Someone Gives You a Poem

Joseph Campana
January 26, 2012
Comments 1

It’s not like getting a painting.

To be fair, only once has anyone ever given me a painting. Imagine such a gift, especially if the work moves you. I’m imagining something else.

I marvel at the ability to send images by postcard or by attachment, to surf to more works of visual art that seems reasonable. But this kind of gift–the message with the link that says, “You should really look at this”–is not to me the same as someone saying, “You really should read this poem.”

This evening it was someone I love and the poem was Frank O’Hara’s “Cambridge.” It begins with rain, and since Houston was visited by torrential downpour and even a few stray, small tornadoes, I tuned in immediately. Also, I lived in Cambridge once.

It is still raining and the yellow-green cotton fruit

look silly round a window giving out on winter trees

with only three drab leaves left. The hot plate works,

It is the sole heat on earth, and instant coffee.

Three drab leaves about says it all, if Cambridge, MA is what we’re talking about. Much of the year you feel that one small element might really be “the sole heat on earth.”

My memories of Cambridge are tactile, but I also read, this week, Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke With You.” I can’t believe I found footage of him reading it:

Everything is impoverished before the lover, the whole world might as well be empty, but O’Hara takes the time to tell us exactly what can’t hold a candle to the one he wants to have a coke with: Barcelona, Biarritz, Bayone. Even art pales before the beloved we never see. I love, too, that we never quite see anything in a poem so thick with paintings.

First, “the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint / you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them.” O’Hara invokes but does not describe Rembrant’s Polish Rider and Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

Rembrandt's Polish Rider, Frick Collection

Duchamp's Nude Descending

Striking works to say the least. The fascination of the poem is that these hardly matter, and equally seemingly unimportant are Michelangelo, Leonardo, and whole artistic movements: “what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them / when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank.”

Duchamp and Rembrant have astonishing immediacy and yet we never touch them. Ekphrastic poets describe, interpret, and even speak to paintings, but we can never have a coke with a painting or a poem.

If we’re lucky, and the work is good, sometimes it feels like we can.

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