Wednesday, April 23, 2014

New York Poet Steve Turtell on Frank O'Hara and the Substance of Joy

New York City poet Steve Turtell’s collection Heroes and Householders was published in 2009 by Orchard House Press and reissued in May 2012 in an expanded second edition. His 2001 chapbook Letter to Frank O’Hara was the 2010 winner of the Rebound Chapbook Prize awarded by Seven Kitchens Press. It was reissued with an introduction by Joan Larkin in 2011. He is currently at work on a memoir, Fifty Jobs in Fifty Years, and Peter Hujar: Invisible Master, a study of the life, work and influence of the photographer. You can follow him on Twitter as @rdturtle, friend him on, and read more at
Letter to Frank O'Hara

It had been raining for ten years—

just after our vows too, when the life

of the party shouted “Drop dead.”

What aplomb! All those faithless Springs

suddenly worthless. Years of abandonment

counting for nothing. Oh horrors of

enchantment, beauty of truculence.

You can always depend upon the hostility of lovers

But we, a glamorous, shuddering chorus,

eyes averted, move en pointe past

Double Portrait of Frank O'Hara,
Larry Rivers, 1954/1955 oil on canvas
the confessional’s lurid glow,

that peep-show of self-pity. Really, Mary!

As if our holy yawns don’t prove

we’re simply riddled with purity

and will float softly, silently

as the dreams of the inconsolable rhinoceri,

pitiable as the tears of lost seagulls,

sure as Adam’s apple pie, straight to heaven.

The angels’ impatience says we’ve

all prayed for too little and they

can’t wait to scold us. God’s redecorating.

He wants all his darlings back.

Oh Frank. Have you missed us terribly,

whom you never met? I picture your daily

grand jeté over the sun, knowing the moon

never tires of loving you. I long to change

costumes and visit. Let’s see. Blandishments,

pitchforks, foreskins. Well! But then Edward

told me you had the longest he’d ever seen.

My mother loved me so I got to keep mine,

ensuring that there I would always be a goy.

Just knowing that I’ve kissed lips that once

kissed yours—but enough. Discretion is

the better part of careerism. Now there

is only one poet I love to read while dreaming.

The Substance of Joy
Johannes Vermeer at the National Gallery

A cautious friendliness prevails.
Strangers smile sweetly,
apologize when passing. 
The Girl with a Wineglass 
 c. 1659-1660, Oil on canvas

We all gawk at
“The Girl with the Wineglass.”
A few risk comments.

Her smile, tulip red dress, the blue-gold
“harlequin” tiled floor—get more
and less informed notice.

I look at the cordial glass
—precarious between
finger and thumb, and her grin,

not yet slack. A dandified,
self-styled connoisseur
sweeps by. Dark fedora,

mauve brocaded-satin scarf,
camel-hair coat, cordovan wingtips
—all gorgeous, elegant. His hauteur

alone worth the effort of some
painter or other—Whistler
in a very bad mood? 

The comments die down
around him. Why embarrass
ourselves when all we want

is pleasure, and pictures of it?
After he's gone I say to my neighbor,
“She looks drunk.” He considers,

shrugs before backing out.
A Lady Writing a Letter 
attributed to Vermeer
c. 1665-1666, Oil on canvas

The three-deep crowd surges
ever so politely forward.

It’s difficult to get close
to the paintings; but not
as difficult as painting them

with such unwieldy tools:
soft mounds of oily pigment
spread in blending rivulets;

the oddly shaped knife;
tiny thatches of sable
carefully bound to thin sticks;

the camera obscura Vermeer
peered through at lovely women,
at the ample room with a few props

—the wall map weighted
with iron-blue dowel,
a table, a leaded window

filled with the famous light
he lured onto his canvas.
Centuries later, we too love

what he so clearly saw:
thin red gleams on parted lips,
a liquid, white slice of teeth,

thick rugs bunched like
pantaloons on the waxed table,
the shimmering folds of lemon-

souffle gowns, caressed by
the same sun that shone on you,
now shining on us, on the intricate

smears encrusting the linen
canvas, all that remains of
the substance of your joy.

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