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
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.
(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?