Tuesday, September 12, 2006


The first time I drank gin
I thought it must be hair tonic.
My brother swiped the bottle
from a guy whose father owned
a drug store that sold booze
in those ancient, honorable days
when we acknowledged the stuff
was a drug. Three of us passed
the bottle around, each tasting
with disbelief. People paid
for this? People had to have
it, the way we had to have
the women we never got near.
(Actually they were girls, but
never mind, the important fact
was their impenetrability. )
Leo, the third foolish partner,
suggested my brother should have
swiped Canadian whiskey or brandy,
but Eddie defended his choice
on the grounds of the expressions
"gin house" and "gin lane," both
of which indicated the preeminence
of gin in the world of drinking,
a world we were entering without
understanding how difficult
exit might be. Maybe the bliss
that came with drinking came
only after a certain period
of apprenticeship. Eddie likened
it to the holy man's self-flagellation
to experience the fullness of faith.
(He was very well read for a kid
of fourteen in the public schools. )
So we dug in and passed the bottle
around a second time and then a third,
in the silence each of us expecting
some transformation. "You get used
to it," Leo said. "You don't
like it but you get used to it."
I know now that brain cells
were dying for no earthly purpose,
that three boys were becoming
increasingly despiritualized
even as they took into themselves
these spirits, but I thought then
I was at last sharing the world
with the movie stars, that before
long I would be shaving because
I needed to, that hair would
sprout across the flat prairie
of my chest and plunge even
to my groin, that first girls
and then women would be drawn
to my qualities. Amazingly, later
some of this took place, but
first the bottle had to be
emptied, and then the three boys
had to empty themselves of all
they had so painfully taken in
and by means even more painful
as they bowed by turns over
the eye of the toilet bowl
to discharge their shame. Ahead
lay cigarettes, the futility
of guaranteed programs of
exercise, the elaborate lies
of conquest no one believed,
forms of sexual torture and
rejection undreamed of. Ahead
lay our fifteenth birthdays,
acne, deodorants, crabs, salves,
butch haircuts, draft registration,
the military and political victories
of Dwight Eisenhower, who brought us
Richard Nixon with wife and dog.
Any wonder we tried gin.

Philip Levine

(This post is written by today's guest blogger, Dina Zaman)

After years of Wordsworth being drummed into my head when I was in secondary school, being introduced to Philip Pevine was a breath of fresh air.

I was a student and I had taken up Creative Writing as a minor, to escape from a Business Studies minor. My first class was American Poetry 101, and it was mandatory to take it, in order to graduate.

I was introduced to Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, many more, but when I met Gin, yes, that was the first poem of Levine's I read, I fell in love with poetry. It became a love affair of sorts. I sought his work in the library, and once a Fulbright Scholar read Gin out to me. We were all young, and we all had dreams. We were hopeful.

Gin is a favourite; I read it on and off, and I reflect upon it, like how one sits and thinks about the past. It's an ode to growing up, and the harsh realities of life. The poem reflected my life then as an undergrad, falling in love, wanting to go out and save the world, and that line "Any wonder we tried gin" hit us all in the gut. It was cynical, it was witty, it was us.

Amazingly, my classmates and I were not informed on Levine's achievements. It was much much later that I found out that he had won the Pulitzer, by way of the Fulbright scholar whom I met when I had just started work in Malaysia! We read his poems out in my tiny dusty car, he one poem and I the other. One week later he left for the US and I never heard from him again. But he was one of the few friends I had that loved Levine's works.

I think with poetry, I tend to link a poem to an event in my life. It's like a song, you know?



Blogger dreamer idiot said...

It's nice how Dina personalises this poem. I think that's one of the reasons why people love poetry so much – it speaks to you.

I like Levine employs the irony of the adult self who both detaches and 're-attaches' to his young, brash, adolescent self - the braggadocio and naivety of becoming a 'man'. This dual consciousness lends the conflicted anxiety about facial hair, macho masculinity and girls a kind of poignancy and wryness.

I also really laugh reading the description about girls:

the women we never got near.
(Actually they were girls, but
never mind, the important fact
was their impenetrability.)

12:11 AM, September 14, 2006  
Anonymous lil ms d said...


can we do a reading of our favourite poets one day? (big grin)

maybe over a picnic?

1:15 PM, September 15, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Yeah, why not? picnic would be lovely. lil ms d, you could contact Sharon, and perhaps see if something can be organised. Cheers.

4:49 PM, September 15, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

DI, r u coming over this time, again, for this picnic-reading?

10:23 AM, September 16, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Leon, sorry to disappoint you again. I'll not be in KL any time soon (yet), so you guys should really go ahead with me, otherwise nothing will materialise. Just remember to take some pictures of yourselves for me. :)

1:09 PM, September 16, 2006  
Anonymous lil ms d said...

eh puasa around the corner la. unless we do a picnic after buka, and that'll be at night!

7:48 AM, September 18, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

a better way ms d is to go over to terengganu and kidnap him. (not a joke, DI. be afraid. be very afraid.)

a picnic? yes.

a reading? yes.

a t-shirt? yes.

a cult? why not?

but something real and important i am keeping up my sleeve until DI hits town.

meanwhile, dina, i love this poem and thank you for introuducing me to another poet i hadn't heard of. i love it's accessiblity and because it describes the rites of passage that (i guess) evey guy goes through (and so do we in our own version).

5:19 PM, September 18, 2006  
Blogger palingallout said...

it's good for me to know ypur blogspot. i really like your post. will find time to read all your post. Anyway Gin is a good poem.

Thanks for enlighting me!

12:03 PM, September 19, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

I can relate to this :-) For me it was a case of equating pirating with rum, though pretty much dealing with the same questions -- gin does indeed taste like hair tonic. I still don't know what Gin Rummy has to do with anything though!

5:25 AM, September 21, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

I second the motion to kidnap DI.

5:26 AM, September 21, 2006  
Anonymous lil ms d said...

we can have our retreat in pura :)

9:14 AM, September 22, 2006  

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