in which the speaker charts what we might consider our own mind slipping from consciousness into unconsciousness, crossing into dream:
The eyes roll asleep as if turned by the wind
and the lids flutter open slightly like a wing.
The world is an iceberg, so much is invisible!
and was and is, and yet the form, it may be sleeping
The soaring body, chastened by turbulence though it might be, has in its relentless motion entered into a kind of insistent, epiphanic awareness that begins to set up the third stanza’s physical turn. The imagining the end of the second stanza does, in which we could be traveling forever over some impersonal vastness, ultimately spurs the “you” back toward the great sadness the “one” of the first stanza initially avoided. That sadness is bound to the form which may be sleeping, too, and it becomes the responsibility of the “you” of the poem—whether that’s you and/or I as the reader, or a second-person stand-in for a first-person speaker—to define it: “Those features etched in the ice of someone / loved who died, you are a sculptor dreaming of space / and speed, your hand alone could have done this” (23-25). As in the rest of the poem, here a physical relationship to the world is inherent even as the figuration of a gesture. The iceberg the world is must be chiseled into and can only be impressed with the features of those important to us (be it Bunny, John Latouche, Jackson Pollock, or the unnamed someone of this poem) as they are important to us, by us, by our hand alone. This realization is swiftly followed by questions that prepare us for the final physical turn, questions which seek to reanimate our “hand”: “Curiosity, the passionate hand of desire. Dead, / or sleeping? Is there speed enough?” (26-27). It is at the point of this question that the poem’s third physical turn is enacted:
you relinquish all that you have made your own,
the kingdom of your self sailing, for you must awake
and breathe your warmth into this beloved image
whether it’s dead or merely disappearing,
as space is disappearing and your singularity. (27-32)
With this swoop, a verb choice that reasserts agency for the “you” and demonstrates once more the correspondence of metaphysical awareness to physical motion, we return not just to the initial avoided sadness but into the action that honors the body’s being in response to that sadness.¹ The “kingdom of [the] self” that marks off the “you” of the poem as a lonely distinction, separated from the sadness and joy of being on earth by being above it, is let go in favor of waking to the sad struggle of a face, with the warm breath of the body enacting the sculpture of its relations to the particular beloved of the poem, but also to the more profligate loves of the masses in which one’s singularity risks erosion and disappearance. It could be read as a kind of giving up, a subsuming of the self into the blur of mass culture, but I read it instead as a turn into asserting the body as an ongoing creative process, even while a part of such masses. The poem recognizes that following that body’s instinctive and invigorating locomotion simultaneously doubles as a persistent metaphysical seeking.
By my reckoning, the motion continuing beyond the linguistic limits of the poem (i.e. the material poem on the page) is its ultimate turn, and its major revelation. It may well follow the logic of a Romantic gesture, a final epiphany, but we don’t experience the end of “Sleeping on the Wing” as a resolution. Even in ending, “Sleeping on the Wing” does not stop. Space and your singularity may be disappearing, yes, but these are just mortal and temporal facts, persisting aspects of the flux. O’Hara’s answer to such aspects is ultimately to embrace them, and thus embrace the ineluctably mutable personal worlds in and against which we breathe our warmth, the breath that becomes or confirms our relations to others and that must continue to become and confirm those relations. The poem’s breathless ideas and excitements are generated around the three physical turns, and once they are made and their metaphysical implications sketched out, we find that they have enacted, in effect, a return to the site of grievous shock, the great sadness that provoked flight in the first place. And yet this return does not close a loop. The flight is every bit as important as the return; it has given us (both the speaker as reader of her own experience and us as readers of the poem) a new, affective point by which we re-enter the conditions of our ongoing-ness. The poem’s final gesture, it’s final metaphysical turn, then, is to spur us from the poem into our respective worlds, revitalized and invigorated, quite literally inspired to turn into whatever we may make of ourselves and our relations, making life as full of us and them as we can.
¹The specifics of that great sadness are never made clearer than “someone loved who died,” but the occasion of the poem is another matter. In the “Notes on the Poems and Essays” section of O’Hara’s Collected Poems, we find the following anecdote from James Schuyler, fellow New York Schooler:
Schuyler remembers: “The day this was written I was having breakfast (i.e. coffee) with Frank and Joe [O’Hara’s roommate Joe LeSueur] at 326 East 49th Street, and the talk turned to Frank’s unquenchable inspiration, in a teasing way on my part and Joe’s. The cigarette smoke began jetting from Frank’s nostrils and he went into the next room and wrote SLEEPING ON THE WING in a great clatter of keys.”
Once we consider closely just how physically the poem operates, just how finely twined the movement of the body in space/time is with the movement of the mind, it deepens the physical dimension of the turns we find in the poem. Schuyler’s description of O’Hara’s departing the room to bang out the poem, as though he were sitting down to a piano and launching himself into a burst of music (which of course he did), shows that the act of composing the poem was in many ways physical itself, an aspect of writing to which we often give short shrift. When I was first starting to read O’Hara, the poets I talked to about him were of two minds. Either he wrote improvisationally (not quite automatically, in the surrealist sense), seldom if ever revising, or his poems only give that effect, and are actually the result of a deep, engaged revision process. I tend to think, as much for myself as seriously, that it was a combination. I like to believe that O’Hara was, in one way or another, constantly composing in his head, revising, pulling in language out of the air around him, drawing it out of the paintings and music and general noise of his beloved New York. It would make perfect sense to me that he had most or all of “Sleeping on the Wing” teeming in his lovely brain, and it crystallized “in a great clatter of keys,” spurred on by his friends’ teasing.
Marc McKee is the author of three collections: What Apocalypse?, which won the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM 2008 Chapbook Contest, Fuse (Black Lawrence Press, 2011), and Bewilderness (forthcoming, Black Lawrence Press, 2014). His work has appeared in a number of journals, including Barn Owl Review, Boston Review, Cimarron Review, Conduit, Crazyhorse, DIAGRAM, Forklift, Ohio, LIT, and Pleiades. He teaches at the University of Missouri at Columbia, where he lives with his wife, Camellia Cosgray.