Liquid Poetry: Cocktail as Death Wish

A few weeks ago, I sat down with a poet friend of mine and we tried to figure out what exactly cocktails are. At one point, he turned to me and said, “in fact, cocktails are pretty bad for you…they’re sugar and poison.” And he’s right, which got me thinking.

Are those of us who revel in making and enjoying cocktails merely looking for ways to soften and speed along the process by which we arrive at death? You certainly wouldn’t like to think so, but when you start seeing your Martini as “sugar and poison,” a slightly dark feeling tends to creep over you. You feel almost like one of those sailors who ditched Odysseus on the Isle of the Lotus Eaters, except that happy lotus feeling has just worn off somehow and you think:

Huge Mistake

It’s important to admit that getting hooked on cocktails is at least a tiny bit self-destructive. Just ask your co-worker who comes in to work every morning with his green smoothie, still glowing from his hot-yoga-juice-cleanse-crossfit-spirit-run. He’ll tell you, and he’ll carefully mask his condescension with upbeat, generic concern and health food evangelism (oh boy!). More important than realizing that drinking to excess is bad for you, though, is finding a way to negotiate your relationship with alcohol so that it enhances your life, rather than shortening it.

Building a Ship of Death

In his poem, “Diet Mountain Dew,” Timothy Donnely’s speaker crafts a love letter to a beverage that is most definitely taking years off his life. Speaking to the eerie, lime-green liquid of his affection, he begins:

I have built my ship of death
and when a wind kicks up
I’ll cut it loose to do its thing
across the unnamed lake of you

Later in the poem, the speaker jokes about the effects that all the preservatives in Diet Mountain Dew have wrought on his body, but the joke quickly turns black:

…I am at heart
no less susceptible to rot
than the felt hat on the head
of the rifle-toting barefoot
hillbilly, your mascot until he
disappeared in 1969. Instinct
says he must have shot hisself
in the woods in the mouth
one sunrise when a frost
was at hand and the apples
fell thick and he was way
too awake when he did so not to
think there would be another
waiting like a can of you in
the 12-pack in my refrigerator.

For this speaker, the substance he loves is more powerful than he is, more powerful than us all. It has a momentum he can’t stop or turn aside, and his own powerlessness is something he has come to terms with, perhaps even come to enjoy:

                                 …you are
my green oncoming vehicle…
I put me in your path which is
the path a planet takes when it
means to destroy another I think
you know I’m O.K. with that.

If there’s one thing that Donnelly’s poem teaches us about having a relationship with a substance, it’s that when the substance makes you small, when you cease to be able to control your relationship with it—that’s when there’s a problem.

A Prayer

But what about when your relationship to a substance makes you a more curious, alive person? What if it deepens your appreciation for the full range of memories and emotions that can be accessed through flavor?

With alcohol, the danger of overindulgence is always present (and always tempting), and so I think the best way to end this post would be with a prayer. I pray that my own relationship with alcohol remains moderate and curious. I pray that it enhances my life and spurs me to investigate more and better ways to taste the world. And I pray that those who are struggling with alcoholism can find a way back to the ship of life that is waiting to take them home to those who are waiting for them.

Another word for prayer is “Vesper,” and so I’ll leave you with a cocktail that goes by that name.

The Vesper Cocktail

Vesper Cocktail In shaker, combine:

-2 oz Gin
-0.5 oz Vodka
-0.25 oz Lillet (or another sweet, white vermouth).

Shake until chilled, then strain into a coupe glass and garnish with a slice of lemon peel.

Stay Thirsty, Stay Bitter

-Eric Kozlik

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