The structure of this poem may look random, the details--Coca-Cola signs, hours of the day, objects seen in store windows--are seemingly trivial, but in O'Hara's imaginative reconstruction of New York City, everything is there for a purpose. We might note, to begin with, that the speaker's thought processes constantly return to images of life, vitality, animation, motion. From the "hum-colored / cabs" to the skirts "flipping / above heels," everything is in motion. Even the sign above Times Square "blows smoke over my head, and higher / the waterfall pours lightly."
But what particularly delights the poet is the paradox of heat and motion: no matter how hot the New York streets, their life force remains intact:
. . .A Negro stands in a doorway with a toothpick, languorously agitating. A blonde chorus girl clicks: he smiles and rubs his chin....
At this point, "everything suddenly honks," and the moment ("12:40 of / a Thursday") is endowed with radiance.
Just as the Negro's languorous agitation forces the observer to pay special attention, so he finds "great pleasure" in the conjunction of opposites of "neon in daylight" or in the absurd tableau of the lady unseasonably wearing foxes, who "puts her poodle / in a cab." Such unexpected juxtapositions are pleasurable because they allow the poet, who remains essentially "A Step Away from Them," from the blondes, Puerto Ricans, and laborers on the Avenue, to create new patterns in space, new compositions of color, texture, and light.
But the vibrancy of the lunch hour would not seem special if the poet did not remember, near the end of the poem, those of his friends--Bunny, John Latouche, and Jackson Pollock--who can no longer perceive it. The faint undertone of death, captured in the final image of the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, soon to be torn down, qualifies the poet's response and heightens his awareness of being alive. The poem has, in short, been moving all along to the central recognition of the affinity of life and death, to the perception that death is, as it was for Wallace Stevens, the mother of beauty. The poet's knowledge that he is only "A Step Away from Them," from the fate his artist friends have met, makes the final glass of papaya juice and the awareness that his "heart"--a book of Reverdy's poems--is in his pocket especially precious and poignant. Death, in short, is always in the background, but the trick is to keep oneself on top of it, to counter despair by participating as fully as possible in the stream of life.
Of course "A Step Away from Them" would be spoiled if it included any statement as bald, abstract, and pretentious as the one I have just made, and indeed the only place in the poem where O'Hara is perhaps guilty of such a lapse is in the question, "But is the / earth as full as life was full, of them?," a question which did not need to be asked because its answer was already implicit in the poem's network of images....
The first stanza of the poem is given over mostly to the speaker, who is living in a house on "'hardly passionate Marlborough Street,'"
where even the man scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans, has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate, and is a "young Republican."
The situation is reflected in the last stanza, where Lepke is seen "dawdling off to his little segregated cell full / of things forbidden the common man." Like the speaker, Lepke is isolated from other men; and in the fine lines that end the poem, this association is both confirmed and denied. . . .
"Memories of West Street and Lepke" is itself an "agonizing reappraisal," as is the whole of Life Studies; but this more or less explicit contrast serves almost to link the two men rather than to separate them, while the concentration on death and the "air / of lost connections", are remarkably applicable to the poetry of this volume. The same relationship obtains between Lepke and Lowell as does between the "lost connections" and the "sooty clothesline entanglements" that the poet saw from the roof of the West Street Jail. The figure of Lepke is more a mirage than a mirror image - as the "oasis" suggests - and consequently the technique of the poem itself exemplifies the "air / of lost connections." That there is a connection at some level between the poet-speaker and the gangster is intimated by Lowell's recollection of himself in "During Fever" as "part criminal and yet a Phi Bete." That description of himself is relevant to "During Fever" because the poem goes ahead to recall the "rehashing" of his father's character, but both the description and the "rehashing" are also relevantto this poem; if Lepke is a murderer in fact, the poet-speaker is one in intent. This is to put the matter too bluntly, perhaps, but what Lowell seems to suspect in these poems is that any man's murder taints other men.