John Burnside’s “The Day Etta Died” (after Frank O’Hara)

The Guardian‘s weekly “Saturday poem” series posted a piece for today by the Scottish poet John Burnside called “The Day Etta Died,” which is of course a riff on “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara.  Burnside’s poem even begins with the speaker grading a pile of student papers on O’Hara’s poem (an experience I can certainly relate to!) before turning into an elegy about the loss of another great singer, Etta James (who died in 2012):

I was marking a stack of essays
on Frank O’Hara

and each had a Wiki-
paragraph to say

who Genet was, and who
was Billie Holiday

– just as this poem stumbles to its end, predictably
remembering the cold December night

I slow-danced with Annabelle Gray to ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’
at the Catholic Club Xmas Party …

Like O’Hara’s great poem, Burnside’s also ends with an image of breathing:

                           almost swooning from the close

proximity of skin
and muddled breathing.

The poem — an elegy for one masterful African-American woman singer modeled on an unforgettable elegy for another — suggests yet another way in which O’Hara’s work and legacy continue to reverberate.  Here’s the Etta James song the poem refers to:

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