A Commentary on Kent Johnson's A Question Mark Above The Sun (Punch Press)
by John Bradley
Kenneth Koch: The mojitos aren’t bad here.
Frank O’Hara: But the sazeracs are heavenly.
KK: So to speak.
FO: Yet to not speak leaves one feeling like a question mark dipped in mustard.
KK: Which reminds me. What do you think of the hubbub over A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “By” Frank O’Hara?
FO: Well, the black cover’s too nondescript, but I must say the quotation marks around “By” are worth the price of the book.
KK: You always were a sentimentalist.
FO: And the word “mystery” adds just the right touch.
KK: Did you see the Sunday Times? Great essay on the discovery of the author of the first mystery, published in 1865.
FO: I always wanted to write a mystery. And now I live in one.
KK: I hear the publisher of A Question Mark had a photo of you on the original cover, but the O’Haraistas threatened legal action.
FO: Oh my. They really do love me, don’t they?
KK: Perhaps a bit too much. All those redacted lines, in the book, from your and my poems. It looks pretty sorry.
FO: But those bold square brackets look so . . . so erotic.
KK: Really? It chills my balls. Looks like the CIA got their hands on the manuscript.
FO: Kenneth, you’re so sensitive.
KK: You have to admire that Ken Johnston.
FO: Isn’t it Kent? Kent Johnson?
KK: Come on. Everybody knows that this Kent Johnson is really Anne Waldman.
FO: Who’s John Ashbery.
KK: Who’s Marie Ponsot.
FO: Conspiring with Gary Snyder.
KK: Who’s really Craig Paulenich.
KK: [Sound of street traffic.] Anywho, Kent Johnson’s got a lot of nerve. I’ll give him that.
FO: Nerve? For saying that there’s something a little fishy about the events surrounding “A True Account . . .”?
KK: Now, Frank.
FO: Now, Kenneth.
KK: We agreed not to talk about this. A signed compact, not to discuss the authorship . . .
FO: Of the greatest poem ever written . . .
KK: Or any of the circumstantial circumstances . . .
FO: Regarding the miraculous discovery . . .
KK: Of said canonical poem.
FO: Look, whoever this Johnsonian fellow is . . .
KK: If he’s a fellow . . .
FO: You have to admit he’s the only one who sniffed the funky odor clinging to the poem.
KK: You just like the way he has me wearing fluffy slippers in that taped essay-interview whatever the hell it is in the back of the book.
FO: He did nail you on that one. Note: I’m now looking down at a pair of fluffy slippers as we speak.
KK: Hey buddy, I’m not even going to mention someone’s purple wig and leopard-skin pill-box hat.
FO: As I see it the real mystery is why no one noticed the question marks floating over “A True Account . . .” before.
KK: Maybe they did but were afraid.
FO: Afraid of what? Offending my ghost?
KK: Yeah, and your estate, and their lawyers.
FO: And your estate, and their lawyers.
KK: And our publishers, and their lawyers.
FO: And the lawyer’s lawyers’ lawyers.
KK: I should have been an attorney in my former life.
FO: And I should have been a Gaulois.
KK: I can’t find them here. I looked at the newsstand to get you a pack, but they never have them.
FO: They always have those clove cigarettes, though. I adore the way they smell.
KK: You would.
FO: They make me feel like I’m in a detective story written by a man with six toes.
KK: Who hasn’t washed them in two and a half weeks.
FO: You’ve got to admit Kent Johnston . . .
KK: Didn't you just say Johnson?
FO: He's a dogged detective, slowly piecing together the clues that can never quite explain the inexplicable.
KK: In other words, he’s a pain in the ass to those who don’t want the sanctified literary world rocked. I hope the legal threats and the nasty comments on the book only increase its sales.
FO: Look at you. The barbarian at the gate. Weren’t you just telling me something about a contract?
KK: Compact. Signed in sazerac and mojito. But don’t you think that Johnston . . .
KK: Or anyone, for that matter, has the right to say—Maybe this or that literary work could have been written by whozit?
FO: Kind of like that poem “Phone to the Poets in Moscow” by one Koichi K. O’Hara?
KK: Ouch. I can’t believe somebody found that. Still, no one can really say who wrote this “Phone” poem.
FO: Just like no one can really say who wrote “A True Account . . . ”?
KK: Ok, ok, let’s just suppose, in a supposing sort of way, that I wrote it, the “Phone” poem. And let’s just suppose it was a tender act of friendship, of homage, and poked a little fun at all of us. But this really has nothing to do with “True Account . . .”
FO: Well, it does show that you felt inclined at times to compose in my name, or in my persona. Not that I’m Koichi K. O’Hara.
KK: Not that anyone is.
FO: And it does raise some fascinating questions about authorship. About influence. About the way a poem is regarded, and how much it depends upon the name tagged on at the end.
KK: “A True Account . . .” would be considered astounding, Frank, no matter who wrote it.
FO: Would it? What if it had been written by, oh, Don Ho.
KK: Hah! He could never have written it.
FO: Or Amy Clydesdale, of Barkwood, Montana. Or Francis Dewdrop, of Isis, Mississippi. You see what I mean? That poem might never have even gotten published. Or if it was, it would be in The Infarcted Fractal Review, and no one would ever see it, except for maybe a few of Dewdrop’s friends and family.
KK: I think you need a refill. [He can be heard saying “Waiter.”] Look, the poem is famous, or infamous, and you’ll forever be the one who gets credit--as it should be. [Someone laughing in the background.] As it should be.
KK: No buts allowed.
FO: But the certain issues remain: 1.) Shouldn’t someone be allowed to propose, just propose, an alternative theory of authorship? Of any literary work? 2.) Shouldn’t the book be allowed to be published? 3.) Why the nasty threats over the book by our beloved estates?
KK: You mean The Furies.
FO: 4.) Why the silence by other writers and publishers when the book was threatened? 5.) Why are there so many dicks in the literary world?
KK: Oh, there are dicks everywhere, my friend. Even here. Why just this afternoon on the bus . . .
FO: And 6.) What happens if someone ever finds evidence suggesting . . .
KK: Now be careful, Frank.
FO: Suggesting that perhaps I am not the author of the poem with the talking sun talking in it?
KK: One of your disciples’ disciples’ disciples would destroy such hypothetical “evidence.”
FO: Or one of your disciples’ disciples’ disciples.
KK: And even if the “evidence” was made known, no one would believe it.
FO: Or want to believe it.
KK: Same difference.
FO: “Go back to sleep now, Frank.”
KK: Hey, that’s my line.
FO: If you say so, Kenneth. As some poet once said: “To be rid of troubles / Of one person by turning into / Someone else.”
KK: [Glasses can be heard—probably their drinks just arrived. Someone mumbles “Thanks.”] Here’s to “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.” May the mystery never be uncovered.
FO: And here’s to Ken, I mean Kent, Johnson and A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “By” Frank O’Hara.
KK: May your photo one day be allowed to beautify the cover.
FO: Right next to yours, my friend, right next to yours.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011