Bill Coyle is a poet, translator and educator living in Boston, Massachusetts. His poetry and translations have appeared in such publications as The Hudson Review, The New Republic, PN Review and Poetry, and his critical prose has been featured in Contemporary Poetry Review, and in the Swedish journals Aorta and Tvärsnitt. His first collection of poems, The God of This World to His Prophet, won the 6th annual New Criterion Poetry Prize and was published in 2006. He works in the Writing Center at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts.
It wasn’t always single malts for me.
I can remember one time in the navy
some of us were so desperate for a drink,
we broke into the ship’s infirmary,
took the rubbing alcohol, and mixed it
with grapefruit juice. Like greyhounds, but with very,
very bad vodka. Jesus, that was a party.
But we were careful. We filled all the bottles
with water, so you couldn’t tell from looking,
and even if you took the covers off
and sniffed them, they still smelled like alcohol.
Of course, the hangover was pretty vicious,
and even worse, next morning, bright and early
all of the crew were ordered up on deck.
At first we thought they’d found out what we’d done,
and as we stood there on the cruiser’s deck,
sweltering in the Pacific sun,
shaking, ready to puke, I tell you, I
was ready to confess and end the torture.
After a while, though, it was clear the captain
didn’t have a clue about our party.
No, he was going on about how the islands
where we were going were crawling with diseases,
and that we’d need to get inoculated.
And then I noticed the ship’s doctor there,
looking like a waiter with his tray
of vaccine, and a few syringes and—
Christ, I felt like crying—the same bottles
of alcohol we’d emptied and refilled.
What could we do? We stood there sweating, praying
nobody in the crew had anything
incurable, and took our shots from needles
the doctor wiped off once—quickly— with water
after he’d just stuck the guy beside us.
We lived. By which I mean we all survived
that little cock-up. I’m the only one,
Though, of the five of us that threw that party
who made it back alive from the Pacific.
Before that mess was over I saw men
more desperate for a drink than even we’d been,
guys who were in the first boats going in,
who knew as sure as they knew they were living
that they were going to die there on that beach
or somewhere in the water short of it:
Anything they could think of they would drink—
paint-thinner, aftershave, it didn’t matter,
so long as it would get them good and numb.
Guys would drink Aqua Velva from the bottle.
Remember those commercials they ran later?
There’s something about an Aqua Velva man?
The happiest day of my entire life,
Happier, even, than my wedding day,
happier than the days our kids were born,
The happiest day of my entire life
Was when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
I get these looks of shock from the young people
when I say things like that, but they don’t know.
It wasn’t always single malt for me.
Now it is, when I drink, which isn’t often—
it’s just, today I’ve got a wake to go to,
For Jimmy, Margaret’s brother. He was under
MacArthur, helped retake the Philippines.
Neither of us could stand wakes. We’d both seen
enough dead bodies in the war to last
a lifetime—that’s how Jimmy always put it—
and anytime that Margaret didn’t force us,
anytime it wasn’t someone close,
we would play cards or golf or see a movie.
And when we had to go, we‘d go together.
First, though, we’d stop off someplace for a drink.
Margaret’s not happy that I’m here, she thinks
I should be at the funeral home already,
not doing anything, just being there,
supporting her. And probably she’s right—
he was her only brother, and I’m her husband,
and husbands have a duty to be strong.
My only consolation is that Jimmy,
Jimmy would understand the way it hits me,
thinking about him lying in a coffin;
he’d understand I need a shot of courage.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote the poem four years ago, over the course of a few days during a summer vacation. It started as the latest in a series of attempts to get the events in this poem, which I hasten to add I heard about second hand, into verse.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
It depends on how you define “drafts.” This poem was composed slowly and deliberately, with very few major changes after the fact. The earlier attempts to work with the same material were precursors of this poem, but they were so different that I’d hesitate to call them drafts. Maybe earlier incarnations?
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do believe in inspiration, of various degrees and kinds, but I don’t think it was really operating in this particular case—none of this poem was composed suddenly, or in a trance-like state, which is sometimes the case with me. On the other hand, the poem was certainly “received,” in that it’s essentially a found poem with a little bit of rhetorical and metrical window dressing from me.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Earlier versions of the poem were rhymed, but this didn’t seem to work, even in the cases where the rhymes in themselves seemed fluent and natural. Blank verse—and something like the kind of blank verse that Frost used—seemed the obvious solution.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print? How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I try to wait a year before sending anything out, though I’ll sometimes make exceptions if the poem has a particularly “finished” feel to it. I didn’t publish this poem in periodical form, but it came out in my first book about a year and a half after I wrote it.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
There were two models for the speaker of the poem. The first was a butcher I worked with at a local supermarket when I was younger. It was he who told me the story of the party in the ship’s infirmary, and of its consequences, and I tried to recreate his voice as best I could. The second model was a great uncle who had also been in the Pacific. He never spoke to me or my sisters about the experience, but I do know that he seldom attended wakes, having “seen enough bodies.” He made an exception when his wife’s brother, my paternal grandfather, died, but he sat in the corner. He was a very cheerful, very physically fit man, so his obvious discomfort made a great impression on me.
Was this poem always a dramatic monologue, or did it begin in some other incarnation?
The only previous version that I have much memory of involved one speaker who attends a party and hears the story from another speaker, so I suppose I knew from the start that this was going to be a dramatic monologue of some sort. The rhyme went, as I noted above. The other speaker went as well, probably because I realized, albeit subconsciously, that his presence, along with the party setting, would be begging a comparison with “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”
Is this a narrative poem?
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I was reading the Swedish poet Vilhelm Eklund at the time, and his poetry is nothing at all like “Pacific.” Poetic influences were largely unconscious, though I don’t know that I could write this kind of poem without Frost and Browning somewhere in my thoughts. I was probably negatively influenced by myself, in that I wanted to write a type of poem I hadn’t written before.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Two readers. One is my maternal grandmother, who, while she was keenly intelligent, taught grade school for years, and enjoyed poetry, was not an “expert.” The other is James Merrill, in my opinion the best American poet since World War II, certainly the wittiest and most sophisticated. I’d like most of my poems to be enjoyable by both.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I generally don’t show my drafts to people unless they’re in a relatively advanced state, or unless I’ve fooled myself into thinking they are. Then I usually bring them to a group I’m a member of, the Powow River Poets, who meet in Newburyport, MA. It’s a very talented bunch, and the workshops have been invaluable.
Having said that, I don’t think I showed this particular poem to more than one or two people, and they made only minimal suggestions for changes.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
Most of my other dramatic monologues have had fairly eccentric speakers: the head of a suicide cult, a medieval alchemist living in contemporary New England, Satan. The speaker here is much more of a regular guy, even if his personal experiences are, for Americans of my immediate generation, anyway, extraordinary.
What is American about this poem?
I’m not sure. Certainly, when I wrote the poem, I assumed the speaker was American, since the two models for him were, and since I am. Looking back on it now, I don’t see any reason—though this may be because I’m neither a linguist nor a historian—why he couldn’t just as easily be Australian, a New Zealander, a Canadian, a Brit…
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
With very few exceptions, I don’t publish anything I’ve abandoned. Which is not to say that I might not realize after publication that a particular poem would benefit from revision. Or excision.