by Brett Ralph
In the introduction to Last Call: Poems on Alcoholism, Addiction, & Deliverance, Jeffrey Skinner recounts the familiar list of writers whose lives were wrecked by alcoholism, earning it that dubious title, "the writer's disease." But alcoholism and addiction, he suggests, are problems "somewhat like the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one, it seems, does anything." Although Skinner understands the impulse to "reduce a complex issue, which has caused so much heartache, to manageable dimensions," he reminds us that "(t)he world of the addict . . . is one of contradiction and paradox, in recovery as well as in the practicing phase." This sounds very much like the world of the poet, suggesting that we've had it backwards all along—it's not the
Skinner reminds us, though, lest we carry this thinking too far, that "the inclusion of any author in this collection says nothing about his or her status vis-à-vis addiction or alcoholism," only that "the poet has something essential to say on the subject." Skinner and co-editor Sarah Gorham spent years assembling a file of poems confronting this topic, both obliquely and with harrowing straightforwardness. Familiar objects by Raymond Carver and Etheridge Knight glitter differently when placed on the table with lesser-known pieces by Joan Larkin and W. Loran Smith. The playful humor of Thomas Lux is especially welcome, given the somber subject matter, as is Jeffrey McDaniel's reckless verve ("Where is the constellation we gazed at each night / through a bill rolled so tight / the first President lost his breath, as our eyeballs / literally unraveled?"); rare are the moments when the reader gets bogged down by a particular poem's insistently confessional tone. For me, the poems work best, as poems often do, when the material is metaphorically transformed, as in these lines by Cindy Day Roberts:
To make a long story short
the leopard tore us to pieces,
ate us up. But you know that
and about all the regret.
The real story comes after,
the one about the soul.
Anyone can have a leopard.
Last Call is a slim volume which, given its brevity, achieves a remarkable range. Its concision has other advantages: it allows the book to be read in a setting, absorbed, if the reader wishes, at once—giving "manageable dimensions" to that heartbreaking world. By uniting such disparate writers through a common concern, the editors remind us that, different as our lives may be, alcoholism, addiction, and recovery are issues which touch us all. In "The Honor," Denis Johnson's speaker admits, "Soon after this I became / another person, somebody / I would have brushed off if I'd met him that night, / somebody I never imagined." Whether the result of penitence, humility, or sheer creative willpower, these poems should make us grateful that Johnson and his fellow poets found a way to imagine such a person now.
Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997