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American Literature 75.4 (2003) 877-879

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Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara: Difference/Homosexuality/Topography. By Hazel Smith. Liverpool, Eng.: Liverpool Univ. Press. 2000. ix, 230 pp. Cloth, $51.95; paper, $22.95.
The Woman in the Red Dress: Gender, Space, and Reading. By Minrose C. Gwin. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press. 2002. viii, 219 pp. $34.95.

Hazel Smith's intent, and her achievement, is to thoroughly theorize the familiar critical subjects that engage readers of Frank O'Hara's poetry: the extent to which the poetry is autobiographical; New York City as theme, inspiration, and method; poetry as talk (O'Hara's famous "personism"); camp or gay sensibility in the poetry; O'Hara's position as "poet among painters"; his apparent apoliticism; and his debts to surrealism, symbolism, and imagism. Smith creates a rigorous yet respectful metacritical weave of scholarly contributors—Marjorie Perloff, Alan Feldman, and Geoff Ward (among many others)—and consults an impressive range of poststructuralist work in history, sociology, geography, psychology, art, and linguistic and literary theory. The umbrella term that Smith invents for O'Hara's lively, unsettling, improvisatory work is "hyperscape," because it is "characterized by difference"—it "breaks down unified concepts of text, city, subject and art, and remoulds them into new textual, subjective and political spaces." The term hyperscape also allows Smith to break down tendencies in critical discourse toward linearity and polarity, so fatal when attempting to follow O'Hara's shape-shifting and his sheer openness to surprise, beauty, otherness. The poetry is well served by Smith's dislike of either-or critical distinctions. She likes a continuum rather than a point; she wants to "map-en-route, rather than survey-in-advance"; she follows associative links; she circles back to revisit a poem already analyzed, never finding a final critical word. She revels in the fact that the poems "have a happy and unassailable resistance to solution." In other words, she creates a critical hyperscape to describe the poetic hyperscape she finds in the poetry.

Smith consequently invents and borrows critical neologisms ("hypergrace," "personalized hyperpolitics," "surbols," "artistic cross-dressing," "morphing sexuality"), which by their very currency prove that O'Hara's is poetry for our own time, as well as for his own midcentury moment, and that he anticipated expansions of space, time, and text that are now part of the multiplicity and mutability of contemporary life. Thus, although O'Hara's poetry is eclectic, electric, and secular, it also evinces unmistakable grace, what O'Hara called "assuming responsibility for being, however accidentally, alive here and now," and what Smith defines as a fearless way of negotiating the world: "poise amidst emotional complexity." Her term "hypergrace," with its deft melding of the cutting edge with the ancient, disallows the more usual mutual exclusion of the two. In O'Hara's work, real life and text life are in an "intertwingled" relationship of "complementary antagonism," Smith asserts, as are abstract expressionism and pop art, symbolism and imagism, metaphor [End Page 877] and metonym, time and space, parody and homage, literature and gossip, city and self, community and idiosyncrasy, politics and privacy, uptown and downtown, insider and outcast, surface and depth, serious and trivial, composition and improvisation, friendship and sexuality.

O'Hara's "scapes," although sometimes fraught or melancholic, are essentially tropes for possibility, transformation, and celebration. Smith is but one of many readers who have noticed that O'Hara's poems aestheticize and eroticize the city, that his is a literature of affinity between self and place. Minrose Gwin, on the other hand, in The Woman in the Red Dress: Gender, Space, and Reading, traverses fictional texts that "all in one way or another enact women's many and varied experiences of enclosure, confinement, and restraint," and often, one must add, their experiences of violence and sexual assault inside those spaces, where their personal agency is often severely limited and escape, perhaps even survival, uncertain. That this is fearsome territory Gwin never forgets...


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pp. 877-879
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