Jack’s Naughty Bits: Frank O’Hara, “Poem”

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Jack's Naughty Bits
In her famous 1970’s poem, “The Moon is Always Female,” Marge Piercy looks up into the night sky, then down into the culture around her, and asks a question I find difficult to answer:

The moon is always female and so
am I although often in this vale
of razorblades I have wished I could
put on and take off my sex like a dress
and why not? Do men always wear their sex

I’m not sure, do we? Often, as a man, I fear that I do, and at those moments the desire comes to me to step out of my skin, to not be myself, to change my gender like just such a suit of clothes, swapping willy-nilly, one day or one hour to the next. I don’t mean such a simple thing as wearing dresses, mind you, but of really knowing, Tiresias-like, what it is to have been both man and woman, to finally see out of the woman’s eyes I spend so much time staring into.


I feel similarly about sexual preference, and books provide the closest translation of the other’s experience that we are likely to find. Reading Genet, I become very close to believing myself to be a gay man in prison, though at those same moments I couldn’t be more aware of just how far I am from such a condition, turning his pages in the freedom of a New York summer. Reading Frank O’Hara also makes it easy to feel gay, to imagine visceral attraction to another man, to blur the well-set lines. After five or ten O’Hara poems, I’ve stopped caring about the plumbing on the bodies described, the length of the hair, the shape of the neck and wrists; I’m feeling; I’m there; I’m Frank O’Hara. Me.


It is not always the purpose of poetry to communicate the self of the poet to the reader, but it was clearly O’Hara’s objective, and he was almost always successful. His poems are pure autobiography, and O’Hara’s was a variegated, full-lived, though short, life (he was killed in an auto accident in 1966 at the age of forty). Of the many O’Hara poems that help me enter his mind and see the man’s body as an object of beauty and desire, the most successful is one of the many he titled simply “Poem.” It is a delicate, lovely, subtle masterpiece, and you feel its full force when, even in these days of depilation, it convinces you of the sexiness of a bifurcating line of hair running down the middle of a man’s body. I may not be able to switch, but I can, with O’Hara’s help, feel.


“Poem” by Frank O’Hara

When I am feeling depressed and anxious sullen
all you have to do is take off your clothes
and all is wiped away revealing life’s tenderness
that we are flesh and breathe and are near us
as you are really as you are I become as I
really am alive and knowing vaguely what is
and what is important to me above the intrusions
of incident and accidental relationships
which have nothing to do with my life

when I am in your presence I feel life is strong
and will defeat all its enemies and all of mine
and all of yours and yours in you and mine in me
sick logic and feeble reasoning are cured
by the perfect symmetry of your arms and legs
spread out making an eternal circle together
creating a golden pillar beside the Atlantic
the faint line of hair dividing your torso
gives my mind rest and emotions their release
into the infinite air where since once we are
together we always will be in this life come what may