I started reading Frank O’Hara recently. My brother bought a copy of "Meditations in an Emergency" (a purchase inspired by "Mad Men") and when I was home over break, I picked it up and flipped through it. I looked up Frank O’Hara after finishing the book, knowing previously that he’d lived in New York, but not much more. He worked at the Museum of Modern Art and died tragically in a dune buggy accident on Fire Island.
But what struck me most is that O’Hara, a great writer and a great poet, lived in this city where we also live, and worked at a museum where many of us often go, and yet his ghost--along with countless others--proves invisible and insignificant to so many of us. We are surrounded by layers upon layers of the many people who have lived and thrived in New York--as we hope to at Columbia--and we walk all over their footprints and through their shadows without realizing it.
Often I think that we must resign ourselves to realizing that nothing much will remain of us when we move on from this city. I don’t want to sound hackneyed, but for all our talk about living in New York, does anyone really live here? This question of course expands to all places--does anyone really exist anywhere? What is the present other than the constant unfolding of the future as it becomes the past? What is our presence anywhere, then, but already fleeting?
O’ Hara writes in the title poem of "Meditations in an Emergency":
“I’ve got to get out of here. I choose a piece of shawl and my dirtiest suntans. I’ll be back, I'll re-emerge, defeated, from the valley; you don’t want me to go where you go, so I go where you don’t want me to. It’s only afternoon, there’s a lot ahead. There won’t be any mail downstairs. Turning, I spit in the lock and the knob turns.”
The notion that one can wear “suntans” the same as “a piece of shawl” draws attention to our physical ephemerality, that ultimately our bodies are as malleable and disposable as our clothing. That “there won’t be any mail downstairs” serves to highlight the surrealness of our presence in New York--that it’s only by the virtue of there being mail for us that we exist.
It’s both a universal and a particularly New York sentiment that O’Hara expresses here. Everybody fears that they will leave nothing for posterity. Here, where apartments are rented and re-rented, lives are erased in the blink of an eye with new furniture and new paint.
Despite this, I believe that, although we may be blind to the past which envelops us, the past infiltrates and moves us. It may seem impossible to be anywhere, to leave behind any trace of ourselves. But it’s equally impossible not to, and not to come into contact with that which others before us have left behind. Like planting a seed by stepping it into the ground as we walk over it, unaware of what we’re doing, the future grows from what we do today, from what we create--whether it’s a family, art, an organization, or something else. We can forget about people like Frank O’Hara--forget that they’ve been where we are--but that won’t erase their presence. That won’t erase the bits of old paint they’ve left on all our walls.