Today is Billie Holiday’s birthday; she would have been 96.

Attached video is an outtake of “The End of a Love Affair” from Lady In Satin LP, which was the last album that was released in her lifetime. In the attached outtake, Billie loses her way and falters, and at around 0:30 mark, tells her pianist Mal Waldron that she doesn’t know the song, to play the accompaniment louder. But the piano doesn’t kick in. She sings without accompaniment, her naked voice starkly on its last stand. Listen for yourself - it’s truly moving.

Frank O’Hara wrote a poem called “The Day Lady Died,” the Lady being, err, Billie Holiday. The poem in its entirety -

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
 I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Lovely. I like the Mal Waldron reference in the final line, goes well with the attached video, no?

But lovelier still is the fact that O’Hara’s poem isn’t an elegy at all. Is not funereal in any sense. Just a day in New York buzzing with noisily charming quotidian details. You wouldn’t even know of Holiday’s death if it weren’t for the understated, low-key beauty of the last stanza. 

As if Billie Holiday’s death in O’Hara’s poem is akin to Icarus’ white leg, drowning in the busy-ness of Bruegel’s canvas teeming with life.

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  8. mtlamoureuse reblogged this from artemisdreaming and added:
    Yes to all of this gorgeousness. The O’Hara poem, the Bruegel reference - I love this farrago of poetic elegance.
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