There are poems that are driven by narrative, by a story or situation. I can imagine a good short story writer creating a version in prose. Other poems lend themselves to music, or short films, or paintings. This is not to say that these poems are any less worthy, only that their subject matter is translatable across art forms. It’s a fun mind-game for me to think about the question, “If I were to remake this poem in another medium, which would I use?”
And then there are some poems, like Diane Seuss’s “Free beer,” that could only work as a poem.
I’m the one who can hold a mouthful of salt.
Bring him here, the fool dressed in prison stripes.
I can pray for him, even though his eyes are wild.
I can de-louse the rat.
When I was a kid I invited them all to a puppet show.
There were no puppets; I’d planned no show.
Free beer, I said, and they came.
I’ve seen a puppet theatre.
It resides in the black cavern behind my eyes.
Thoughts are puppets, dangling from their tangled strings.
Bring him here, the one spinning on gloom’s rotisserie.
I’ll section an orange for the wretched bastard.
I’ll ladle him up a mugful of tears.
Free beer, I’ll say, though there is no beer.
— from Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf 2015), used by permission
Let me start with a quick technical thing: notice the stability in the formal aspects of the poem. Each line consists of one sentence, meticulously punctuated. There’s no enjambment, and so each line functions discretely, as its own little nugget of thought. That helps keep things clear on the one hand, but it also allows Seuss to go just about anywhere from line to line – there’s no necessary logic that demands she stay on one topic, no argument or narrative that needs completion. The clear grammar and stable form serve as the scaffolding for the roller coaster.
There appears to be a consistent speaker throughout the poem, but we know she might say just about anything, from haunting truth to absurd lies. “Gloom’s rotisserie” is now permanently etched into my mind as a vivid way to understand depression, but I’m hoping the image of delousing a rat (how?! shampoo and a finetoothed comb?!) gets out of my imagination very soon.
The presumed “purpose” of the series of statements in the poem also seems familiar – a sort of invitation to “us” to “bring him here,” and a kind of resume of why we should bring our friend to her. But is it an offer to help someone who is suffering? Or an indirect seduction? Who is this poor fellow on gloom’s rotisserie? And who are we, to deliver him to this person who introduces herself in such a way?
If this were real life, we could be forgiven if we let this series of invitations slide to the bottom of our inbox. Our friend in his striped outfit could probably find more qualified counselors. But let’s not gloss too quickly over the promises she makes. There is a hint of tenderness that shouldn’t be dismissed amidst her more outlandish confessions. Sectioning an orange, for example, is something you do for a child, carefully and often with tenderness lest the sections break and bleed. And the best way to fill “a mugful of tears” is to produce them yourself, and so our speaker clearly has emotional similarities to our friend that perhaps we don’t share. The surreal logic of it all starts to make a certain sense – only someone who can ladle a mugful of tears could possibly share our foolish friend’s difficulties.
By the way, each time I type “gloom’s rotisserie,” I keep accidentally typing “grief’s rotisserie” instead, and as I turn the poem over and over again it seems clear that loss or loneliness is at the center of the speaker’s world as well as the object of her attentions. What sort of person would choose to introduce herself to us primarily by reporting her deceptions? Who would describe her own mind (where her memory of a puppet theatre resides) as “the black cavern behind my eyes”? Who would be so desperate for company that she would call out “free beer,” even if there was no beer, like a delinquent version of the boy who cried wolf? And who would admit all these things to us, and still beg for us to bring a friend to her, so she might comfort and feed him? Looking again, I see this poem as a desperate cry for connection.
It’s also ridiculous, and the speaker seems vaguely unhinged. But tell the truth: part of what drew you to this site, to this essay that you are reading right now about this particular poem, is “FREE BEER”! Right? See? It works! It’s the outlandishness that makes it appealing. By the way, now that you’re here I must admit that I have no free beer for you, nor (to my knowledge) does Diane Seuss or the WordPress platform or Graywolf Press. There is no free beer here.
But we do have “Free beer,” the poem, the suggestion, the lyrical absurd half-story. And let’s remember that the fourteen lines of this poem are not claiming to be real life, and therefore, in the poem, we are not required to behave responsibly. And so I say, YES, I’ve been waiting for someone capable of delousing the rat! Yes, I will attend your puppet show! Yes, I will bring my suffering friend to you so that you can carefully section him an orange. And whenever you say, Free beer, I will be sure to come, because even if there isn’t beer I’m certain there will be something else, something strange and inviting, a mugful of tears to baste me on my rotisserie of gloom.
Can any other art form do all that?