IN SEPTEMBER 1966, a reading took place at New York University’s Loeb Center, near Washington Square. Less than two months had passed since Frank O’Hara’s death on Fire Island, and the event took on the flavor of a memorial for the recently departed poet. In his memoir, the poet’s longtime roommate Joe LeSueur recalled listening in shock as Kenneth Koch read a remarkable poem of O’Hara’s, which, until that moment, it seemed no one had ever heard. “We were not only moved by the poem,” LeSueur wrote, “but mystified as well.
Every Diwali, I explain to my friends at school why I am so tired—garba it’s like dancing—pujas? I guess like praying— I explain in fragments because even we don’t know why we wash statues with milk, why worshipping God takes so many coats. I don’t ask, just sit beside my mother when she sings. My sister and I watch our father struggle to cross his legs; his laughter resting on his lifted knees. He closes his eyes, pretending to pray. We believe my mother made this temple herself, found pictures and tiny murtis, gold coins with Shiva, rice and turmeric stored in tiny steel jars.
On long foot patrols we wanted the chickens, roasted and bronzed, hanging from the steel roofs of vendor stands, the Iraqi sun burning like a heat lamp. We had seen months of Cobra cooking: teriyaki chicken the color of transmission fluid; mixed vegetables that broke like Styrofoam in the mouth; the mush of grits always cold.
You get used to it, she said, meaning the delicate mechanism of the diamond drop passed on from her mother. She was fastening the clasp around my neck, meaning preparing me for the fumbling that inheritance presents, meaning death. You get used to it, she said, meaning being inserted into the dark and learning to call it something else—the way of all flesh, for instance.
We played in the shadow Of murderers’ at work, Kneading soldiers out of mud, Stepping on them When we were done playing. Girls walking the streets Gave us bread to eat. An old dog with a limp Kept us warm at night As we huddled in doorways. My friends, my playmates, We never saw the dead, Only the birds scatter After we heard the gunshots And ducked our heads. This poem appeared in the September 13, 2012 issue of the magazine.
Little brook, running past my house, I like the tune you hum to yourself When night comes, And only the two of us are awake. You keep me company So I don't fear The darkness round my bed And the thoughts in my head Flying crookedly like bats Between the old church and the graveyard. This poem appeared in the September 13, 2012 issue of the magazine.
All we got, mister, Is an empty bowl and a spoon For you to slurp Great mouthfuls of nothing, And make it sound like A thick, dark soup you’re eating, Steaming hot Out of the empty bowl. This poem appeared in the September 13, 2012 issue of the magazine.