An Unsettled Flying Sea: Reflection on a Poem by Frank O’Hara

In the late days of Tucson summer on a Sunday afternoon, I found myself overwhelmed by an excess of simultaneity. Calendars for work and school and my personal life needed further adjusting; a cross-town trip to find new eyeglass frames loomed; and I felt eager and anxious to start writing the weekly newsletter for my introductory English course section. I consulted my volume of Frank O’Hara’s poems for advice. Flipping the sturdy hardcover open, “Ode (to Joseph Leseur) on the Arrow that Flieth by Day” appeared.

As you’ll find in his poem, O’Hara’s agile and rapid mind departs from a quotidian Sunday radio broadcast described via an unlikely simile—“like dying after a party”—and arrives at the poem’s earth or sea cleaving conclusion a little over two dozen lines later. In between, we’re treated to an absurdist Mother’s Day greeting for Russia in the second stanza, what feels like an excerpt from an advertisement  (“Win a Dream Trip”) in the fifth stanza, the novelist Andre Gide’s name being dropped, and approval of a visit to listen to Aaron Copland’s Piano Fantasy (1957). I call this O’Hara’s cultured, joyous, caring grind—which isn’t a grind at all; it’s a slender-yet-sumptuous slice of the life of Frank O’Hara. Or in the life of any of us if we had the verbal skill and delighted in vulnerability as he did; I could only be pleased to write a poem or memoir or email that exuded such liveliness.

I considered “Ode (to Joseph Leseur) on the Arrow that Flieth by Day” in terms of departure and arrival, making this choice because the poem resembles a travelogue. O’Hara tells us very briefly what he’s experienced and the individuals he encountered along the way. No one can say how much of the voyage that is the “Ode” occurred in O’Hara’s mind alone, and the poem feels that much more confidential because of that. On reading it, I felt like he’d been kind enough to share some amusing and insightful asides with me, encouraging me to consider my to-do list as something other than a burden. 

Upon further musing, I realize O’Hara’s “Ode” transports me to the barely-breezy summer days when I began writing this reflective post, when there was less to coordinate and complete, if only because the temperature was often above 100 degrees. I picture myself after setting down the hardback volume of poems, feeling encouraged and comfortable with the uncertainties ahead, I walk outside. There, I lounge in the summer air next to the cacti and the cars, just beneath the sun. The four cats I live with are intrigued by me, ridiculous in my pink sandals, bemused by my exposed torso under the cactus sun, my eyeglasses already ready. 

I lounge and consider the heaviness that hangs over “Ode” like the sun hanging over me. That heaviness resides in the poem’s title, which comes from Psalm 91:5, where it is part of a memento mori—a reminder to remember your death. Death, if we can follow with O’Hara—if I can follow his joyous, caring grind so well—is the last thing among those contained by summer days. It can be touched without resistance, with a gentleness like saying “summer” or “our sea” or “hello.”


We would like to thank Nick Mueller for this guest blogger reflection.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s