Frank O'Hara's: A Step Away From Them

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....

Jeredith Merrin: On "In the Waiting Room"

In the Waiting Room," for example, carries simplicity of language to its extreme in an extremely unnerving situation. Very carefully, in the most prosaic phrases, times and places are labelled: "In Worcester, Massachusetts"; "I said to myself. three days/and you'll be seven years old"; "it was still the fifth/of February, 1918." In one way, the language of this poem seems to suggest that one can make the terrifying and strange normal and orderly by putting ordinary words in ordinary places. In another way, it suggests (by its halting, anxious flatness and its flashes of menacing imagery) that just beneath the individual attempt at rational arrangement or domestication is intractable otherness, ready to erupt like the volcano pictured in the dentist's office copy of the National Geographic. The child in the waiting room appears orphaned (no mother or father enters the picture, only her "foolish aunt"), and this makes her attempt to domesticate the strange particularly poignant--even more so when we remember that Elizabeth Bishop herself was brought up not by her parents but by an assortment of relations. The grave and literate child in this poem, like the oddly whimsical and studiously plainspoken adult in "Crusoe in England," is obviously an autobiographical figure. And "The War" mentioned at the end of "In the Waiting Room" evokes Bishop's embattled poetic stance, just as Crusoe's fashioning of makeshift entertainments and tools suggests her poetic fashioning. [. . .] [T]he almost-seven-year-old Elizabeth in "In the Waiting Room" experiences not a Wordsworthian sense of cosmic embrace, but rather the alternating terrors of a centripetal force that squashes her together with other people (her aunt, whose scream "from inside" seems to be her own, the woman in the National Geographic Magazine with "awful hanging breasts") along with a centrifugal force that threatens to spin her off "into cold, blue-black space." As the emphasized name later in the poem makes clear, the precocious female minor in "In the Waiting Room"--with her sensitivity to language and interest in reading, her acute powers of observation and her anxiety about growing up a woman--is a prefiguration of the adult poet or "minor female Wordsworth." Elizabeth Bishop looks back in this poem (in what will be her final book) on her anxious and overwhelmed child self with still-fresh empathy, but with the assurance and control of the accomplished artist.

From An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Jeredith Merrin.