The Intoxication of Poetry

Scorpions On The Face - Again

Two-time Poet Laureate, Howard Nemerov, and celebrated photographer, Diane Arbus, had a great deal in common. This talented brother and sister act shared what I would call an emotionally brittle nature, and a lifelong battle with depression. Arbus, famously, lost that battle at a young age. Her suicide was no desperate plea for help; she intended to go through with it.

It was 1969; I was a 19-year old freshman punk living la vida loca at Haverford College. My father, Ian, was almost at the zenith of his celebrity, turning up with tiresome regularity in every conceivable media outlet, doing his mad-as-a-March hare environmental activist with a thick Scottish brogue shtick. His base of operations was The Department of Landscape Architecture & Regional Planning at The University of Pennsylvania – a department he founded and chaired for decades.

The Professor was completely devoid of parenting skills, but – having written, and published, my first poem at age 6 – even he knew I was an incipient wordflinger. He taught a course entitled Man & Environment. Do not be misled by the apparent hubris of this title; since he did in fact know everything about everything the all-inclusive subject matter posed no problem. Plus, he invited a long string of tweed-jacket wearing, pipe-smoking, degree-wielding intellectual heavy-hitters to help.

In a rare moment of familial camaraderie he called to say Nemerov was giving a guest lecture and if I wanted to meet him I should show up at his office about 11:30.

So here we are, three guys in my father’s office at the U of P. Nemerov is pacing and twitching like a crack addict in a rehab. Finally he says, “Ian, I have got to have a martini.” My dad, enjoying this opportunity to swagger, tells one of his students to go to the bistro across the street, get a pitcher of martinis, and come back. The student points out that this is illegal and impossible for many reasons and my dad starts screaming at him. The terrified student races away – and is back in minutes with a stainless steel pitcher sweating chilly droplets. Nemerov’s eyes twinkle.

So I’m thinking – this is pretty cool – I am going to have a martini with one of the nation’s greatest poets. As this idea is simmering in my mind – Nemerov puts the pitcher to his lips and slowly, easily, drains the entire thing. My father and I look on in wonder, exchanging stunned glances. I will never forget what happened next. Nemerov stopped pacing, talking, twitching, fidgeting, glancing about erratically, and went perfectly calm. I had never seen a veteran, all-in alcoholic in action before; it was hypnotic.

The three of us walked down the corridor and into the lecture hall. Nemerov read his poetry for an hour; he was note-perfect. I doubt there were more than 50 people in the room, and he was a teacher, giving lectures was his bread and butter. It wasn’t about being nervous. Alcoholics get to the point where they need the toxin to be normal.

Death Of 1000 Cuts

How Drunk Do You Havew To Be Cut Your Own Hair

Long ago, I had a hypothetical girlfriend we’ll call Prunella Entwhistle. Indeed, it was so long ago I was not yet sober and still cheerfully diving headfirst into debauchery as one might leap into a swimming pool. This was during that blissfully ignorant period in my life when I believed that, as a result of facing down bipolar disorder and defeating it, I had become bulletproof.

By then I’d recovered from several devastating battles with the terrifying illness referred to at the time as manic depression. I had even written a memoir (Invisible Driving) that chronicled my ordeal. Having walked through fire and survived, I bristled with self-satisfied cockiness and swaggered through life like a cowboy breaking in new jeans.

Prunella and I occupied a modest bungalow where we impersonated adults. I had a mediocre job at an unspeakably dull corporation, and Prunella worked as a sales clerk at the gift shop of a prestigious art museum where she devoted her hours to making personal calls and stealing earrings. We were all about phun, or what we thought of as phun, and hopping the Oblivion Express. Very dry martinis, fine imported wine, and the wackiest tobacco on the planet; this was the formula and it functioned with awe-inspiring inevitability.

“How drunk do you have to be before cutting your own hair starts to seem like a good idea?” Taz Mopula

One Friday evening found us merrily ingesting intoxicants, becoming increasingly boisterous as we did. Prunella and I were sitting in the kitchen after dinner (after all, you need food in your stomach if you want to drink as much and as long as possible). She looked at me and, with that charmingly demented enthusiasm and confidence that were her signature, said, “You need a haircut. I’ll do it.”

Every life has critical moments which, like hinges holding large, creaky doors, mark fundamental endings and beginnings. Should I tell you now that Prunella’s infectious optimism was almost always groundless, and that she instinctively returned to dark alleys and dead end streets with a degree of reliability that might have brought envy to the swallows of Capistrano? Shall I tell you now that it is my nature to trust, even in the complete absence of justification?

Mental illness and intoxicants are like the two bad kids at the back of the classroom. They gravitate towards each other, they are a natural fit, but it is best to separate them. Mental illness alone spells bad decisions, throw in alcohol and you guarantee stupidity.

I knew I was in terrible trouble when Prunella stepped back to admire her handiwork and exploded into hysterical laughter. On Tuesday, I finally got to my barber for damage control. During the intervening eternity I resembled Moe, of the Three Stooges, and felt like him, too.

It Isn’t The Caboose That Kills You

Caboose chessie

Even as a kid I had difficulty managing money. Along with my sketchy friends I’d go to the nearby abandoned coal yard and lay pennies out on the railroad tracks, collecting what remained once the trains were gone. If you’ve ever done this yourself you know that Lincoln is no longer recognizable, what’s left looks like a frozen, wafer-thin copper puddle.

Dancing on and off the tracks, putting our ears against the rails to gauge how far away the trains were; this was all part of the illicit fun. We were young and immortal, mindless to risk.

My parents were immigrants, and loved this country in a way unique to immigrants – awed by the scale and opportunity. They liked to tell me about a trip out west they took as newlyweds. Picnic spread across an Indian blanket, vast expanse of desert splayed out before them, they watched an endless freight train snaking past. For a lark they decided to count the boxcars.

Revealing the number dramatically, as if I hadn’t heard the story a dozen times before, my mother would report, “Two-hundred-and-twenty-eight cars from engines to caboose,” with awe she might have just as easily applied to a description of the Grand Canyon or her first time up The Empire State Building.

The vast wealth and scale of their adopted nation lay in stunning contrast to the post-war Holland my mother had left, and my father’s native Scotland, not especially prosperous even in the best of times.

One of the particularly American habits my parents adopted in their zeal to be real U.S. citizens was drinking martinis. I can see them now, on the patio behind the kitchen, overlooking Fairmount Park, my father pouring from a silver shaker into glasses reserved for these occasions. They each had two, always with a twist of lemon peel.

If they were feeling especially jolly, my father would carefully strain out what was left at the bottom of the shaker, mingled in with the melting ice. This was enough for half a martini each, which my father referred to as – “the Dean’s half” – in honor of Sir Peter Shepherd, acting Dean of my father’s department at U of P.

My family tree is thick with accomplishment on both sides, but I am the very first to achieve the title of “alcoholic”. Dad was mad as a March hare, workaholic, and manic depressive; but no drunk. He understood on a cellular level something I never did, specifically, that martinis are like women’s breasts; one isn’t enough and three are too many.

And so, when I entered the rooms of AA on my hands and knees, utterly defeated, scared beyond all reason, and somebody said, “It isn’t the caboose that kills you man, it’s the locomotive,” I knew exactly what they meant.