Elevate Difference

Bar Book: Poems and Otherwise

Julie Sheehan’s third collection brims with a jumble of lyric verse, snippets of conversation, and wry prose reflection. The pieces take their titles from the outlandishly suggestive names of drinks: “Brandy Stinger,” for example, the opening poem, features the voice of an older woman boozily bemused by the plight of the modern (divorcing) woman: “All right one more, and that’s final. I don’t envy you/ your loose fits, your quick change.” The bartender, tracking the ebb and flow of the bar through the course of her day (sections are “Lunch Shift,” “Swing Shift,” and “Night Shift”), also tracks the course of a marriage through its grisly demise. One of the great delights of the collection is “On Pouring a Good Stout,” the book’s last piece, which should not be missed.

While the premise might strike the reader as initially cloying (“How to Make a Shirley Temple,” “Whiskey Sour,” “Jägermeister, Double Shot,” really?) I was immediately drawn in by the raw emotional timbre that sustained a lively chorus of competing voices in their shades of irony, passion, and indifference. The bartender’s increasing bitterness and vitriol is not given a solo stage, but is crowded, challenged, and occasionally ignored by a roomful of onlookers: friends, quirky patrons, husband and daughter all get to have their own say.

I am convinced, at the book’s end, that the metaphor of the bar is in fact brilliant. In the seemingly simple analogy, numerous facets of this woman’s experience are illuminated: she works, she mothers, she serves, she fights for and against a marriage. The metaphor suggests also both fuzzy intimacy of social bonding and the dangerous potential of overindulgence, the violence and vomit that spoils intimacy. Apt for teasing out a relationship gone awry.

What is perhaps most compelling about the collection—and the metaphor of the bar—is that it keenly appreciates the troubled role of traditional institutions. Marriage, the Church, Writing, as well as the ancient art of Mixing Drinks are all arenas in which the woman finds herself in a perplexing bind between loyalty and revolt. Some of the most compelling poems in the collection reflect on motherhood (“Malted Barley” juxtaposed with “Progress Report from Tiny Neglected Dears Day Care Center” is gorgeous); Shirley Temple is compared with the subversive prayer of Mary’s Magnificat, in which the privileged of the world topple; Religion is “Old Fashioned,” but the poems are both framed as, and interspersed by, prayers (the section “Prayers for the People” subverts church with realism and wit without losing affection for intercession); and the tradition of writing itself is emulated by the self-presenting poet, and subverted, as particularly in the scene in which famous poems are wrenched apart and used as ammunition in a confused and magical fight between the woman and her husband. In all these cases, the writer gracefully combines sober critique with affectionate appreciation.

The reader will cheerfully forgive some campy punning (“the mind of a bartender stays fluid”) for the delight of this biting, sophisticated, intoxicating book.

Written by: Elaine James, August 20th 2010