Is “Also a Poet” a biography of Frank O’Hara? Of writer Ada Calhoun’s father, art critic Peter Schjeldahl? Or, as its title page insists, is it Calhoun’s memoir? Whatever it is, it’s dazzling.
The book’s subtitle, “Frank O’Hara, My Father and Me,” hints at its complexity. In the late ’70s, Calhoun’s dad began researching a biography of his (and, eventually, her) favorite poet, O’Hara. Schjeldahl, an acquaintance of O’Hara, interviewed his intimates, preparing for a book that the poet’s sister, Maureen, ultimately nixed.
An early hint at the high-wire act Calhoun pulls off in “Also” comes when she listens to those tapes, hoping to complete her dad’s biography, and hears a familiar voice: her own. Even at age 2, Calhoun occasionally intruded on her dad’s work, eager to be a part of it.
Adult Calhoun pursues the O’Hara biographus interruptus, culminating in a riveting, chapter-long phone call in which Maureen says she distrusts biographers and possibly threatens Calhoun’s life.
Perhaps because of that conversation, Calhoun includes plenty of juicy stuff about O’Hara but the meat of “Also” is her difficult relationship with her father, whose validation she craves and very much does not get. Schjeldahl takes for granted his daughter’s (and wife’s) herculean efforts to keep him comfortable while conferring his affections on a toadying protégé Calhoun shields with a pseudonym.
A generous writer, Calhoun spends much of “Also” giving others the benefit of the doubt. Still, she becomes disillusioned by dude-centric, midcentury Greenwich Village, which wasn’t her hoped-for world “where the witty banter never turned cruel, affairs ended in no hurt feelings, and intoxication left no hangover.”
O’Hara and compadres such as painters Larry Rivers and Willem de Kooning did, in fact, hurt each other in ways Calhoun wishes she could forget.
As “Also” shifts toward memoir, Calhoun asks, “Aren’t all stories ultimately, in one way or another, about the people writing them?” This one sure is. We learn about O’Hara and Schjeldahl but the vividest portrait is of frank, un-self-pitying and effortlessly hilarious Calhoun as she struggles with her dad and with crafting the very book we’re reading.
“If you had paid real attention to me at any point, would I have worked so hard?” she asks him, after a run of particularly atrocious behavior. “Your disinterest has been at once the saddest part of my childhood and the greatest gift.”
Calhoun learns that old saw about forgiveness: that it is a gift not to the person you are forgiving but to yourself. As a result, she’s able to appreciate the good times with her father and learn from the bad times.
It’s tempting to give Schjeldahl the last word on what he calls “the best book I’ve ever read” in Calhoun’s acknowledgments. But I prefer thinking about how I put down “Also a Poet” for a moment, believing I had one chapter to go, only to pick it up and realize I’d reached the end. But it’s not the end of Calhoun and Schjeldahl’s relationship, which the gifted memoirist gives us room to hope has more, brighter chapters to come.