Last summer, I convinced my friend Chris that he and I should drive from Brooklyn to East Hampton, Long Island, to place a bundle of asparagus on the grave of a poet he had never heard of. I hoped to be very convincing when explaining that Frank O’Hara was my favorite poet, meant the world to me, and that I needed to make the pilgrimage. Fortunately, Chris is always open to using his Zipcar membership to drive down to the tippy-tip of Long Island for a day of cemetery-going, and on the day we’d planned to take the trip, the sun was shining and it was almost as if the city were throwing us out. Go see Frank! As a bonus: perfect beach weather! I figured I’d use the three-hour drive to persuade Chris to join me in loving Frank O’Hara, the mid-century New York School poet whose curious, conversational style has brought me much joy and has, for better or worse, riddled my own writing with the overuse of exclamation points. For years, I have read from The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara every night before bed, and though I might not remember the title of every poem (indeed, most poems in that particular collection are simply titled “Poem”), since acquiring that book for a queer history course at Wesleyan University in 1996, I’m fairly certain I’ve read every poem at least twice. Frank O’Hara is a constant presence in my daily literary intake, and I love him in the joyful way that only a nerdy word girl can love a dead poet who shows her nightly the possibility of a more loving world.
Before leaving Brooklyn, I bought a bundle of asparagus from a corner grocery near Chris’s apartment in Windsor Terrace.
“Why asparagus?” he asked.
“Asparagus nasturtium chewing gum and ire,” I explained by way of quoting the last line of the poem “Bathroom,” which, legend has it, Frank wrote in a bathroom. “It shows up in his poems.” The asparagus, wrapped neatly in a white plastic bag, sat at my feet for the three hour drive.
In our plush, borrowed Mazda 3, Chris and I cruised out of the city and onto the Long Island Expressway. Near the point where the urban architecture of Queens fades into a view of grass, trees, insurance agencies, and the occasional gas station or Dunkin Donuts, I pointed to the sign for the Fire Island exit. “That’s where Frank died, in 1966. He got run over by a beach buggy.”
Chris blinked. He’d spent plenty a summer day on Fire Island. That, and the horror of death by beach buggy.
Green River Cemetery, where Frank O’Hara is buried, is like a smaller, more avant-garde Pere Lachaise. After Jackson Pollack was buried there, it became a popular resting place for New York artists. Though Frank is known as a poet, he worked for many years at the Museum of Modern Art and many of his close friends were painters. His friends, I assume, were the ones who chose this cemetery, assuring him some interesting neighbors for all eternity.
Although Green River is not a terribly large cemetery (nor is it near a river, green or otherwise), upon driving in, we were daunted by the task of finding Frank’s headstone. We planned to head to the beach in Montauk after the laying of vegetables and the saying of thanks, and didn’t want to spend hours trying to locate his grave.
I swung open the car door and stepped out. I looked down. Flush with the grass, covered by pebbles and plastic hearts and fabric flowers left behind by other fans/mourners, his grave was two steps away from where we’d parked the car.
“Did you know we were coming?” I asked, not expecting a response.
I snapped some pictures, left the asparagus (Chris insisted I stand up the asparagus, like a floral arrangement, rather than leave it lying on its side. It’s good to have along someone with a keen eye for detail), and thanked him for being my favorite poet.
If you decide to make the pilgrimage to Green River Cemetery, to find Frank’s grave: enter through the first driveway and stop your car about ¾ of the way to the end of that little road. He’s on the right side, underneath a tree.