letters to frank o'Hara
dave torneo


 
Dear Frank, can I call you Frank?
I read somewhere that you made everyone feel
like they were your best friend,
that’s why I feel I can avoid ceremony
as I try to fill you in, offer a report
on these times, but I’m afraid
the only thing of note—49 years after your death—
is the invention of the cell phone, wafer thin,
slick as a river stone; slip it
in your hip pocket; even little kids are savvy
poseurs. If you were still alive
you could totter down Second Avenue,
talk to friends and future enemies
without having to seek privacy in a privy
or cramped hallway at the end of the telephone cord,
eat a liver sausage sandwich, mustard and onions,
cigarette burning down to your knuckle.
Your poems would be voicemail poems,
beautiful lines, fugitive, captured
by high winds off the East River, I do this
I do that
ad infinitum; poet of the mundane,
convivial at the tobacconist’s, hand on hip,
sulky at the bank, enthused at the tavern,
harried at the MOMA, sharing to all and sundry
real miracles of the everyday, ad infinitum.
And I realize, even the voicemail
has become passé
as masterminds
of the next BIG THING
plot against us.
 
 
*
 
 
Dear Frank,
a light snowfall on the city you love
makes everyone we know
seem so far away, squandering their talent
somewhere else like Topeka, Bakersfield, Kalamazoo.
You are as far from here as people get, unless you believe
we return as aphids or bison or sea-horses
or other people, which strikes me as impossibly hopeful.
Wet streets shine greasy neon in broad day-light
in the city you love.
Can I call you Frank? I’m not sure
if this has been established between us yet.
Too personal?
Let me ask you, how many other poets are writing a letter
to you today, January 9th 2015?
In the city you love 8,405,837 souls where
snow falls forming small drifts
on car bumpers, the gold epaulets
of fancy doormen, the blue brims
of policemen’s caps. Which reminds me,
not that I want to stir things up, but in your poem “Personal Poem”
you mention Amiri Baraka—you called him LeRoi—
told you about the night Miles Davis was
beaten in the street “outside BIRDLAND by cops.”
And Frank, just last night Sam told me
what the police did to Bud Powell as a young man—
a virtuoso, maybe the best ever—
that led to a gauntlet of hospitals, straightjackets, shock treatments.
So I wonder what you would make of the “current climate,” as we say,
what the New York Times reported yesterday,
1.5 Million Black Men
Missing From Daily Life

I want you to know I never bought
the notion you were a light weight, your elegant lyrics
fluff tossed off between appointments.
You wrote poems about emotional emergencies,
the dead, Mayakovsky for one,
and we know what happened to him—
(poet runs finger across throat
as if with a knife) state sanctioned suicide.
 
I admire how you go from a carefree, light touch
to the death of someone you miss and adore, convey
that catch in the throat, heart throttled, the struggle
to compose yourself, making us all brave.
 
 
*
 
 
Dear Frank
I’m barely awake
stuck in the mire of one of those mornings
when it takes a lifetime to see straight
eyes tear unglued neck muscles unknot
yes systems are born to fail and we are forced
to make concessions
better to make friends with jittery nerves
brain gone to pudding taste buds flat
we forget so much
day’s catastrophes building a case against us
instead of coming right out and asking a favor
I’ll as we say beat around the bush
bullshit for a bit allow myself
to meander before I let it fly
like a common fool without prompts
I want to call you naif
forgotten son of Cleopatra emissary
from a defunct Double A baseball underworld
where you are of course short-stop woefully inept
against the curveball hence your exile
to a place called Grafton, Massachusetts
for the most potent years of your youth
40 remains even now when ordinary people
at least those with mega health insurance policies
ok not ordinary people real-life superheroes
are living to 150 you are forever dead
at the doorstep of middle-age
I will defend your run-on sentences
your unabashed insouciance
until I come to my own senses
choose to settle into that ratty moth-eaten couch
AMERICAN LITERATURE
toss out the flop-house riffraff
that ragtag middle-infield
consider the advantages of idiosyncratic punctuation
until I can forget myself and this poem-letter
finally ask you whatever form you have taken
what you can teach me
point to something I will notice
small for what it most needs
if I can divine what that might be
find kinship with what I notice
everyday yet don’t behold
cradle gently in its speechlessness
the noise it makes
how it manages to make it daily
despite everything
appease the hounding landlord
feed little ones mind our elders
for example the vigilant robin redbreast
in my crabapple tree
feathers blasted by the seventeen directions
scares off tomcats that are monsters
big yellow eye sizing me up and down
carrying us all along invisibly
or the cashier almost smiling at me
despite my craven gaze
her minimum wage doldrums
who’s keeping an eye on the kids
batting average under .100