In the wine business, we definitely spend a lot of time talking up the wonders of wine; we’re a passionate bunch by and large, with enthusiasms to spare. That said, it’s of course a tricky line to walk, because while we’re all believers, there is a dark side if one goes too far, and I think it’s extremely important we remember just exactly what it is we’re talking about when we talk, which, is, basically, the consumption of alcohol. Enjoy it too much, and there lies ruination.
Fortunately, I find that wine brings out, more often than not, the very best in us; we revel in good company, we delight in good food, we share wonderful stories, talk great art, listen to beautiful music. We ponder, we extol, we regale. A wine night is a peaceful night, a giving night, a sharing night. It’s a calm, sleepy night, full of long pauses, deep sighs, aphoristic witticisms and devotional pledges.
Odd though, that for all the poetry of viticultural exaltation, there is little in the way of cautionary tales to match said visionary fervor. We need them, of course, cautionary tales, for above all else wine asks for balance; in itself, and in us, and without caution, passion becomes recklessness.
Which makes it a rather wonderful calendrical confluence that Raymond Carver’s birthday was yesterday.
Indisputably one of our greatest modern American writers, Mr. Carver’s many legacies can be felt across a myriad of realms; literary, critical, cultural. A master of the short story form, an austerely guttural poet, a giving critic and teacher, Raymond Carver casts a long shadow over our literary traditions and aspirations.
He was also a drunk, a bad one, and for a very long time. Fortunately, he managed to pull himself out, and he enjoyed the remainder of his years in a much clearer-eyed manner; I think his many years of torment and struggle with his addiction give him a power to discuss the dangers of over-indulgence in a way that goes beyond the dogmatic “just say no” approach, to approach a poetry of warning, a cautionary poetry, a poetry of prophecy, wisdom, and restraint.
I have often singled out poems for their wondrous depictions of wine, rarely have I noted one for depicting the underside, but in honor of Mr. Carver’s birthday, his triumph over addiction, and as an affirmation of the responsibility all of us in this business take on as regards looking after ourselves and those we share our passion for wine with, I would like to share the following poem with you, “Wine” by Raymond Carver.
Reading a life of Alexander the Great, Alexander
whose rough father, Philip, hired Aristotle to tutor
the young scion and warrior, to put some polish
on his smooth shoulders. Alexander who, later
on the campaign trail into Persia, carried a copy of
The Iliad in a velvet-lined box, he loved that book so
much. He loved to fight and drink, too.
I came to that place in the life where Alexander, after
a long night of carousing, a wine-drunk (the worst kind of drunk–
hangovers you don’t forget), threw the first brand
to start a fire that burned Persepolis, capital of the Persian Empire
(ancient even in Alexander’s day).
Razed it right to ground. Later, of course,
next morning–maybe even while the fire roared–he was
remorseful. But nothing like the remorse felt
the next evening when, during a disagreement that turned ugly
and, on Alexander’s part, overbearing, his face flushed
from too many bowls of uncut wine, Alexander rose drunkenly to his feet,
grabbed a spear and drove it through the breast
of his friend Cletus, who’d saved his life at Granicus.
For three days Alexander mourned. Wept. Refused food. “Refused
to see to his bodily needs.” He even promised
to give up wine forever.
(I’ve heard such promises and the lamentations that go with them.)
Needless to say, life for the army came to a full stop
as Alexander gave himself over to his grief.
But at the end of those three days, the fearsome heat
beginning to take its toll on the body of his dead friend,
Alexander was persuaded to take action. Pulling himself together
and leaving his tent, he took out his copy of Homer, untied it,
began to turn the pages. Finally he gave orders that the funeral
rites described for Patroklos be followed to the letter:
he wanted Cletus to have the biggest possible send-off.
And when the pyre was burning and the bowls of wine were
passed his way during the ceremony? Of course, what do you
think? Alexander drank his fill and passed
out. He had to be carried to his tent. He had to be lifted, to be put
into his bed.
Thank you Mr. Carver, for your writing, and for your life. And thank you for this poem, for reminding us that the only cure for regret is to avoid mistakes before they happen.
Drink your wine softly, drink it in peace, with those you love, surrounded by the awareness symbols that center you to the magic hoodoo splendidness of life, and then stop. Stop to be grateful, stop to be safe, stop to be alive. Tomorrow is another day, and with it comes more wine, more art, more music, more passion, more magic. Inch by inch, row by row, the future blossoms.
Categories: Wine & Poetry