Anyone familiar with Lawrence Durrell knows he loved his liquids. He swam frequently at his favorite haunts by the sea and couldn’t resist an evening with friends imbibing wine and other spirits and engaging in sparkling, wide-ranging conversation. Whatever faults Durrell may have had as a lover or parent, he had a gift for friendship, a reminder that drinking together with companions is a fundamentally convivial activity, a species-defining pastime that connects us with other humans.
That social context not surprisingly informs this year’s White Mice Contest, whose theme was “Drink.” Stephen J. Kudless’ first prize-winning poem, “The Color Hazel,” details the devastating consequences of alcoholic consumption outside the amiable community of friends, a social isolation that becomes escapist, abusive, and ultimately self-destroying. Kudless’ poem is told from the point of view of the child who shares the same eyes as his father but sees far more of the fearsome repercussions of his father’s addiction and violence.
John Davis’ “What We Swallowed,” winner of the second prize, captures the intoxication of (male) friends drinking together just after finishing work at the factory. They drive home together still consumed by fatigue but then witness “a sudden full moon” that inhabits them all like “a beautiful woman” with “silver silence.” It becomes a transformative moment for the exhausted workers who, assisted by beer and camaraderie, encounter the transcendent.
Dr. Anthony Hirst’s “Lunch on Poros,” singled out for honorable mention, likewise is situated in a less-than-promising environment, this time a seafront restaurant with “prints of ships [that] have wrinkled in their frames.” “The chicken’s roasted to destruction,” yet “the kindly wine will soften, / for a while, the day’s metallic edge.” Here the transformation is quiet yet palpable, aided by the service of spirits delivered and consumed in a social milieu.
Katharyn Howd Machan’s “Drinking Much Wine from the Glass My Ex-Lover,” another honorable mention winner, takes a more personal approach, linking romance and disruption with the speaker’s teaching of young students. Hers is a poem about love not saved by convivial drinking but illuminated and partially redeemed by insistent questioning. The poet’s enquiries are passed on to her students and readers “like fruit / too ripe to handle.”
These poems remind us how deep, rich, and multi-faceted our drinking culture is. Interestingly, none of the entries this year focused on water, that liquor of life we all must have to survive, whether consumed alone or with others. Alcohol, in all its manifestations, opens doors to the human psyche, the deep desires, secret failures, and self-destructive impulses we all strive to keep at bay. Spirits also open us, at best, to the world of imagination and transformation, where we leave constraints behind and sail toward other shores. Nothing could be more Durrellian. We can be grateful to these poets for reminding us of the luminous landscapes of slaking and thirst.
- The Color Hazel – Stephen J. Kudless
- What We Swallowed – John Davis
- Lunch on Poros – Dr. Anthony Hirst
- Drinking Much Wine from the Glass My Ex-Lover – Katharyn Howd Machan
The Color Hazel
Never-minding anything else.
Of course, there was nothing else, only his reeling up the avenue,
Reeking, full of fury, to home and the abuse he would mete out.
The list of his virtues is short—None.
He fought, stole, cheated, lied, abused, and although it took forever, died.
One said he took a turn for Mary, his “middle girl.”
There is no confirming this though as Mary “can’t recall.”
Mary, beautiful dark-haired Mary,
Her life a catalogue of spinal taps, electro-shocks, restraints,
Escapes, returns, and howls in the night.
Did he put his hand, that ham of a hand, on her?
She “can’t recall,” so there is no use in that.
Once when he was roaring,
Cowering behind my mother, his “oldest child,”
I caught his eyes and he mine. He smiled at me.
Later, when I understood “hazel,”
I learned that those of his were “hazel.”
Mine are hazel.
This list of his virtues is short, yes. None.
Can I construct one?
Was he charitable? No.
Was he courageous? Nah.
Was he trustworthy? A foolish thought.
Was he gentle? Never.
So, like the others, what I say is that
“He had ‘the thirst.'”
He had the thirst and had hazel eyes.
Stephen J. Kudless
Stephen J. Kudless is a poet and playwright whose work has been published widely. Two of his plays, Beds and How Fish Breathe, were staged Off-Off-Broadway, and Killing Time: What We Do was a finalist for the Tennessee Williams prize in 2011. His poetry has been published in journals both small and large. He retired from the English Department at Touro College in 2012 and resides in New York City.
What We Swallowed
a six-pack, held the cold to our heads,
popped open a beer in the parking lot,
eased-down a moment of grace
while traffic rushed by like dark water
under a bridge. Our necks drenched with sweat,
we drank and felt the earth’s river enfold us.
The factory saws and sanders disappeared forever
When forever was breath without a timeclock.
Driving home, we drank the air of AM radio,
our fingers too numb from stacking doors
to change the station. We drank the night landscape
of concrete and cranes, of backfiring semis,
of power line poles and then the sudden
full moon. Our voices quieted like we had been
inhabited by a beautiful woman. We did
nothing bur stare open-mouthed, listen
and drink-in her silver silence.
John Davis is the author of Gigs and The Reservist. His work has appeared recently in DMQ Review, Iron Horse Review, Passager, and Rio Grande Review. He lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington.
Lunch on Poros
makes few concessions to modernity.
A glass-front fridge with meat, and some soft drinks.
A structure of steel I-beams (four by twos)
carrying above a row of wooden tables,
four oak barrels filled with local wine.
The plaster’s painted white; wood paneling
and barrel ends a bleached Hellenic blue.
Lace curtains cover windowless recesses.
Prints of ships have wrinkled in their frames.
The chicken’s roasted to destruction, but
the rest–the fried potatoes, salad, cheese–
perfection; and the kindly wine will soften,
for a while, the day’s metallic edge.
Dr. Anthony Hirst
Dr. Anthony Hirst published God and the Poetic Ego in 2004 and has edited Constantin Cavafy’s Collected Poems and collections of essays on Alexandria, the Ionian Islands, and Byzantine history and has translated modern Greek poetry and prose. He has led both the Byzantine Greek Summer School and the Durrell School of Corfu. Having written poems for over forty years, he is preparing a collected volume. He lives in London.
Drinking Much Wine from the Glass My Ex-Lover
someone else a wrong man
gone now leaving me
alone this cold November night
in a room of books
where words blue together
like flavors in soap
he was a writer
his stories like mirrors
his hair early silver
like a fox
so well I remember
the moment I told him
I thought I was falling in love
blue lake of Chicago
rose edge of horizon
snow bright music beneath our boots
how many grapes does it take
to make a vine too heavy?
he always said to me
you ask such interesting questions
tonight the questions hang
heavy on my heart like fruit
too ripe to handle in the spring
I will travel to another lake
where young poets will ask me
questions do they matter?
all these words liked tangled vines?
Katharyn Howd Machan
Katharyn Howd Machan, Professor of Writing at Ithaca College, has published poems in numerous magazines; in anthologies/textbooks such as The Bedford Introduction to Literature, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013, Early Ripening: American Women’s Poetry Now, Literature, Sound and Sense, Writing Poems; and in 32 collections, most recently H (winner of the 2013 Gribble Press competition) and Wild Grapes: Poems of Fox (Finishing Line Press, 2014). In 2012 she edited Adrienne Rich: A Tribute Anthology (Split Oak Press).