of St. Bridget & Other Writings
By Frank O'Hara and Bill Berkson
Hymns of St.
Bridget & Other Writings by Bill Berkson and Frank O'Hara comprises
the full run of poetry and prose the two poets wrote in collaboration between
1960 and 1964. Two-thirds of these have never before appeared in book form.
Berkson's and O'Hara's "hymns," inspired by the crooked steeple
of the Church of St. Bridget on New York's Lower East Side, address themes
of love, protestation, travel and more. (The final two are songs in praise
of the New York School master painters, Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston.)
The other writings include further collaborative poems; a lengthy epistolary
fiction involving two long-lost brothers, Angelicus and Fidelio Fobb; Marcia,
an Unfinished Novel (with Patsy Southgate), a play written on a jetliner
over the Atlantic, and dizzying notes on the New York City Ballet and the
French 'cubist' poet Pierre Reverdy.
'St. Bridget's Neighborhood' come these phenomenal coversations between
two poets dancing with words. Heady and hearty, the poems, poem-plays,
letters, novel fragments look and sound as alive in their twist and turns--which
range from the slyly witty to the positivle flabbergasting--as they were
when first written four decades ago. Harking back to the Futurists' 'parole
in liberatá' and looking forward to postmodernity's tangos performed
by the signifier with the signified, they resist description, explication,
paraphrased in the friendliest possible manner, inviting you to walk right
in and let your hair down, then hit the street again and wonder what happened?
Exhiliration is what happened, and keeps on happening as you find yourself
reading and rereading, because you can't, and don't have to, remember
a thing. 'We discovered many years ago that in french you can say anything.'
And then proceed to do so in L'Anglais Américain--salut, chers
Hymns of St. Bridget & Other Writings:
to St. Bridget's Steeple
It is to you, bending
limp and ridiculous, on Ninth
Street, that I turn, colder than usual after a summer
of lime and smoke. I think you are the first of Ireland's
saints, or the last, it doesn't matter, you are my dream
of an actual winter with your icicle hat and your arms
which somehow seem square like something I couldn't see but
guessed at in the last Reinhardt I looked at. It wasn't
black, it was red, like New York if you're waste and
contained, or maybe maroon, like my heart which I imagine
inside me, although it looks black to you, St. Bridget,
although it is quiet and in need of filling. Please
tell me what it means "to pump," as if I were a well
growing upwards and into a steeple which someone who cares
names my own, for always to face the dullest wind,
and you should know, St. Bridget.
Reverdy is not like
Chopin. He is a long city street with small musical houses on it.
There is a word, rédacteur,
in French, of which I cannot recall the meaning.
Here are two cups,
a Keats, a comb and a brush, four packs of cigarettes, an ashtray labeled
"Chance," two boxes of matches, a rope, Always Love a Stranger,
a wire brush and a carved piece of wood, which I cannot understand. This
is where Reverdy still lives, inexplicable as ever.
What strikes the eye
hurts, what one hears is a lie. What is written struggles through, and
then has struggled through and is white. The snow lasts because of the
sun. Never letters, always messages.
Here we are, getting
ideas like the French, yippee!
We discovered many
years ago that in French you can say anything... Except certain things
which Eliot, Valéry, Claudel, Béranger and others have said.
Reverdy is not a cubist.
Who ever was? One hundred Americans a day are accused of cubism. "The
pubic area of the male is not a thing of beauty." "The public
area of the femal is not a thing of beauty." (These are two American
sayings showing a lack of Reverdy.)
Picasso is fire, Reverdy
is flint. In America flint is used for arrowheads as well as tinderboxes.
Do you like to hunt for what you eat? Are you a cannibal? Is there order
outside of insanity or just a maelstrom of velleities and mistakes?
Je suis las de vivre
dans le pays natal. When you get to the maelstrom let me know. If you
have to pick the ashes off your cigarette, you are born to any given work
of modern art. We no longer know what wires are wrapped around us than
what air we breathe. We no longer care who is next door; we know how they
feel about us. One drinks more than one thinks. There is no sense in coming
home "early." We are already in the maelstrom which is why we
don't "know" it. I want to get up "early."
In America there is
onle one other poet beside Reverdy: William Carlos Williams.
They are both alone.
How do you feel about titles like They Are Both Alone, Wake Up and Die
with Your Eyes Open Don't You?, Chair Vive, Poem?
We have made ourselves
cretins for Reverdy's sake.
We must all pretend
to feel fine or get shot like a horse.
(Written for the French
of John Ashbery, Paris, 1961)
from The Letters of
Angelicus & Fidelio Fobb
Here in the monk-hatch here you have tucked me away I have lots of time
to think, grrrr. What do I think on? Well, I think about you and mamma
and pappa and Enid having fun on the Lido while I swelter in these tacky
drapes. And I look so awful in brown! Even my "guardian angel,"
a rather amusing Corsican who was appointed by Brother Superior, can hardly
bear to look at me before nightfall. I have reason to believe that he
is genuinely fond of me, though. We have some very batty religious discussions
after lights-out, too, since he is a sensualist and I a mystic. And then,
at times, like all things in the Eye of God, our positions are directly
reversed--what a wonder is Creation! He is very strong, too, and always
wins, which makes me feel quite angelic. And I always think of you for
a second when I feel that way. Your name, that is.
Now that I have been no longer "in the world" for three weeks,
I wonder how poor mamma puts up with Enid. I can understand her resignation
to having her around the villa, especially since she stays way up there
in the back wing, but when pappa wouldn't even go to Venice without her
it did seem a bit mean, not that I am judging poor pappa, who doubtless
has his own problems at his age. But I do hope neither you nor I get that
way when we are really grown up. I mean, I agree with Holy Mother Church
that one should be discreet, and not deliberately humiliate those who
love you, unless of course you can't help it, which perhaps pappa can't.
Oh. What is all this Sophie business? I don't remember any Sophie, and
I haven't been here that long. Were you perhaps thinking of that charming
day when we took all the workers in the soap factory to lunch? Talk about
your déjeuner sur l'herbe!!! Oh dear, I'm not supposed to think
about those things while I'm here.
By the way, how long do I have to stay here? You said it would only be
a retreat, but it feels more like incarceration. I think, in all brotherly
affection and love, that you should examine your conscience. Weren't you
just a little bit jealous when pappa gave the whole racing stable to me,
and you had to ask my permission to go riding? Is that why you arranged
all this? The first night here I almost drowned in tears at that thought,
I wept all night wishing I had just given you everything you wanted and
gone away to die in some far off place among the yaks. And then I felt
guilty which is why I haven't mentioned it till now.
They have a very nice pet elephant thethered in the cloister, the gift
of a regenerate sultan, I believe. After morning prayers we go out and
play with him for fifteen minutes each day. The other morning the elephant,
while we were all running about the cloister in a wonderful spring-like
mood, stepped on the robes of one of the brothers pulling them off him
completely! It was so funny, we all just laughed and laughed. But mostly
the elephant just stays quietly in the cloister garden, trampling the
I have been reading a most interesting volume on Romanesque art. Do you
remember our friend John Button saying he'd "had Romanesque up to
here"? I don't feel that way about it at all, at least not in books.
What have you been reading?
As one of the first favors I have ever asked you to do for me in my whole
life, Angelicus, please try to get me out of here before the summer is
PS Please send stamps.
The pittance you gave me was all used upon a present to my "guardian
angel." (I don't mean to sound snappish.)
Secondary Bridge Rd.
August 14, 1961
Upon lighting my first cigarette of this morning, I found that I was excrutiatingly
bored, not to say sick unto death. Even the persimmons which Prussy has
placed and arranged so delicately on my breakfast plate could not assuage
this terrible feeling which must have had something to do with the night
before and the day (or days) ahead.
I know you are always thinking of dying, and I always think it is too
good for me. Disgust is a bigger and better habit than sex. Sex, however,
is not a habit. Memory is an absolute fabrication of little oddities which
somehow will give the future more to write home about. That is: "When
I was six I was bitten by a garter snake. It left no scar but I am sure
the incident has burned itself into my very soul. Perhaps a real scar
will appear tomorrow, but that is unlikely. It is more likely that I will
trip on a fire hosr and get up unhurt with everybody standing around worrying
about me. I have, to this day, no fear of garter snakes, although I am
desperately afraid of water mocassins and rattlers and always expect to
find one in my bed."
When I was twelve I found a baby crying on my doorstep. I went running
up to my room in tears and that was the last I ever heard of him. I know
it was "him" because I looked before I ran--something I had
learned from the nice policeman at the corner--the only thing I ever learned.
That evening I read Captain Courageous and realized for the first time
what a fool I had been. Nothing changed after that and nothing ever will.
I will never learn to dive from heights. I will never learn to climb them
either. If I find myself there, it is of course a different story.
More of this later.