March 3, 2009
I can be almost instantly nostalgic – a good moment can barely pass by without me already missing it, lamenting its loss. Finishing a cup of good coffee can feel like watching your girlfriend get in a car, that slow sinking feeling you get as she turns the corner, points the vehicle west. And so, when I first read Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey I felt at ease, confident, as if a future self had come back to tell me how it is and how things are going to be. I bought Hayden Carruth‘s book because the title suggested a party happening between the almost vibrantly ugly yellow and blue covers. I was 19 years old and drinking still seemed a magical portal to bliss and artistic misery. I’d finished my first year at Syracuse University and had returned to my home in Connecticut having done the things most people do – stayed up late, passed the bottle, ate scrambled eggs and nursed coffee at 3a.m.. It all seemed revolutionary, essential, and tragically bound to end the way High School ended, the way everything must pass.
From Carruth I was expecting some kind of Bukowski, but I found a more subtle poet concerned less with the anecdote and more with the obligation a writer has to make sense of the moment. Carruth’s opening poem “Five-Thirty AM” begins with “Out the eastern window at / five-thirty this morning / are the pear tree, the sycamore, / and the high hill, the crest of it” drawing you into the poet’s life as he tries, meticulously, to evoke and engage the world around him. It did not matter that I’d never seen a pear tree, nor could I identify a sycamore in a line-up. I knew the hill, and I knew the color of dawn-light and I too wanted to know, “What can one do but write this / little poem, finish the wine, take / the sleeping pills, and go to bed?” And there, on the first page, is the recognition of futility – the “little poem” – but there is a beautiful honour in the attempt to get it down. As a writer I felt Carruth giving me permission to pay attention, to stay up late, to finish the bottle and to try to write my corner of the world as tenderly as I could.
I don’t know how I heard that Carruth was reading at a small town near my home in Connecticut. I know I sat next to my high-school friend, Bill Bokus, who with his youth, blonde hair and athletic good looks stuck out in the crowd even more than I did with my thin beard and crooked glasses. At the time, it seemed almost brave for him to be going to see an old man read poems to other old people in a lovely little garden behind the town hall. It was even less his scene than it was mine and I felt responsible for him, for his enjoyment and I worried that this was a dumb or even dull way to spend a summer evening when there were parties somewhere, beer games, stabs to make at lust.
I remember it smelled like the husks of corn in the back garden, and I can almost feel the chill that came as the summer sun set and the sky fell to a cool blue. I don’t know if Bill questioned why he was there, or if the answer was obvious, but I did wonder if I really belonged there – if I was smart enough, knew enough about the mysteries of Poetry, or if I was a poser learning how a new posture. But once Carruth read the title poem I like to think we both understood something of where we were and what was to come.
Scrambled eggs and whiskey
in the false-dawn light. Chicago,
a sweet town, bleak, God knows,
but sweet. Sometimes. And
weren’t we fine tonight?
When Hank set up that limping
treble roll behind me
my horn just growled and I
thought my heart would burst.
And Brad M. pressing with the
soft stick and Joe-Anne
singing low. Here we are now
in the White Tower, leaning
on one another, too tired
to go home. But don’t say a word,
don’t tell a soul, they wouldn’t
understand, they couldn’t, never
in a million years, how fine,
how magnificent we were
in that old club tonight.
I knew Bill and I would drive home. We would drink beers in someone’s basement or garage. The following week we would grill sausage and salmon in Pete Swirsky’s backyard while his parents were away. I would poison myself on White Russians, my mother would need to pick me up for the last time. We would go back to University, we would graduate, drink with other people, move away, one of us would die before the other, there would be new gangs to shout and howl with. We would imitate ourselves for a while, then reinvent, shed our high-school selves like garments we thought out of style; clothes our mother had bought us. Carruth’s reading, for a moment, showed us who we were and who we were going to become and there was such a goodness back then that I don’t think either of us realized we actually had it. And even though – in our own ways – we’ve since said goodbye to all that, Carruth spoke to me and I knew that, somehow, if we paid attention or tried really hard we could get it back. There was a sucking terror as we got closer to becoming adults but Carruth helped me steady that fear and I’ve since read Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey for over a decade as if it were a map. A map of love, a map of living, and someday I expect to read it as a map of dying.
So, I was saddened to learn that Carruth died in September of 2008. As a small memoriam I included a Carruth poem in the bundle I gave people to inspire card-making during a Valentine’s Day workshop. I was gratified when someone chose the poem for their loved one. The poem, “Quality of Wine”, is one of my favourites. Perhaps for those beautiful end-lines, perhaps because I know the streets in Syracuse he speaks of, perhaps because, I too, drink the best (cheapest) I can afford.
Quality of Wine
This wine is really awful
I’ve been drinking for a year now, my
retirement, Rossi Chablis in a jug
from Oneida Liquors; plonk, the best
I can afford, awful. But at least
I can afford it, I don’t need to go out and beg
on the street like the guys
on South Warren in Syracuse, eyes
burning in their sockets like acid.
And my sweetheart rubs my back when I’m
knotted in arthritis and swollen
muscles. The five stages of death
are fear, anger, resentment, renunciation,
and – ? Apparently the book doesn’t say
what the fifth stage is. And neither
does the wine. Is it happiness? That’s
what I think anyway, and I know I’ve been
through fear and anger and resentment and at least
part way through renunciation too, maybe
almost the whole way. A slow procedure,
like calling the Medicare office, on hold
for hours and then the recorded voice says, “Hang up
and dial again.” Yet the days
go by fast enough. They fucking fly like the wind. Oh, Sweetheart, Mrs.
Manitou of the Stockbridge Valley,
my Red Head, my Absecon Lakshmi of the Marshlights,
my beautiful, beautiful Baby Doll,
let the dying be long.
“Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey” is published by Copper Canyon Press.
You should buy the book.