The poet Frank Lima, who passed away in 2013, was an important yet undersung member of the New York School of poetry’s second generation. Although he was close with Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, David Shapiro, and many other poets of the first and second generation, who enthusiastically endorsed his work, Lima remains in what Guillermo Parra has called a “marginal, semi-invisible position within the New York School.”
Fortunately, the current issue of Poetry magazine includes a feature devoted to Lima’s work. It consists of an excellent and informative introduction by Garrett Caples and a selection of previously unpublished poems, which will presumably be appearing in a new collection, Incidents of Travel in Poetry: Selected Poems, to be published by City Lights Books this winter.
Caples’ introduction lays out the intriguing story of how Lima — who was born in New York to a Mexican father and Puerto Rican mother, endured a rough and difficult childhood, and struggled with drug addiction — came into the orbit of the New York School poets. Lima was especially close to Frank O’Hara, who quickly took the much younger poet under his wing: as Caples notes
“O’Hara offered drinking and companionship, bringing Lima everywhere from the symphony to the Cedar Tavern. O’Hara took an interest in Lima’s personal well-being, allowing him, during a period of relapse and homelessness, to sleep on the couch at the East Ninth Street apartment the older poet shared with Joe LeSueur. O’Hara went as far as organizing an art sale through Tibor de Nagy to raise money for Lima to see a psychotherapist. The two Franks also collaborated on a play, Love on the Hoof, intended for an unrealized Andy Warhol film project called ‘Messy Lives.'”
Despite his close ties to O’Hara and the New York School, Lima resisted identifying himself too closely with the movement, or any other label or identity category: “I do not align my lifestyle or work with the second generation New York School,” he once told Parra. “I do not want to be a ‘Latino’ poet. . . . Art is much bigger than that. My poetry is much bigger than that.”
Nevertheless, Lima’s work and career do intersect with the New York School in fascinating ways. One place where this is especially clear is in a rousing long poem titled “Incidents of Travel in Poetry” that appears in the Poetry feature and will lend its title to the new collection of Lima’s work. The poem is a tribute to Lima’s poetic lineage and an ode of sorts to the New York School of poets.
Bearing the epigraph “Happy Birthday Kenneth Koch / Feb 27,” Lima’s poem seems to deliberately echo the tone, the spirit, and the playful references to literary forbears found in O’Hara’s great poem “Memorial Day 1950.” Much like O’Hara’s poem (which has many lines like “And those of us who thought poetry / was crap were throttled by Auden or Rimbaud”), Lima’s “Incidents of Travel” takes us on a dizzying and surreal tour of literary history: “We were piloted by Auden who became / Unbearably acrimonious when dropped of Senghor into the / steam skies of his beloved West Africa … We are met by Rilke / dressed in his Orpheus uniform wearing white sonnet gloves / that once belonged to a stone angel.”
After nodding to Yeats and Rimbaud, Whitman and Dickinson, Stein and Stevens, Apollinaire and Mayakovsky, Pound and Eliot, the poem finally builds towards figures associated with the Beats and the New York School, poets who were of exceptional importance to Lima’s life and work. First we hang out with Ginsberg: “we went over to Allen’s for some microbiotic poetry. As / usual, Allen was rolling incense and howling at America.” Next we encounter the New York School poet David Shapiro, before turning to Frank O’Hara and his friendship with Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones):
Beauty was Frank O’Hara talking to Second
Avenue with a diamond in his head. We were the personal
details in Frank’s harem of private lives when LeRoi insisted on
becoming black, abandoning us for a noble cause, according to
Frank, who loved Imamu Amiri Baraka. We were the details in
Frank’s poems and living one’s life was a detail in Frank’s life.
Next, it’s Ashbery’s turn:
John Ashbery arrived from Paris on a plane made of expensive
suits, shirts, and ties. Like his poems, he was sparkling and
squeaky clean, dressed in elegant language. He is the
daydream that had become a poet. His subject is to have no
subject. Perhaps a casual reference to someone special. He is
a poet of the less obvious in life: the sestina made of clouds.
Finally we arrive at Kenneth Koch, to whom the entire poem is dedicated:
Kenneth, on the other
hand, has a paper cup full of wonderful poems. He can write a
poem about a cathedral living in a paper cup. Kenneth travels
everywhere with his paper cup. At a certain time of day,
Kenneth finds room in his paper cup for perfect days and
Lima bestows incisive, somehow apt images and epithets for each poet and friend, in a way that recalls O’Hara poems like “Day and Night in 1952” (“Kenneth continually goes away and by this device is able to remain intensely friendly if not actually intimate”) or “Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s” (“I think of … John and the nuptial quality of his verses (he is always marrying the whole world)”). He refers to David Shapiro as “the Djinn of subatomic poetry,” suggests that O’Hara’s famously wide circle of friends become part of his “harem of private lives,” calls Ashbery “the daydream that had become a poet,” and rightly notes that “his subject is to have no / subject,” and praises Koch’s ability to write a “poem about a cathedral living in a paper cup.”
The poem closes with a lovely paean to those moments of perfection Koch’s expansive poems find room for:
Perfect moments when Frank spoke to us.
Perfect moments when Allen spoke to us.
And they sang to us
with human wings
upon which we sleep.
Lima’s homage to his own personal canon ends with an image of inspiration — of being spoken to and borne aloft by the voices of poets who we’ve known and been moved by — that reminds me of the ending to O’Hara’s “Ode to Michael Goldberg (‘s Birth and Other Births)”: “and one alone will speak of being / born in pain / and he will be the wings of an extraordinary liberty.”
You can check out the whole feature on Frank Lima and a number of other previously unpublished poems in the November issue of Poetry here.