Prayer for Sobriety Poems
The Ant Lion
I bake in a crater,
a sandy amphitheater
whose pitch steepens
as my thirst worsens
and the pit deepens.
When ants and beetles
tumble down my funnel,
I drain them like bottles
whose liquor only quickens
my larval urge to fly,
copulate and die.
The Cook Fire
There is this demon in my lower brain.
Call him the Devil. Call him Charlie Russell.
He guzzles alcohol to dull his pain
and rustles calves beside the Little Mussel.
Why is he pained? Perhaps because the sky
is scared to call the badland its horizon.
Perhaps because a pony on the fly
shies from the shorthorns of a painted bison.
One of the Russells hanging in my head
captures the struggles of a grizzly bear,
twice-roped, spread-eagled, kicking apart a bed
of coals and ashes in his huge despair.
What overcomes insensate fear of fire?
Abandon, or invincible desire?
for Dr. Richard Kolotkin
Raped at an early age
by older altar boy.
“Damned by the Church to Hell,
never to sire a son,
perhaps man’s greatest joy,”
said father in a rage.
Patient was twenty-one.
Handled it pretty well.
Curiously, have learned
patient was Eagle Scout.
Outraged that Scouts have spurned
each camper who is “out.”
Questioned if taunts endured
are buried? “No, immured.”
Allured by verse and drink
when he was just sixteen,
turned to drugs at Yale.
Patient began to think
people would see a “queen” —
scrawny, friendless, frail—
a “queer” condemned to fail.
Into a straight town
he brought a sober lover.
“Worked smarter, drank harder
to stock an empty larder.”
Wrote poetry, the cover
for grief he cannot drown.
Uneasy with late father,
feared for by his mother,
lover, and younger brother.
but no profound psychosis.
Prayer for the Bushmills
Murphy carries a pint uncracked
and hidden at his hip.
He trips in the lane. His backside smacked,
he contemplates his slip.
“Mither o’ God, ’tis been some time
since Ireland had a quake.”
He quavers with impromptu rhyme,
“Mark how the streetlamps shake!”
As though he shoulders a brewery keg
he staggers up from the mud,
but something wet runs down his leg.
“Dear God, let it be blood!”
From Charlee’s polished table
gaze multitudes of faces
her memory retraces,
the drunken and unstable
Dylan Thomas sobbing
before his last disaster,
daunted by every Master
he was reduced to robbing.
There’s liquor in the kitchen
untouched since John Ciardi,
brooding on Yeats and Hardy,
perfected his perdition.
Now Edna Ward’s daughter,
fretting that I’ve grown thinner,
lays out a lavish dinner.
Tonight I’m drinking water.
“How Shall I Drink?”
When you are sick and drunk,
the ones to whom you lie
are those who love you most,
the ones whose hopes are sunk
by all that you deny,
those who embrace a ghost
“nothing can satisfy.”
Lightning struck a Jim Beam warehouse.
Burning bourbon sluicing seaward,
eighteen thousand bursting barrels,
seven hundred thousand gallons!
flambéed every bass and bullhead
spawned for miles downstream from Bardstown.
Kentucky grieves, not for its fishes.
For want of oil a moaning
comes from the weathervane —
spindle and socket groaning
as north winds blow again
and send the real geese flying
to Texas or Mexico.
Our brass goose is dying
to join them, but cannot go.
Here firewood is essential
for keeping folks alive.
Where windchill’s exponential
only the snowmen thrive.
Someday we’ll board a clipper
and catch a Norther bound
south from the Little Dipper
for Virgin Gorda Sound.
My love (once such a darling)
is now a wintry spouse,
sullen — sometimes snarling—
because I’m a lying souse,
because I can’t quit tippling
or spirit us from the snow —
or be the winsome stripling
he wooed so long ago.
Partridge flee to the headland straw
when combines take their final lap.
A vixen leaves a severed paw
to free her foreleg from a trap.
The kildeer, feigning a fractured wing,
would lure me past the gravel flat
where spotted chicks are cowering
as though I were some feral cat.
No strategy of fight or flight
liberates me from instinct’s grip.
I crave the whiskey’s amber light,
the balm of ice against my lip.
Salmon swimming toward a tarn
fatten a grizzly in the foam.
Racing into its flaming barn,
the white-eyed mare is headed home.
His victims are as varied as his wiles.
His subterfuge? Treacherous as his smiles.
For me he pours George Dickel on the rocks;
Eve got an apple. Our acquiescence mocks
“the first and greatest” of our Father’s laws.
Satan ensnares us with our selfish flaws.
Craving a line of coke or crystal meth?
For each of us a headlong rush to death.
Prayer for Sobriety
Morning glories climbing the garden wall
vie with the fragrant jasmine to outshine
the sun in summertime. Arboreal
blossom and vine, lover and love entwine.
He is the Groom, and I? The shy betrothed
enraptured by the faith I so long loathed.
This is the sacramental cup we drink,
this the unleavened loaf on which we dine,
deliverance from the sins to which I sink.
Here is the book, the work of my Divine
Redeemer at whose Word the worlds revolve.
Let me return His passion with resolve.
Hart Crane, Wystan Auden, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Bogan, John Ciardi, Dylan Thomas, James MacAuley, John Berryman: this is only a short list of remarkably talented 20th Century poets who destroyed themselves with alcohol. I am well along my way to doing the same, which is why I am seeking help at St. John’s. Curiously, none of these gifted writers wrote compellingly of the thing that slowly or suddenly killed them, thus leaving me “open field running” as a football coach might say. As part of the reconciliation with the truth prerequisite to any recovery from alcoholism, I have gathered together my poems of the last decade which bear upon this affliction.
There are certain obscurities in the poems that require explanation. Charlie Russell went out to ranch in Montana’s Judith Basin, alongside the Little Mussell, around 1880. He became a great painter and drank himself to death in the late Twenties. The Cook Fire is one of his masterpieces.
Dodwells Road is the address of Richard Wilbur, my master. He lost his wife of 64 years on Holy Monday 2007. Charlotte was a great force for whatever sobriety I have enjoyed since 1994. The title, “How Shall I Drink?” and its final line “nothing can satisfy” are both taken from Richard’s great poem, “Hamlen Brook.”
Booker Noe was Jim Beam’s great nephew and master distiller of the company. He died shortly after this calamity, probably of grief!
“The Ant Lion” appeared in my first book, The Deed of Gift, Story Line Press, 1998. The Cook Fire, in my third, Very Far North, Waywiser Press (London), 2002. “How shall I Drink?” appeared in The Formalist, “Booker’s End” and “Prayer for the Bushmills” in Light Quarterly, and the second sestet of “Prayer for Sobriety” in The Alabama Literary Review. “Mortal Stakes” appeared in Poetry. The Hudson Review published “Case Notes” and “Cold Front.” “Case Notes” also appears in the Penguin Pocket Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry.” Requited, my unpublished prosimetrum, contains a number of these poems, and they appeared in their prose contexts at Umbrella. I thank the editors of all these distinguished presses and periodicals.
— Timothy Murphy, Prairie St. John’s Hospital, Fargo, North Dakota, September, 2007
Tim Murphy’s latest books are Beowulf, A Longman Cultural Edition, co-translated with Alan Sullivan, 2004, and Very Far North, Waywiser Press (London), 2002.