The Day Lady Died

Submitted by Anon on 19 November, 2005 - 2:02

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

Frank O’Hara

‘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.

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