Lounge Music

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This is a book meant to bring poetry to the masses, in other words, and so [Editor A. J.] Rathbun has thrown in something for every taste, if only to ensure that every reader will find something to love.

My favorite poem in In Their Cups, A.J. Rathbun’s almost-pocket-sized anthology of drinking poems, is “Assumptions” by the Kansas poet Amy Fleury, and it starts like this:

Only the plain girls stay in this town
where the quiet is so violent
that sidewalks seethe and pitch,
where wind will chasten a face.

Beyond yawning gates,
the church spire punctures
pure sky and transgressions
are never forgiven.

In the next stanza we’ve wandered into a local tavern, where “The register rings to the rhythm / of guest checks pierced on a spindle / and the twitch of the driftwood clock” while outside “drivers pass through on their way / to Denver, Omaha, or some other / butter and eggs route.” “Whatever you believe about a place,” Fleury writes, “well, it’s going to be true.”

To anyone on friendly terms with the vast middle of America, Fleury’s imagery will ring familiar and true. It could have been written from my Wyoming hometown, where I saw guest checks pierced by spindles every day, and where, from the high prairie to the east of town, the semis on I-80 looked unnaturally small against the barren horizon. Even as they ran away from their own sound, you could see them fighting the wind.

Every reader of In Their Cups will, I expect, find something in it that lands close to home. There are ancient poems, rhyming poems, traditional poems, modern poems, poems that tell stories and poems that paint pictures, all of them written out of the malleable experience of tipping a glass. Rathbun’s approach to his theme is tied to the book’s design: It looks like it belongs at the cash register, next to “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea,” and those handbooks of outrageous foreign phrases you will never use. This is a book meant to bring poetry to the masses, in other words, and so Rathbun has thrown in something for every taste, if only to ensure that every reader will find something to love.

I think he’s chosen pretty well. Emily Dickinson’s wonderful poem “I taste a liquor never brewed,” is literally about getting drunk on nature. Richard Hugo has a gritty entry about a lakeside tavern burned to cinders (“Death of the Kapowsin Tavern”). In the strangely charming poem “Fragmentia: On Honorable Life,” by Emily Bedard, the poet watches as her life challenges a bartender to a duel (it doesn’t end well).

There are actually more than a few sly entries. “Poem 27” by Cattulus has been translated by Ed Skoog into the hard-boiled language of the genre fiction detective. Here the ancient Roman poet delivers a modern hero’s gruff aside to a bartender. “Are you tending the bar, kid? Pour me the strong stuff,” he says, “and one for yourself. We’re going to need it.” In “Describe Divorce to Martinis,” Tod Marshall weaves together the images of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin to mine the tensions between youth and fading light and drinking’s joys and sorrows. “Ask the comedians where laughter ends up living after the split,” he writes, “the meaning of a pocketful of toothpicks and olives.”

There’s even a poem by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a sure sign Rathbun is throwing in the kitchen sink. The former Chief Justice’s entry is about lending out a punch bowl — that’s actually the title — but the shocker is (wait for it), that it’s pretty good. At the end of his days Holmes famously lamented, about his years on the bench, that he had spent his life on trifles. Maybe he should have written more poetry. (I can’t resist adding this thought experiment for those reading at home: Try imagining Chief Justice John Roberts writing a poem. Now, as a second step, try to imagine his poem being any good. At all.)

Of course, not every poem in In Their Cups will suit every taste; that’s the other side of the coin Rathbun is polishing. My patience, for example, was tested by the 10-page, 37-stanza ode to the gin-twist. And a few of the poems struck me as more ambitious than anything else.

I was going to wrap up my review here, hopefully with some clever line that tied everything together, but I am compelled, for reasons you will soon understand, to add a note about the editor of this anthology, A.J. Rathbun.

I won’t claim that editing an anthology of drinking poems is the most idiosyncratic undertaking, but reading this anthology did nudge my curiosity about Rathbun. After all, you don’t often read an author bio that lists cookbook credits and appearances on Martha Stewart’s Sirius radio show next to publications in Crazy Horse, Gulf Coast, and ZYZZYVA. Who is this Rathbun, I wondered, who has one foot in the indie lit scene and the other planted so firmly in the star-crossed world of popular cuisine?

Alas, for all of the 40 minutes of internet searching I devoted to this question, Rathbun remained an enigma. I did learn that he hails from Seattle, where he writes and produces small films about cocktails. From the photos on his blogs, it appears that he may actually have a basement tiki bar. He keeps two blogs, “Spiked Punch” and “Six Months in Italy.” They are, respectively, about cocktails and Rathbun’s life in Seattle, and cocktails and his life in Tuscany. From this we can only conclude that Rathbun recently moved to Tuscany, or that he travels too much, or that there are two of him.

In my fondest imaginings, Rathbun and his wife are living out the Frances Mayes memoir, “Under the Tuscan Sun,” although without the failed past marriage and the money-pit country estate.

I had almost concluded I would come no closer to understanding Rathbun when I found this — a short film of his called “The Jogger.” It is set in a sleepy Seattle neighborhood and features a bowling ball and the soundtrack from Chariots of Fire. You need to watch this film. It captures something beautiful about our intrepid anthology editor that can’t be said in words:

I have watched this 59-second film more than 20 times. It is, itself, a kind of poem. There is something primitive and elusive in it. Eve, yes, something profound, although I say what. Watching it is like listening to an oracle, or trying to comprehend an ancient myth. Maybe you only need a copy of In Their Cups if your library has a drinking section, or you haven’t finished your holiday shopping, or you become possessed to want to sample 52 widely varied poems about recreational drinking. I don’t know how well A.J.Rathbun’s anthology will do in stores, but I hope he keeps publishing small books like this one, for he is clearly some of kind of eccentric, wacky genius.

Sean Carman has contributed to four McSweeney's humor anthologies, and has been a contestant in Literary Death Match, a finalist in NPR's Three-Minute Fiction Contest, and a winner of The New Yorker's weekly Twitter contest. His story "A Hard Rain. A Really, Really Hard Rain" was a runner-up in the Out of the Storm News Bad Writing About the Weather Contest. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works as an environmental lawyer. More from this author →