Hymns of St. Bridget by Frank O'Hara and Bill Berkson (Adventures in Poetry, 1974). Stapled with a cover by Larry Rivers, the book is 20 pages long and includes 9 poems written together by O'Hara and Berkson, as the back matter says, “between 1960 and 1962, mostly in New York. Some of them appeared in Evergreen Review and Chicago.” Every poem’s title has something to do with Saint Bridget, like “St. Bridget’s Hymn to William de Kooning” and “In the Summer House (With St. Bridget).” The idea for the collaboration started when Berkson and O'Hara were walking down First Avenue and noticed the bent steeple of St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church. Berkson then wrote a poem in imitation of O'Hara about the steeple, “Hymn to St. Bridget’s Steeple,” which became the first poem in the book. Berkson showed the poem to O'Hara, who responded by suggesting they write a series of St. Bridget poems together. The “limp and ridiculous” steeple, as Berkson describes it, also appears in O'Hara’s well-known poem “Steps,” written on October 18, 1960, the same time he was writing these poems with Berkson: “How funny you are today New York / like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime / and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left.”
Wikipedia tells me a lot of good things about Saint Bridget, including that “as a child, she once gave away her mother’s entire store of butter. The butter was then replenished in answer to Brigit’s prayers,” but most importantly for Berkson and O'Hara, Saint Bridget/Brigit was “a woman of poetry, and poets worshipped her, for her sway was very great and very noble.” (This is a terrific use of “sway.”) Also, Bríg, the Celtic version of Bridget, invented keening, a combination weeping and singing, hence the “hymns.”
These poems map out the physical, emotional, and social space of Manhattan for the two poets, as Berkson signals in the first lines by locating St. Bridget’s on “ninth street,” but then quickly turning to “it doesn’t matter, you are my dream / of an actual winter.” The second poem, “St. Bridget’s Neighborhood,” is maybe the best poem in the book, and is written in couplets with small caesuras separating phrases. Instead of describing the poem I’ll just quote two amazing passages. First these lines from about halfway through the poem: “I have a headache / I want to have heartache (to begin:) // My heart is corresponding oddly and with odd things and I / sometimes wonder if the future holds nothing // but the Surgical-Dental Supply Co. and Disney / the light is getting dim and a softness is settling // over the aluminum appliances and the fire escapes / and a fresh green paint over my royal flush heart.” And these lines, which end the poem: “I rather like these minor attentions when I / am not alone and it is nice for me when you are not alone // An orchestra is never alone St. Bridget is never alone / although she must feel lonely when we ask her such questions // Is the nest an animal too?”
I was also super stoked that yogurt shows up here, in “Song Heard Around St. Bridget’s,” because O'Hara has some great poems with yogurt in them and it’s important to keep track of those. “When you’re in love the whole world’s Polish / and your heart’s in a gold stripped frame / you only eat cabbage and yogurt / and when you sign you don’t sign your own name.” Yogurt actually comes up again in this poem but I’m not going to overdo it and quote more yogurt lines.
Here are more great lines from other poems: “no more fuzzy fatigue / though we’re still asleep / walking through the gardens of Sceaux / to the frozen dahlia exhibit / lying there like income tax forms” (from “St. Bridget in the Metro”)
“you are attractive and poor you are a horse” (from “St. Bridget’s Efficacy”)
“you are not unlike a blue and pink and bong / de Kooning” and “bravo bravo bravo bravo as usual / because I was not logical I was crying and I flushed / the tears down the drain back to the salt like on / the wharf the pier the pier-ess Two becomes one often / enough to keep the floodgates closed against art / or any abstraction which might make us one / instead of two singular steeples necessarily / together” (from “St. Bridget’s Hymn to William de Kooning”) Obviously here Berkson and O'Hara are describing the act of collaborating that incorporates gender in a really amazing way.
The last poem in the book, “St. Bridget’s Hymn to Philip Guston,” has an epigraph from Gertrude Stein, “Why do you beat Sunday” (can’t find what book it’s from) and is pretty long, 6 pages, and plays with separated columns of lines that can’t be read be horizontally, so it’s like the two columns have to be read by two voices simultaneously a la Ashbery’s “Litany.” The de Kooning and Guston poems are both longer and look, on the page, like O'Hara’s poems from the time with the long lines and spacing of poems like “Ave Maria” and “Having a Coke with You.” The word “eagle-nutted” also appears in this poem.
“Us Looking Up to St. Bridget” includes the lines “St. Bridget may not protect you but she / does keep you alive if that’s your idea of a good time.” This line stayed with Berkson for a long time, maybe in a way tied to O'Hara’s death, and later became the title of the collaborative correspondence book assembled between him and Bernadette Mayer, What’s Your Idea of a Good Time? In a letter to Bernadette in response to the question “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Bill writes, “I was incredibly mean to Frank O'Hara one time: I shouted at him for liking the sound of his own voice too much. I think now it was out of envy. It’s one of the few things, maybe the only one, I feel a physical hellfire damnation about, partly because he was so vulnerable to the attack, he didn’t retaliate.” Like so many of the other New York school collabs, Hymns of St. Bridget is an incredible record of a friendship of thinking and loving together, a difficult, expansive necessity.
“I am the cushion of your soul your ambition your beauty
and I am glad and that is my hymnal next to the Bowery
that is my bower next to your beautiful Self that’s IT”