Review of 18 Straight Whiskeys
Originally published in 1997, Michael Easton’s 18 Straight Whiskeys has been recently reissued as an expanded, collector’s edition with 30 new poems. The book, available at https://www.michaeleaston.com/product-detail/18-straight-whiskeys , provides a fascinating glimpse into Easton’s evolving poetic style, the sparse eloquence and anguished vulnerability of the new works complementing the gritty, cynical, darkly humorous, occasionally scatalogical, musings of the earlier works.
Divided into sections representing three different eras of writings (2011-2018, 1991-1994, and 1995-1998), 18 Straight Whiskeys explores desire, despair, disgust, creativity, addiction, parenthood, the beauty and filth of mortal existence. Easton’s unflinching examination of human nature in all its degradation, as well as its transcendent yearnings, gives the writings an earthy yet poignant, at times almost mystical, sensuality. Fluctuating between these extremes of abasement and ecstasy, the poems probe the mystery of love, its shifting moods and manifestations. Throughout the poems love assumes various masks, taking on the quality of a bloody, agonizing struggle, a poison, an intoxication, an insatiable yearning, an “exquisite torture,” a caressing, tearing erosion of self.
In addition to his poetry about love and its manifestations, Easton harrowingly describes experiences shaped by his vagabond journeys of self-discovery after his mother’s death in 1994. These works, depicting the life of a youthful wanderer, are awash in scenes of debasement and despair–abusive relationships, puking addicts, gurgling toilets, “the smell of bleach, with a feces twist,” “smoke rings and smoker’s cough,” “the sun hanging by a noose, about to be dropped.”
In the midst of this sordidness and dissipation, however, tepid rays of light beckon; epiphanies flicker in even the lowliest places. Like Leonard Cohen, who found traces of the sacred in the darkness, the carnal, the depths of agony, Easton reveals signs of illumination–”the moontide light passing through the rib cage of Joshua trees; like morning for Matisse”, as well as inspiration from his muses (Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Leonard Cohen, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix). He also draws strength and inspiration from memories of his deceased parents and, in his new poems, his love for his children. “Poem for an Improper Wake,” for example, gives a tribute to Easton’s father, focusing on small details, random, fragmented memories that most concisely and powerfully express his essence–a neatly stacked pile of quarters, “the sound of his walk,” his feisty Belfast spirit. As this poem and the earlier one about his mother (“Poem 37”) perceptively express, our loved ones live on through ever-present associations, objects evoking their presence, thoughts echoing their conversations, the parts of ourselves we realize have been shaped by them. The poems about his children celebrate the parental bond while offering visions of hope (“Same Eyes, Blue Eyes”) and empowering advice (“JBE”). His concern for future generations in a world where innocence and faith are easily corrupted is also evident in “Remembering Green and Blue Things,” written long before the birth of his son and daughter: “They’ll ask us to tell them about / the stumps and the sky./ A time, when dolphins didn’t lie on rocks;/ a time when all of it was avoidable.” Whether or not this dire forecast becomes reality and despite the desolation (social, moral, as well as environmental) afflicting our world, Easton’s poetry reminds us that love, its sublimely inspiring yearning, gives life meaning and purpose. We may, as Oscar Wilde proclaims, be living in “the gutter . . . but some of us are looking at the stars.”