The Drunk In the Park Is In

by Paul Hostovsky

A post in our Milestones series from past contributor Paul Hostovsky.


In April, National Poetry Month, I celebrated 25 years of continuous sobriety. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. A drunk is an unlovely creature. I used to work as apprentice of sorts to the wino in the park. My job, you could say, was to keep an eye on his bottle of port when he left it to piss in the pachysandra. My predecessor struck out on his own for the park across town, where he finally drowned in his own self-pity. So much for ambition. Whenever I spoke of quitting, my employer wept. He kissed me and praised my perfect attendance. He offered to serve as a reference. The problem was his job title: The drunk. The drunk in the park. The drunk in the park is in. What were the prospects for someone bearing such a reference? Where was the prospective employer who would take it for what it was worth? So I didn’t quit. I stayed on. For years and years. I was very loyal. And very unlovely.

People who love poetry are like people who love the rain. We’re in the minority. Most people hate rain. They look out their rain-streaked windows and scowl as though faced with a long and difficult poem. They blink beneath their umbrellas and shrug as though under the penumbra of an inscrutable poem. And sometimes it isn’t raining exactly, but sort of misting, or sleeting, or spitting. It’s kind of like that with poetry: not exactly, but sort of.

But the earth needs poetry as much as it needs rain. Even people who hate poetry and rain will grudgingly, grumblingly, admit this meteorological fact. They would just prefer that the poetry and the rain occur someplace else, someplace where the people who love poetry and rain can dance around and exult in it and the rest of us can take it in in smaller doses, in bottles or, preferably, teaspoons.

And then there is the smell of the rain, which is not unlike the smell of the poem. The smell of the rain before the rain is practically a poem itself. And the smell of the rain after the rain is reminiscent of poems about poems. Those of us who love poems about poems are like the people who come in out of the rain and their shoes are filled with the noise of it and they do a little dance and give a little shout before leaving their umbrellas open to dry on the floor like big, black, articulated flowers which the cat eyes from a distance and is soon emboldened to sniff and sit beneath and contemplate and lick.

Hell is having nothing to read but your own poems. Which is like having nothing to drink but your own bathwater. I used to drink a lot and write long, inscrutable, self-absorbed poems that I thought were fucking brilliant when I was drunk. But always when I returned to them the following day, they would have lost their brilliance, their greatness, their music. It was like returning to a bunch of empty beer cans and used condoms at a campsite, evidence that someone had some epiphanies here recently, but there were no epiphanies now and gone was that greatness, fled was that music, did I wake or sleep?

Obviously, I slept. And I didn’t wake until I got sober. One day at a time. As for the poems, well, they sucked. Because I myself sucked. I literally sucked my thumb until I was thirteen and a half, inexorably, shamefully, clandestinely, pretending to my parents that I didn’t anymore. My mother knew, though. She knew. When I finally gave up drinking, I woke to the fact that I sucked figuratively, having pretended to myself all this time I was great. And I had a crisis of faith. A crisis of confidence. I stopped writing. A real dry spell. No rain. No poetry.

But after some time in sobriety, the poems eventually began to come again. A patchy drizzle at first, then a light shower, a cloudburst, a blessed deluge. And where do the poems come from? They come from the earth. They rise up from the earth, like mist, the way we do. And they disappear like mist. The way we will. Though sometimes they outlive us.

Paul Hostovsky is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently The Bad Guys, which won the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize for 2015. His poems have won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net awards, the Muriel Craft Bailey Award from the Comstock Review, and numerous poetry chapbook contests. He has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer's Almanac. He makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter. Visit him at www.paulhostovsky.com