It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcom or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfield Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 Spot
while she whispered along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
‘The Day Lady Died’ is an example of O’Hara’s famed “I do this, I do that” style of writing, telling us the routine tasks that lead up to hearing the news of the death of Billie Holliday, (Lady Day). The opening is littered with references to particular places, a date and time, but at the same time, I feel the recurring chimes of the repeated “day” and the number nine, echoed in “shoeshine”, disturb this certainty. It is not “Friday July 17 1959”, so much as “a Friday”, much like any other.
The Friday routine is played out through the repeated acts of exchange that permeate our existence in late capitalism. This exchange is hardly recognised as such, even though it defines almost every relationship in the anonymous setting of a poem, whose speaker can say “I don’t know the people who will feed me”. The pamphlet NEW WORLD WRITING is the only thing that “I buy”: everything else just seems to happen. “I have”, “I get”, “I ask for”. The humdrum existence of walking from one site of commodity exchange to another is one in which it’s usual to know the names of the people one is buying things for, but not those we buy them from.
The poem’s end contains the only possibility of a break with this mundane existence: the speaker discovers Holliday’s death. The language of “I do” has been interrupted; actions have become involuntary. It is no longer a narrative about buying things, but about standing, sweating, confronted by a bodily reaction to the news. The speaker’s heightened awareness of his body is not as something that walks, purchases and reads, but as something that listens, hears, is touched.
And this corporeal sensation is something that cannot be doubted. It provides the basis for subjectivity, something that gets ignored in most situations of working life. Nevertheless it is this subjective experience that must provide the basis of our politics of hope.