Thistle-stubble thirst clanks
like an old town clock on
the hour of death through
putrid, clinging, sweaty fog
clay-coated doorstop tongue pants
outrage at the relentless tinny
dong, dong, donging
cracked lips like wayside prunes lick
no relief from this parched hell
no spit to float an ant
kill for a dewdrop, just
a dewdrop, who’d know?
thirsty! don’t you hear?
no ice, no mix
something to thrill swollen smouldering
burnt rubbery mouth
away from garish deformity
something to numb excruciating hollow
something to beat off glowering
foul breath demons
to stop the goddamned shaking so
hands can hold the paddles long enough
to row to the next heave
salty, scorched-sand searing thirst
like that crusty old clock
obsessive in the worship of time
Copyright 2006 by Susan Tearoe
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "Cold Turkey" by Susan Tearoe, takes the reader inside the mind of an alcoholic trying to quit drinking. The struggle feels excruciatingly real, precisely because the speaker's mental world is so surreal and nightmarish. Bracketed by the images of the slow-moving old clock, the poem seems to take place within a single moment that lasts an eternity.
I was reminded of Salvador Dali's painting "The Persistence of Memory", that endless barren vista populated by melted watches and mutating organic forms—a dreamscape whose eerie stillness and hyper-clarity contains intimations of disaster. Just so, in Tearoe's poem, the simultaneous frozenness and endlessness of time heightens the tension of each moment's battle for sobriety.
"Cold Turkey" also resembles some of Sylvia Plath's later poems, such as "Tulips" and "Fever 103°", in depicting how a fevered mind seizes on small details of sensation and blows them up to an unbearable intensity. The narrator of Tearoe's poem is so consumed by her withdrawal symptoms that there is no longer any boundary between herself and the world. She is the world. The clock tolling in the fog and the doorbell ringing could be real-life sounds that agitate her, or could exist only in her head.
The bargaining that goes on in the middle of the poem definitely rings true: "kill for a dewdrop, just/a dewdrop, who'd know?" The reader feels grateful for this oasis of refreshing, pretty images ("something charmed/green-gold"), which fuels the necessary descent back into the "swollen smouldering/burnt rubbery mouth" of thirst. Back and forth goes the internal debate, like the little rowboat she imagines plunging up and down on the waves, hoping for the strength to "row to the next heave".
Tearoe mixes metaphors of wet and dry, but in a way that feels right. Addiction is like a tempting, dangerous ocean, and also barren and gritty as a desert. The thirst is worse because the imagined liquid feels as real as her current dryness.
This well-paced poem uses varied sounds and textures to enhance the meaning. Lines like "Thistle-stubble thirst clanks" and "salty, scorched-sand searing thirst" are spiky mouthfuls that slow the reader's progress, like clearing a path through brambles. This creates a feeling that time is dragged out and resistant. I liked the similar sounds of "lips" and "lick" in line eight, though I wasn't sure what "wayside" meant as a modifier for prunes. Phrases such as "garish deformity" and "glowering/foul breath demons" verged on being overwrought and Gothic in an unoriginal way. It might have been more effective to continue with the technique of ordinary objects and situations turned monstrous (e.g. the clock, the rowboat). As a whole, however, the poem has enough true-life detail that the reader cannot fail to be moved and, perhaps, recognize one of his or her own battles against temptation.
Where could a poem like "Cold Turkey" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Strong Medicine Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: October 31
$2,500 and publication in MARGIE Review, an eclectic journal with a social conscience
CBC Literary Awards
Postmark Deadline: November 1
Canadian authors can win up to C$6,000 for unpublished poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, in French or English; no simultaneous submissions
Firstwriter.com International Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by November 1 (extended from October 1)
UK-based writers' resource site offers prizes up to 500 pounds for published or unpublished poems up to 30 lines; good for emerging writers
New Millennium Writings Awards
Postmark Deadline: November 17
Prestigious $1,000 awards for unpublished poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction from a journal with a magical-realism flavor
Poetry West/Eleventh Muse Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: December 1
$200 prize for poems up to 100 lines from Colorado Springs' oldest poetry group; enter by mail or email
This poem and critique appeared in the October 2006 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques