Reading in the Dark
Rafael Campo on Frank O’Hara’s “Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]”
Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up
Frank O'Hara, “Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]” from Lunch Poems. Copyright © 1964 by Frank O'Hara. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.
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Whenever I return to this beloved poem, as I have frequently during these fevered days, or teach it to medical students, I’m always struck by its immediacy, how insistently it locates us in the troubled physical body. As if the first exclamation point end-stopping that, well, heart-stopping first line in an almost entirely otherwise unpunctuated poem weren’t enough to make this experience of language visceral, all the huffing and puffing of the alliterative fourth and fifth lines makes us feel utterly breathless. And yet somehow more alive, as we keep on going, “trotting along,” barely pausing line after headily enjambed line. The poet thus invites us all into the vulnerability and persistence of our own bodies, that familiar feeling that all of us, even Lana Turner, are always a few steps away from collapse. The poem is all the more compelling in our post-truth, social media driven moment, when the fact of a headline can so easily diverge from the truth of human experience, even what we experience in our pounding hearts and dyspnea. The poem attempts to affirm the fact of Lana Turner’s mortality, by repeating the headline (with its exclamation point, again!) in all caps mid-poem, at once insisting on the documentary and yet sensationalizing its affectively tragic dimension. Fact versus truth is blurred here: we don’t even know what happened to Lana Turner (I can hear my medical students start arguing now about what the diagnosis might be, as if our scientific impulse to name it might help contain it), yet we sense it may be time to panic.
The poem then brilliantly slows itself down, in effect taking a deep breath in switching its diction to the passive voice: there’s something peaceful, comforting, even idyllic in “there is no snow in Hollywood / there is no rain in California.” The poem carries us further away from the anxious uncertainty of what has befallen a celebrity toward a more empathetic embrace of our shared humanity as the speaker sees himself in what has happened to her. Even the slight air of disapproval in comparing his party-going behavior to hers evokes not disdain so much as compassion, and humanizes them both. We all want to think we’re immortal, we’re immune; it’s in the realization that we’re not, not even the iconic Lana Turner, that we can finally be true to ourselves, and plainly see our connections to each other. In our gaiety at a party, we can transcend our bodily constraints; in recognizing each other even on Instagram or Facebook, we can grasp deeper truths that are more than mere data; in our encounter with a stirring poem, we can be healed. Whether we hear a prayer of hope in the poem’s stunning last line, or a desperate plea that we endure, or even an arch impatience in our silly imperfections, in the end we can confess our inexplicable, undiagnosable, love—and, more than by any medicine I can prescribe, be saved by it.
Rafael Campo teaches and practices medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Author of eight highly acclaimed books, he is the recipient of many honors and awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship. His new and selected volume of poetry Comfort Measures Only is available from Duke University Press.