Hazel Smith: On "A Step Away from Them"

. . . they represent a New York which hovers between modernism and postmodernism, a city in flux, constantly inventing and renewing itself, 'throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future' (de Certeau 1984, p. 91). This is epitomised in the rise and fall of buildings. In 'A Step Away From Them' (O'Hara 1979, pp. 257-58), the poet begins his walk alongside a building site. But as the poem draws to a close he passes the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, just down the road from the construction site. This will soon be demolished, erasing both real and imagined histories. It is worth quoting this poem in full:

Here we can see that the poet re-presents and mobilises the city by means of the route he takes through it, and the walk and text are almost synchronous. Roger Gilbert—who classifies the walk poem as a genre—designates it as transcriptive rather than descriptive. He argues that while Coleridge tends to view the landscape as an organic analogue, or more simply as metaphor for some inner condition, the walk poem approaches the external world metonymically rather than metaphorically (Gilbert 1991, pp. 8-9). However, transcription suggests reproduction and does not fully capture the sense of creative renewal which the walk brings in O'Hara's poems. I prefer, therefore, to construct the term performative-inscriptive, using Austin's definition of a performative as an illocutionary act which achieves what it says, while it says it. Seen in this light, the walk poem has a performative, improvised and creative aspect which is closely allied to the poem as generative speech act, to be discussed in detail in Chapter 5. This link between walking and linguistic creativity is also made by de Certeau, who describes walking as 'a space of enunciation' (de Certeau 1984, p. 98). Relevant here is also the notion of topographical writing. This is used by Bolter to describe hypertextual writing, but he also concedes that much pre-hypertextual writing is also similar: 'Whenever we divide our text into unitary topics and organise those units into a connected structure and whenever we conceive of this textual structure spatially as well as verbally, we are writing topographically' (quoted in Snyder 1996, p. 36).

The walk, then, shakes up the static 'map' into what de Certeau calls the 'tour', the dynamic realisation of the map: 'First, down the sidewalk . . . Then onto the/avenue'. For de Certeau, walking mobilises paths in the city which he describes in terms rather like those of the hypertext, 'networks . . . of these moving, intersecting writings' which 'compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator' (de Certeau 1984, p. 93). Walking therefore creates associative links which forge new spaces and relocates mapped space. Yet the paradox is that 'to walk is to lack a place' (de Certeau 1984, p. 103), in other words, walking is associative rather than stabilising.

For to walk from place to place is to subjectively recast the city in ways which both intensify and disrupt it. Roger Gilbert argues that walking and thinking are closely related in the Western tradition, and walking induces certain types of mental process which 'cease to be wholly cognitive' and 'become instead a process of wandering as wayward and impulsive as the walk itself' (Gilbert 1991, p. 11). Gilbert's argument lacks a psychoanalytic dimension, but in fact the walk is propelled by the contrary motions of desire and lack. Steve Pile argues that de Certeau is constantly drawing on Lacanian notions of language and the real, and that the real city is for him lost, hidden, unreadable and therefore unconscious (Pile 1996, p. 226). It is this unconscious life of the city which walking can trigger and which 'carries out a guerrilla warfare with attempts to repress it' (Pile 1996, p. 227). In the poem 'A Step Away From Them' the surfaces of the city—the 'dirty/glistening torsos' of the workers and the skirts 'flipping/above heels'—become aestheticised and eroticised sites of meaning. But they also make the poet question the density and presence of the city as he thinks of his absent, dead friends: 'But is the /earth as full as life was full, of them?'

Furthermore, the 'long poem of walking' (de Certeau 1984, p. 101) carries its own particular brand of personalised politics which mobilises resistant meanings beneath the city's smooth surface. Walking is a way of subverting the city-concept, the all-controlling rationalised city which must 'repress all the physical, mental and political pollutions that would compromise it' (de Certeau 1984, p. 94). The walk poems register, though often indirectly, exclusions from, or alternatives to, the power structures of the city, even though superficially they might seem to acquiesce to them. In 'A Step Away From Them' it is the Puerto Ricans who make the street ‘beautiful and warm'.

from Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara: Difference/Homosexuality/Topography. Liverpool UP, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Hazel Smith.

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Criticism Overview
Title Hazel Smith: On "A Step Away from Them" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Hazel Smith Criticism Target Frank O'Hara
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 May 2016
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara: Difference, Homosexuality, Topography
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