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In Search of a Meaningful Drink

In Search of a Meaningful Drink

By Marianne Kunkel

It’s with mixed feelings that I curated this issue of FUSION, featuring new poems from Ghana and archival poems from Prairie Schooner on the subject of “libations.” Drinking alcohol, and drinking it with meaning—as the word “libations” suggests—is something I’m rather a dunce about. I remember once at a writers’ conference, after a very long day, a friend offered me and others shots of ouzo in his hotel room. When I mentioned I’d never heard of the drink before, he looked at me doubtfully. “I’m ex-Mormon,” I shrugged, “so I have a lot to learn.”

My ancestors were Mormon pioneers who crossed the American plains to settle in Utah and practice their faith, and one piece of doctrine that they made this long journey for is what’s known as the Word of Wisdom. This is the name for a passage in Mormon scripture that forbids church members from consuming “strong drinks,” meaning alcohol. When I was a child, the only alcohol in our house was a bottle of grain alcohol that my father used to clean his vinyl records. Eventually, when my parents’ marriage deteriorated along with my father’s belief in the Mormon church, I’d see six-packs of beer hidden in his car trunk.

Although Mormonism and its rigid attitude toward alcohol is definitely an American phenomenon, what seems more American to me is the act of drinking to get drunk—a pastime that has little to do with the notion of a sacrificial or honorable libation. My first taste of alcohol came from a red cup at a New Year’s party in high school. I can’t remember how it tasted, I didn’t get to kiss the boy I wanted to kiss that night, and all in all the experience was disappointing. I tried alcohol again a few months later, and that time I had a coach—a random guy who saw me grimacing my way through a Bud Light and offered this precious advice: “You gotta keep drinking until it tastes good.”

Beer commercials on American television, with their beach or barbecue settings and excessive supply of alcohol (the most ridiculous being a man whose house is constructed entirely of walls of beer cans), imply that drinking should be done irresponsibly and on one’s off-time. The women in these commercials are often young, thin, and sexually hungry, and the men are gaming for their attention in the hopes that, as everyone drinks more, inebriation will lead to sex. Liquor commercials also encourage excess, it seems, although with better-dressed actors.

Rather than drinking at times when I want to step away from my awareness of what’s responsible and safe behavior, I’m increasingly curious about how it feels to drink on important occasions and with great purpose. In this set of fifteen libations-themed poems I selected from Prairie Schooner’s archives, there’s silly fun, yes, as in M. Truman Cooper’s poem “I’m Married and My Daddy’s Rich Too,” which begins, “How much could go wrong? / …Here a dozen women sit, tipsy / to varying degrees and before sunset.” But mostly, the poems focus on poignant moments made more poignant with the presence of alcohol.

Silvia Curbelo’s poem “Drinking Song,” for example, is about the lonely gaps between loved ones, between past and present. Alcohol is portrayed as a physical comfort and also a valuable metaphor: “What / we drink to in the end / is loss, the space around it, // the opposite of thirst, its shadow.” In Arthur Smith’s poem “Wedding on the West Coast,” it’s instead a feeling of familial intimacy that alcohol accentuates; after drunkenly sleeping on a lawn after his own wedding, the speaker awakes as “one who crowed too loudly, proud / of his new in-laws, not his singing.” One of my favorite poems, Claire Mattern’s “Ballad of My Lai,” uses wine to demonstrate how people can live on even in their graves: “If they plant their grape vines on us, / we will rise again. / We’ll all hang together / on the vine.”

Helping me in this conversation about libations is co-curator Martin Egblewogbe, whose poems by contemporary Ghanaian authors represent a wonderful variety of purposeful drinking. I especially like Philip Boakye Dua Oyinka’s poem “Libation,” a prayer to keep ghosts and neglectful gods away and to “bring light / bumper harvests and fertile crops.” Novisi Dzitrie’s mind, like my own, is on his ancestors; in his poem “Praying Down the Quaff,” he writes, “We thank our ancestors / for while we drink they drink with us / so when we depart, we go with them.” The striking Ghanaian artwork demonstrates the meditative nature of libations.

From the state of Nebraska, I’m excited to share with you several oil paintings by Ray Taddeucci. These cubist-inspired depictions of wine, martini glasses, and more stood out to me because of their rich colors and bold, leading lines that draw me out of an image and back in. Perhaps most importantly, the fragmented look of these paintings reminds me of my own complicated and fractured experiences with alcohol.

As I consider the power of libations in poetry and daily life, I’m reminded of a time when I drank alcohol and felt nothing. Several years ago, my husband and I went camping with my father who, along with his tent and guitar, brought a twelve-pack of Newcastle Brown Ale. It was the first time my father and I drank openly in front of each other, and although nothing was said about this, it was all I thought about as I gulped down a beer. At the end of the night, despite drinking more, I felt sober, perhaps because I couldn’t shake the feeling from my childhood that drinking was wrong, especially in front of a parent, or the other feeling that a parent who drinks is wrong. If there was a purpose to drinking that night, it was to find out that my conceptions of myself and my father were marked with guilt I didn’t even know was there, like a skunky beer left too long in the back of the fridge.


Marianne Kunkel

Marianne Kunkel is the author of the poetry chapbook The Laughing Game (Finishing Line Press). Her poems have appeared in Hayden's Ferry Review, Rattle, Poet Lore, Columbia Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She holds a MFA from the University of Florida and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is an assistant professor of creative writing and publishing at Missouri Western State University.

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