Monday, March 22, 2010

The Worm in the Tequila by Geoff Cochrane

The Worm in the TequilaAcetylene (2001)
Vanilla Wine (2003)
Hypnic Jerks (2005)
84 484 (2007)
Pocket Edition (2008)
The Worm in the Tequila (2010)

Geoff Cochrane has been churning out a new poetry collection every two years or so for the past decade (note: his output stretches back to the Seventies). In each you’ll find poems about his time as an alcoholic, and the years teetering on the wagon since. These aren’t the only kinds of poems Cochrane writes (far from it) but they are, I suspect, the easiest to write about.

With a title like The Worm in the Tequila I was expecting more poems about alcoholism, and the collection certainly doesn’t confound this. Early on there’s ‘Three Songs’, which takes us back to the Duke of Edinburgh pub, circa 1972, and ‘The Rooming House’, where the poet, “drank and drank my plonk / a little at a time, / like a student of something large and long”.

Pocket EditionBut something has happened in the poet’s life since 2008’s Pocket Edition. It began with, “a week of the most tremendous thirst,” (as explained in ‘Flesh and Blood’, ostensibly a letter to the poet’s brother). Diabetes quickly establishes itself as the collection's other theme, and provides a perfect foil to all the poems about alcoholism. The disease and the addiction are blurred, conflated, confused from the outset:
I minister to myself… NovoPens and testing-strips and knowing little meters: these are my consecrated instruments…
…my alcoholic past comes back to me too when I consider the matter of the jelly beans.
(‘The D Word’)
In ‘Bitter Suite’, the poet proclaims, “I’ve begun to consume myself, / Begun to burn the furniture for warmth…”
I make a tidy list
of the new foods in my life
(the things I’ll never eat)
and my squared mind can bask
in order’s white effulgence,
the blur of its warm white room.
Diabetes, it seems, is about kicking another habit. But where the poet often mourns the loss of a community of drinkers (like the busker keen to write his biography in ‘Robin’), diabetes gives the poet entrée into another “cult” (albeit a “phony, plastic, made up” one), a place where he must pay regular visits to nurses, doctors and Korean Kim the pharmacist, and write letters to relatives informing them of his diagnosis.

The poet’s present infirmity also leads him back to past ailments, such as his childhood asthma in ‘Black’.
(I should have been drowned at birth.
My asthma set me up for alcoholism.
Set me up for wanting to seem
tougher than I was.)
Diabetes -- the revolt of the body, the onslaught of mortality and similar poetic overstatements -- also lends a greater meaning to passages about alcoholism that could have just as easily appeared pre-diagnosis:
I’ve lived through the age of rat and rot
And wearing rags to court
And wearing rags to funerals.
(‘Ages and Ages’)
The majority of the poems in The Worm in the Tequila shirk the archetypal poem in some way. Some are only three or four lines long. Others consist of several snippets separated by stars, dashes, dotted or straight lines, and united beneath a title such as ‘Fragments #3 to #5’ or ‘Lines in Purple Ink’. Others chose prose over verse: ‘Ringing O’Hara’ is a six page short story that just happens to come two-thirds of the way through a poetry collection.

This is not to say Cochrane can’t write within poetic forms (‘The Lich-Gate’ is a killer villanelle), or stick to the same topic for more than three stanzas. Indeed, when the next editor of Best NZ Poems is rifling through this collection, it will probably be poems such as ‘The Lich-Gate’, ‘Ages and Ages’ and ‘For One Night Only’ that make the short list. But, when looking at The Worm in the Tequila as a collection, and a reflection of Geoff Cochrane’s last eighteen or so months, I am forever grateful that he lets himself run the gamut of thoughts and forms.

As Cochrane says in the first section of ‘August: A Broadsheet”: “Every morning I man my station. / Man my station, take down what I hear.” We then get short sections about the “flit and yellow flash” of finches, the “pharmaceutical detritus” in his ashtray, the colours of Matisse, and “the tar-black hulks” whistling in the night. The connection between these sections, of course, is the poet, and the poet is very much Geoff Cochrane.

AcetyleneSeveral poems in The Worm in the Tequila make this explicit. In ‘For One Night Only’, a friend rings to say, “he’s reading Acetylene” [Cochrane’s 2001 collection]. Later, Cochrane admits: “I’m hungry for a druggy drug-debauch. For one night only, Geoffrey off his face.”

Cochrane is at the foreground of so many of the poems in this collection (and those that have gone before) that there is both a pleasing comfort in the reappearance of certain places and characters that have come before (the Duke of Edinburgh; his father), and a thrill in the things that have changed. For one, it seems Cochrane has moved from Berhampore to Miramar, the poems now take place in and around Crawford Green, Acropolis Fish Supply, the Four Square in Strathmore, “the swish and sizzle of the airport’s wet tarmac.”

While Cochrane as poet and poetic focus ties together the fragmentary poems, the collection as a whole, and his poetic oeuvre, it is a disservice to keep telescoping the analysis out to the biographic, the generalities of career and collection. The true joy of reading Geoff Cochrane is in the lines.

It’s the wry Zevonesque ending of ‘For One Night Only’:
Oh for my old comforters.
Oh for my old friends
Digesic Hemineurin Prednisone.

It’s the music in the second section of ‘Some Last Words’
The junkyard lacks a junkyard dog.
The red-and-yellow circus
is missing certain bulbs
It’s the feeling that, while Cochrane may man his station everyday, there is a great poet taking down and mediating what he sees and hears. And while it seems addiction is never licked and Cochrane has ceased to believe in his “own inner soundness and good order,” it seems he’s far form exhausted, physically and poetically.

If anything, this is the most resolute we’ve ever seen him. After pocketing the 2009 Janet Frame Prize for Poetry, Cochrane considers a trip to a foreign metropolis:
But what if I got stuck
In some congenial bar?
Better perhaps to stay put,
Inject my insulin,
Buy myself a sturdier table.
(‘Prize Money’)

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