There is only one way to satisfy those who want you sober, and that is by walking away from the comfort of alcohol, and into a room of uncushioned, dark-hearted truths, an act that defies all layers of logical self-defense.
Virginia Quipp had just entered that room, leaving behind the vodka, and the splendid but unwholesome hush of 4 a.m. It was her second day in that room. Her hands didn’t shake and her nausea was only slight, but at eight in the evening, she sat at her desk facing another night of hateful abstinence. What was it about sobriety that zealots found so alluring?
She looked once again at her thumbnail image on the computer screen, the one gracing her page on the Federation of Canadian Poets website. Above the photograph was her name and a year, 1961. It was the year of her birth, and it was followed by a dash and a blank space, 1961 – . It was a ravenous space, hungry to be filled, but also very patient. Beneath the photograph was a brief bio referencing, among others, her Governor General’s Award, a ponderous stone. And the words, near the bottom: Her next collection is due out in 2016.
1961 – . She placed her hand on the mouse-pad where a drink should have been, but was not. Perhaps there was a book of poetry in this: the hell of anonymity or closet bottles.
Various worldly collisions. Gravities too savage to escape.
Was there tea? Yes, some tea might do in the absence of vodka. Had she brewed some, earlier? Tea, into which she had once poured smoky Tennessee whiskey. It was nostalgia, tea and whiskey. The drink she had enjoyed in her youth, sitting at camp fires or in roadhouses during her lone hitch-hiking journeys through Canada, India and the United States, back before she felt the need to apologise for her choices. It was the drink that had helped her earn her graduate degree, so long ago. Her favourite cocktail, until she discovered the fast-acting convenience of Smirnoff, neat.
She brought up MS Word and looked at her stanza, the one that harassed her by its presence, and its refusal to be followed by another:
there is a forest here
against the will of these steep slopes
trees drawing thought
up from rock and
Her editor had asked for more nature references. Vancouver was surrounded by rainforest, after all. Weren’t its citizens masters of the wilderness?
“No,” she said to the stanza.
It was the junk logic of book-marketing campaigns.
How was a poem written by a sober poet, anyway — when the words lose their mobility, as a result? When there is no river of them, no tsunami, no latent current to pull her under, gloriously? This would be a collection without grace or poise, solely inspired by a previously signed contractual agreement — Her next collection is due out in 2016. Perhaps panic would move her. Perhaps a lapse back into vodkaesque suicidality.
Virginia Quipp knew that a tranquillising world of liquor existed just outside of her door — That’s right, 007, it’s an abundant, colourless, almost flavourless poison. Administered orally, it renders the victim temporarily paralysed, in a state of euphoria.
Her finger began tapping the mouse-pad, hitting the centre of the circle left behind by her last glass as she stared at the stanza, and suddenly thought of Susan. Why, for goodness sake? It had been months. Susan, a woman who was now so gone from her life. The one who’d tried to impose herself upon a lonely drunk poet, but in the end was repulsed by Virginia’s infatuations.
They’d met by accident on a Saturday night, an innocent occurrence, in a rough and tumble east side bar, frequented by longshoremen and failed young Bukowskis. Virginia was there trying to relive some of the rawness of her long departed youth, when Susan arrived at the bar.
“You’re Virginia Quipp,” said the graceful brunette.
“Yes,” said Virginia, uncertain for a moment.
“May I buy you a drink?”
“Of course, but do I know you?”
Susan didn’t ask what Virginia was drinking. Virginia’s choice of poison was well-known. Susan ordered a flute of Prosecco for herself, an unusual drink to have in an establishment with worn felt pool tables and crooked cues. She sipped it so painfully slow.
“Do you have an agent, right now?” Susan had asked.
“Yes, of course,” said Virginia. “What an odd question.” She began to dismiss the idea that this was a chance encounter.
“It’s that Rachel Victor woman, right?”
“Yes,” said Virginia, almost bleakly. Rachel, the woman pressuring her to quit drinking — too many missed meetings, too many forgotten deadlines, too many frightening blackouts.
“I’ve noticed that ol’ Rachel has landed you a very comfortable deal with Harper Collins,” Susan said. “Your last two collections, isn’t it? HC’s rather a stodgy house for a once radical eco-feminist like you, no? I’m an agent myself, just so you understand.”
“I’m not sure I do understand,” Virginia said.
“Well I am, and I’m taking on new clients. Some friends are trying to start a new publishing house, as well, a little like Black Sparrow, we hope. We’d love to have you on our list.”
“Say what you like about Rachel,” said Virginia, sipping. “But most Canadian poets are starving and can’t pay the rent. I, on the other hand, have a nice little house near the Drive, and I’m well fed. Rachel helped me make a name. Besides, I’m writing a novel at the moment, and I’m well positioned for that with HC.” It was corporate babble, and Virginia was ashamed at once. What had happened to her?
Susan placed her card on the bar. “Look me up on the web. I’m not an amateur. I’ve had some successes.” Then she began to walk away, but looking over her shoulder as she did, she said, “Dinner sometime, yes? Call me.”
Was she suggesting a date, or another recruitment opportunity? Virginia slipped the card into her bag, and waited an agonising week before she called to find out.
They dined at Bishop’s on a Friday evening, chatting over salads and the Duck Breast and Wild Spring Salmon. Virginia enjoyed the U’luvka, but really didn’t taste the difference between it and the much cheaper brands she normally drank.
They talked about everything but publishing, and after several drinks, when Susan rested her hand on the table, Virginia gambled and placed her own upon it. Susan pulled away immediately, and the expression on her face made it clear that a boundary had been sorely crossed.
“That’s not what this is about,” she said.
“Yes, I…” Virginia was mortified. “No, I…”
“This is a business dinner,” Susan said. “It’s about business. Whatever made you think it was anything else?”
“But we haven’t discussed business!” said Virginia. “You haven’t mentioned publishing or representing me, even once.” She felt flush, perspiring from every pore.
“Then you’re like all writers, aren’t you. You understand nothing. Business doesn’t have to dominate a conversation, in order to be done. There’s no need for it to be explicit. Not over the course of what was meant to be a relaxed dinner. Besides, I’m not a lesbian and I resent you thinking that I am.”
Susan was right; Virginia understood nothing about business. There had always been someone else to handle it. Rachel Victor had been her agent for twenty-five years, while Virginia skulked in the corner. Rachel did the talking, while Virginia held the business-suited fools round the table in contempt. And how could she have made such a bad assumption about Susan?
Susan signalled the waiter for the bill.
“I’m so sorry,” Virginia said.
Her mind searched for words, and there were none. This had never happened before, but she had always believed that life experience would inform her how to gracefully escape any bad situation. She and her friends had often laughed over the potential for such a gaffe. Now her eloquence had deserted her. She was on a hostile shore, and her enemy was battle-ready, with the advantage of anger and business acumen.
There were so many ways to apologise. But hers turned out to be a drunken one. She became speechless, and looked away.
The waiter was slow. “Damn him,” Susan said.
“Let me pay,” said Virginia. She reached for her bag.
“No,” Susan said, taking a gold card from her pocketbook. “It’s deductible.” Then she dropped the card onto the floor, and it disappeared under her chair. “Fuck. Shit!”
Finally, she stood and walked to the waiter’s station, to settle up. Then she went to the coat check, and walked out the door.
Three days later, Virginia was in the park reading when Susan called.
“I’m sorry,” said Susan. “I over reacted.”
“And I was drunk,” Virginia said.
“We still want you onboard, my friends and I. It would be marvellous. A name like yours is just what a new publishing house needs, and we’ve landed some new investors with deep pockets. You’ll be well compensated, based on royalties of course. When is your current contract up with Rachel?”
“I think I’ll stick with her, Susan. She’s familiar. My life is in need of familiar, right now.”
“Well have her call me, then,” said Susan. “I insist. Maybe she and I can work together.”
“Maybe,” Virginia said.
There was a moment of silence, then Susan said good-bye.
Now at her desk, nearly two days without a drink, her greatest fear was the night ahead. The wages of sobriety were dreadful memories. There was an endless supply of them, by her reckoning, each queuing up for its chance at her.
Defeated, she went to the closet and pulled a bottle out from under a stack of folded blankets. Having never been opened, it was as fresh and full of promise as a morning in June. She took a glass from the kitchen and sat at her computer again, to look at her stanza once more —
there is a forest here
against the will of these steep slopes
trees drawing thought
up from rock and
Then she typed —
I believed by standing here
that this forest was mine and that
for a lifetime, it would remain solid above me
but a lifetime is a poetic thing
that snaps like a stick