Marsh Hawk Review is an online poetry journal sponsored by the Marsh Hawk Press collective. Marsh Hawk Review will appear twice a year, under the revolving editorship of collective members. Each issue will offer a selection of poems solicited by the editor, in addition to new work posted by poets in the collective.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Geoffrey Young

Geoffrey Young


One aspect of the word “noun” is that it is one.
One aspect of the word “drunk” is the hangover.
Too much reality is toxic.
Alcoholics are philosophers guided by abstract principles
of which they are largely unaware.
But there is a power greater than the self (tap tap),
but there is a power greater than the drinker (tap tap).
In a welter of romantic associations you simply embraced sauce.
Like how many times did we hear you say, however casually,
that all the great writers were drunks?
What were we supposed to do with that?
No one likes to be looked for up close
by a person who can’t see straight
because smashed for a week.
We are part of that which is larger than us, whatever you
understand it to be.
Especially literacy, certainly writing, even life.

All that irony, self-deprecation, sense of being dead.
We lived inside your fear, inside your private knowledge,
that self-control would not work.
No belief was possible. Only a grim will.
Everything would collapse someday, black out, it always did.
Your relation to the bottle was proof that self-control was
ineffectual and absurd.
Was it something like panic (or defiant glee?) to see the vehicle
you thought you could control running away with you,
unable to brake?
The designation “skid row” for that slippery part of town.
What a poignant Either/Or our household lived those years
caught between drunk or sober.
And when drunk, wanting only to stay so.
Now I understand better.

It was your style of sobriety that drove you to drink.

You tampered with your chemistry, Dexedrine in the morning,
sleeping pills at night, Camels round the clock.
Your kind of “sobriety” was never designed to act self-correctively,
but slowly, over a period of weeks or months, to upset
its own balance, to overshoot the delusional runway.
First sip, worst sip.
Too late then to read the signs.
Unintentional drunkenness is still bombed.
Alcoholism is not located outside the self.
An explorer never knows what he’s exploring until he explores it.
Exactly what is the story, then?
A tendency to verify the hideous by seeking repeated experience
of it is common enough; we feel it’s not the person then, but
the death instinct reaching for the bottle.
Why does one organism in a state of discomfort activate a feed-back
loop which will increase the very behavior which preceded the
discomfort, while another drinker wakes up feeling wretched guilt,
and doesn’t touch a drop for three days?
I don’t feel romantic about this at all.

Or pride that says, I can handle it, a drink’s warmth in the veins,
increased affection for others.
To become part of the human scene again.
The sober alcoholic’s isolation is complex.
He might feel more sane than other people, a condition of alienation
a few drinks does away with.
The heroic battle with the bottle, that fictitious “other,” is always
doomed, always ends up in a “kiss and make friends.”
Personal life is hard.
You are not stupid, just difficult to talk to.
We are not helpless.
You have paid and paid, and made us pay too.
But the universe does not hate you.

Part Two

Every picture tells a lie.
Every lie paints a true picture of the liar.
Man plus environment equals gin.
I entered the house for a closer look at the body.
It is one thing to watch an infant sleeping, the word “pure” writ large.
Not so a man passed out in bed for seven days.
All at once the understanding of what I’m going to have to do
to clean him up--be cop, jailer, con-man, servant, tyrant, nurse,
shrink, mother’s son—hits me like a medicine ball in the chest.
Thinking, the last time I took this flight south she was dying, now he is.
How look at but with horror a face bloated to twice its normal size,
eyes swollen all but closed, a dribble of blood at dry caked lips,

whiskers, snot and

slobber wrecking the pink patina of cheek,
but with waves of nausea, the urine-drenched pyjamas,
the cigarette butt fumes of dead booze, but with compassion
for someone so close to not being.

The poets have told us about hell, some terrible freeze in the nerves,
something to do with living bodies pursued to the edge
of lifelessness.
How walk in then and take over the controls of a ship wandering in circles,
hoping its own motion will create a maelstrom strong enough
to suck it down forever?

The cure begins.
Lift dead weight from floor where it’s fallen and pissed the rug.
Substitute apple juice for beer.
Put asked-for lit cigarette into mouth, then out, over and over.
Cover body and wait.
It happens so often the story gets old fast, no new wrinkles, but a
million requests for beer, just one beer, I’ve got to have one beer.
The answer is no, the answer is always no.
Thence to paregoric, “My stomach, Geoffrey, my stomach. I can’t breathe.”
As his mind clears, withdrawal begins, puking apple juice and Gatorade.
Kitchen pot by the bed, him down on all fours, one stained finger
pushed down throat, gagging at heaven’s door.

Eighteen hours of this shit gets pretty rasty, followed by two puffs
of a Benson & Hedges, and a fall back to the pillow, drooling.
You don’t remember how it got this way.
You don’t know a week has gone by.
You only want sleep, what’s wrong with one beer, how can I get well
if I can’t sleep, you beg, whimper, defeated. Jailed.
Incontinence is largely infantile.
You shit the bed, the floor, your legs.
I put the dirty underwear in the backyard so you can deal with them.
One of these times you’re not going to make it, and living alone
no one will be there to throw water on the burning mattress.
What paregoric I gave you got us through the first day.
And sleeping pills at sunset.
You’re getting old, you don’t put up much of a fight.
Years ago we had to muscle you, strap you to a chair to keep you
from crossing the street for a six-pack.
On the second day I filled the bowl with Maui Wowie and you had a few
tokes, a few hours sleep.
The shakes, locked in your own prison camp of burnt nerve.
Now you walk, haunted, from room to room, unable to sit down
for more than a few seconds.
On one of the tiny paintings I made at the kitchen table, as you badgered me
for pills, I wrote the words “the answer is no.”
Maybe by then you knew you would make it through another couple days
of this forced labor.
Shattered mind, shattered body, horrid guilt.
You wanted to sit near me, like a hurt child needing sympathy.
Yes you can have two Dalmaine at bedtime.
Let’s try some cold consommé now, or yogurt, if you’re ready.

The air of the house cleared.
One more day of this and I can leave, I thought, suddenly drained,
disinterested, like my sister and brothers and like my mother was,
a specialist.
I fried myself a lamb chop then, because that’s what she used to call us.
He looked into my eyes and asked, How can I ever thank you?
I looked into his for a miracle, hoping one possible, and said,
Give us one day at a time
Knowing even the most binding contract on Broadway
Cannot guarantee the star’s performance.
Knowing after thirty-five years of this, how hard it is to change the tune.

(first read at UCSD in 1980)

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