One of the nice things about working with the poetry written by friends is that, rather than picking a topic I think is significant, now I’m doing more reacting to what I’m handed. I like that kind of constraint—the difference between preaching a sermon based on whatever verses you think are important, and preaching a sermon based on a fixed text that you now have to reflect on even if you would never have chosen it willingly. I know that analogy won’t work for a lot of people but I couldn’t think of a better one. Anyway, Graham Isaac—whose poetic talent is exceeded only by his talent for friendship—gave me a few options to consider, and one of them is a poem about Prohibition. Given that A) this is the week that a new documentary has come out on the Prohibition era, and B) 1932, the year of my current novel, is the last year before the Constitution is re-amended to end the policy of Prohibition, so the America I’m reaching out to is as “dry” as it was going to be, in some respects, I thought it would be worth considering. So here is a poem by Graham Isaac entitled “Extra Wide Bathtubs”:
At night he dreams of prohibition,
streets clean and whispering after 11pm,
of people leaving theaters in unstained gowns
quietly discussing directorial technique.
Of grocery stores with unlimited supplies of juice
of never finding beer cans on his running trails.
He wants it illegal like prostitution is illegal.
Full-bodied whores in saloon dresses taking
virgins into candle-lit rooms; powerful madams
with curly black hair, lilting accents and huge eyes
charming sheriffs and legislators into
Nobody wants that, his wife tells him, drinking
coffee in a slim red turtleneck. Her brother’s
vineyard does so much business they’re opening
another one. The wine, even he has to admit,
At night he dreams of the vineyard, of tousle-haired
youths in rolled up trousers dancing in huge vats of grapes.
Of muscled young couples swept up in each others arms.
The roads are rich with decaying fruit-rinds,
plastic juice bottles that take forever to break down,
crowds passing on crosswalks to all their places,
he imagines himself and two other men comparing
bootlegged rye, practices his speakeasy knock, a
kerosene-lit room full of scholars and pirates,
a soul-sad but drink-happy piano player rolling
notes off his fingers like it were just that easy.
What strikes me about Graham’s poem most of all is that, in much of it, he captures that strangely ambivalent attitude some people seem to have about illegal and illicit substances: that is, that the romance of it being illegal is so theoretically exciting that they really would like prohibition so they can enjoy it more. And if you think I’m inventing a stance, trust me, I read enough political blogs to have seen a number of people object to the legalization of marijuana (and other substances) not because they wish people wouldn’t use them, but specifically because they think drug culture is more “fun” or “counterculture” or “exclusive” by being marginalized as criminal.
There’s something very sensuous about much of the poem, like the protagonist (the man who wants prohibition) is dealing with some pretty serious repression. Maybe I’m taking this too far, but even his wife’s choice of outfit—a turtleneck—seems to emphasize how much he feels cut off from the sort of hedonist pleasures he’d like to pursue. And yet it’s a very bounded kind of pleasure. He wants drinking (and sex) to be in certain places, expressed in certain ways. He wants both the bonhomie of the speakeasy and to go to public gatherings that aren’t tainted by the painfully common scent of booze on people’s breath.
So what is this—Puritanism? Not really. But hardly an exuberant Epicurean attitude either. Really, the piece feels simply very American to me: in so many ways, we are a people like to criminalize and denigrate the things we enjoy doing. We look down our noses at the kind of behavior we secretly engage in. This runs from pot-smoking DAs to loudly homophobic closeted homosexuals to publicly prudish porn fiends. This is human, sure. But I have a hard time looking out into the world and finding any society that’s been quite as consistent as we have at creating public rules (written and unwritten) that are so at odds with our private desires.
And in case it’s not clear, I’m not arguing in favor of the Bacchanalia. If you know me in real life, I figure that’s not hard to believe. I have my concerns about the “war on drugs”, and my antipathy toward hypocrisy, but it doesn’t mean I think Americans should just all relax and decide we shouldn’t have any public mores. But I think we let most of our feelings and actions go too unexamined. I think we would be a healthier country if we let a little more sunlight into our dark secrets, and if we admitted that we have a little problem in the way we romanticize danger and criminality while officially abhorring them.
This moved a bit further from the text of the poem than I normally do, but I liked that it pushed me there and I hope my thinking out loud (metaphorically speaking) did something to engage you with the poem. I’ll say this—I think it slips at just a couple of moments. I think the next-to-last stanza (and even the one before it) lose the thread for me a bit…I can’t quite tell why we get the images we do, presented as they are, and if there’s something that ties them into the poem’s larger theme it’s just eluding me. And in some ways the very end of the poem is just a little too abrupt for me. I want some distance from the speakeasy at the very end….just a step backwards. But I’m not sure if that feeling is spot on, and I’m hopeful that some of you will comment, either on the topics I raised or on my notes about the poem. And even if not, I hope it’s nice to start your weekend with poetry: it certainly brightens my mood.