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- Published on Amazon.com
I've got so many opinions about BEAUTIFUL ENEMIES that I will be misquoting its author for years, arguing about its contentions, red-faced, drunken, at parties and conferences, watching with immense satisfaction as its truths eventually percolate through the strong soil of O'Hara criticism. Andrew Epstein, himself an accomplished poet, wades into deep waters with his study of the friendships between O'Hara and Ashbery and between Baraka and O'Hara. I was enthralled throughout the entire book and think you might be too. Even the notes are beautifully written, compact, thorough, yet with Epsteinian touches of wit and esprit.
A contrarian, even controversialist bent animates Epstein here, and if you come away from BEAUTIFUL ENEMIES feeling your head is about to explode, don't say I didn't warn you. Seems that everything (well, all the obvious things) that we had ever been taught about the three poets were wrong, even the most basic of our assumptions. You thought Frank O'Hara the apostle of friendship and community? Wrong. Through a clever and conscientious use of letters, diaries, contemporary news items, interview material, and most of all through recourse to the poems themselves (including some "new" material that, for the most part, is wholly surprising and convincing), Epstein is able to shove O'Hara more towards the Jack Spicer school of contentious grump whose ideas of friendship included competition, division, testing, and a free floating anxiety that manifests itself in unusual verbal tactics. "I hope," he writes, "to provide a corrective here to the usual sense that Frank O'Hara is a poet of `sociability' whose work simply `celebrates' his friends and his coterie.' It's not just rhetoric, there's a genuinely original vision of O'Hara here that complicates the work immeasurably and makes him not so annoying--not that I ever really found him annoying, but thinking about the old, "received" version of O'Hara, the sunny Tom Hanks of poetry who's everybody's favorite pet, just makes my blood run cold. I like the new guy, and he's sexier to boot!
If you thought Ashbery cold or silent about the human condition, a la Mark Halliday, surprise, for Epstein reads Ashbery (particularly in THE DOUBLE DREAM OF SPRING, the book he wrote after O'Hara's death) as a poet very much concerned with personal relationships, particularly friendship and its ups and downs. The material here is thinner on the ground, but I suppose it's possible, and Epstein has won so much goodwill from his previous reading I could forgive him nearly anything. Plus he has unearthed a beautiful, witty, tender, collaborative poem written in alternate couplets by FO'H and JA that illustrates perfectly--as though fabricated for the occasion--how friendship is always a bag mixed to brimming with competition, adoration, a Wayne Koestenbaum sort of erotics, and a perfect period panache. (Maybe this balances out another undocumented poem by O'Hara that Epstein found in Kenneth Koch's papers, "Finding Leroi a Lawyer," which some may champion but others will find the singlemost dumbest poem O'Hara ever put to paper.)
If you thought, following all previous Baraka scholars, that Baraka's "Beat" period was but a inconsequential and negligible phase of what Epstein calls a "conversion narrative," then you are missing out on some intensely great work; Epstein reverses conventional thinking here, or comes close to it, by plumping for the early work (written before Malcolm's assassination in February 1965) as far superior to the later Black Arts poetry and, perhaps, as politically committed. In each case, Epstein just patiently plays his cards until what seemed shocking or just startling for its own sake, when one began reading the chapter, seems by the end of it a perfectly reasoned, exquisitely marshaled argument. Were O'Hara and Baraka romantically involved, perhaps sexually involved? Here Epstein wades right in where angels fear to tread, following the leads provided in Brad Gooch's criminally underrated biography of O'Hara, CITY POET. It does seem as though the older, white, homosexual man, sometimes generous, sometimes threatening, always alluring, who pops up through much of Baraka's early prose, poetry and drama must have worn O'Hara's face at least occasionally. Baraka's supposed to appear at City Lights on Monday, I'll have to go and ask him what he thinks of BEAUTIFUL ENEMIES and his new avatar as sort of the Billy Strayhorn of the New American Poetry.
All in all, a groundbreaking and even better, a gorgeously written and thought out book. Hooray for Andrew Epstein! Some caveats, I don't 100% buy this new John Ashbery, our greatest poet of love and friendship. No way. Well, maybe a little way. And also I OD'd a bit on how without Emersonian pragmatism nothing important would ever have been thought, written or said. And I grimace when I see Epstein replaying Michael Davidson's effective, yet rhetorical vision of the Spicer circle as a hellish hotbed of gay homophobia and "exclusion," in order for him, Epstein, to say, "but our fellows didn't go that far." So there was no exclusion in the New York circles of O'Hara and Ashbery? Uh-hunh, and I'm Tallulah Bankhead.