“The Day Lady Died” is one of O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” poems, until the sudden reversal of the last few lines. The poem begins with the O’Hara speaker recording the details of the day. “It is 12:20 in New York a Friday/ three days after Bastille day, yes/ it is 1959. . . .” The casual description is an effective way of establishing the date and time in which a surprising and momentous event will be recognized.
The speaker switches to describing his own activities, which include getting a shoeshine and planning a train itinerary. He eats, and he buys “an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets/ in Ghana are doing these days.” The preparations for the journey continue, as the speaker gets money at the bank and buys gifts for the people he is going to visit. There is a humorous aside about the bank teller, “Miss Stillwagon,” who for once does not look up the poet’s bank balance; the poet also records his agitation about selecting the proper gifts.
Suddenly, in the midst of these mundane activities, the speaker experiences a moment of deep personal significance. The speaker buys a newspaper and sees “her” face on it. The poem’s title, which refers to Holiday by her nickname, indicates who “her” is, although Holiday is not explicitly named in the poem. The news changes the poet’s physical being (“I am sweating a lot by now,” he remarks). He is then taken from the present moment back to a time when he had heard Holiday sing; he remembers “leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT/ while she whispered a song along the keyboard/ to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.”
The poem sets up its literally breathless moment by its cataloging of the trivial activities of the day. At other times, O’Hara seems to be using lists and names for their own sake, but in this poem there is a clear utility to these techniques, as the revelation transforms the ordinary into something memorable. It is interesting to note that the art of Billie Holiday is seen here as turning a public moment into a private one (she “whispers” a song in public), while O’Hara’s art is to make private moments and experiences public.