Reading Frank O’Hara in the Hospital
The IV drips its slow news.
So long, lean and turbulent morning!
I wonder if my roomate would swap
Schlegel’s Lucinde for his scrambled eggs?
Each thing bears its gifts,
the power lines’ birds settle and cry out:
“You too could be Premier of France,
if only . . .
if only . . .”
in here are so excitement prone!
But the sun is undefended. Doctor,
I feel like I’m rushing
toward you with an olive branch . . .
With my cheese sandwich and wrist tag,
I could be six years old again—
look out, jungle gym! Now
outside I hear “a bulldozer in heat
stuck in mud.” And the world
narrows to this window above
the hospital gift shop. No, it widens.
Tom Andrews, from The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle (University of Iowa Press, 1994)
In 2011, five years out from my cancer and in what I thought of as deep recovery, Deryn Rees-Jones recommended that I read The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle by Tom Andrews. After confessing I had never heard of him I nevertheless went home and followed through in the usual online places, and spent what I thought was a fortune on the most battered second hand copy of a book I had ever owned. It took weeks to arrive from the States and when it did I could barely remember having ordered it.
Tom Andrews (1961-2001) was an American poet, memoirist and critic. He published only two volumes of poetry in his lifetime, The Brother’s Country, winner of a National Poetry Series Award (1989), and The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle, winner of the 1993 Iowa Poetry Prize, plus a memoir of his experience of Haemophilia, Codeine Diary. His poetry has now been sumptuously collected together in the volume Random Symmetries (Oberlin College Press, 2002), which includes an illuminating foreword by Charles Wright, whose writing classes he attended.
First of all, what a title. I wish, I wish, I wish I had thought of it. The poem goes on to quote first from Lines For The Fortune Cookies (“I think you’re wonderful and so does everyone else.// Just as Jackie Kennedy has a baby boy, so will you—even bigger.// You will meet a tall beautiful blonde stranger, and you will not say hello”), one of the all time great list poems and workshop warm-up just waiting to explode, and Poem (Now the violets are all gone, the rhinoceroses, the cymbals). As a lesson in stealing in plain sight from the actual language, tone and subject matter of someone else, and merging these with one’s own obsessions, it is pretty much perfect. The references to high and low culture and food, and the rapid shifts between these, without explanation; the flight of imagination in awarding hospital lights with personalities; a longing for lost innocence (“I could be six years old again”); and all those exclamation marks! The tropes are all familiar O’Hara. We might even say old hat. But no. Everything turns, of course, on the word ‘hospital’. If I may use the word, it lends the poem a kind of manic and deliberate refusal of the expected. Even the stanzas do not obey the job given to them, running on past their arbitrary-seeming numbers without looking back.
I read The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle cover to cover and back again in the weeks after it arrived. Each time, I marvelled at Andrews’s knowledge of “when to hold back and when to let go”, as his title poem has it, relishing the absolute control with which he crafted, boy did he craft it, his sheer enthusiasm for speed and life and risk and unashamed pondering of the meaning of the universe, often within the same line. I mentioned at the start that by the time I found him I was in “deep” recovery from my cancer. I am now further away from that moment than I was then from the disease. And I know that “deep recovery” is far from the truth. I am only beginning to feel that now, and even then, only fleetingly, on certain days, when the sun is strong and there are and not too many emails to answer. Perhaps Deryn knew that when she told me to get hold of the book. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. “Each thing bears its gifts”, even in hospital, even in the mess after it: I am grateful.
With thanks to Deryn Rees-Jones