Out from the Swamp: Al Maginnes’ “The World of Whiskey”

by Gabrielle Freeman

Last week while on a five-mile walk on our town’s Greenway, a path that alternates between asphalt and wooden bridge, a path of light filtered through oak and walnut leaves, a path bordered in morning glories and Carolina jasmine, a friend and I tried to figure out just where we had acquired our obsession with dark fantasy, black comedy, and the macabre. Like you do.

After much talk of books, movies, and television shows; of Lecter, Dexter, and Pennywise, we decided it was most likely TV series we had watched as kids that sparked our interest in (and natural bent toward) these genres of the shadows. Darkroom, One Step Beyond, Tales from the Crypt; these are a few of the titles that came up. But my epiphany of the afternoon was that my tastes in literature, tv, and film were directly influenced by the Twilight Zone. This really shouldn’t have been a surprise. Every 4th of July of my childhood was spent watching the Twilight Zone Marathon on LA’s channel 13. Wishing people away into the cornfield, “It’s a cookbook!”, and “My name is Talking Tina, and I don’t like you,” became a part of my vocabulary. It’s just that, for whatever reason, I had never consciously thought of the “dimension of sight and sound” as dark fantasy/ black comedy/ macabre before.

Anyway, it’s safe to say that if a poem offers alternate methods of thinking, if it straddles accepted lines or rips them apart; murky lines of smoke lazing up in a a shadowy bar, lines of light and dark through half-closed slats of window blinds, lines between realms of existence; I’m probably going to want to read it. I was excited to read the latest issue of Shenandoah when it came out last week — the noir issue. A whole issue of intrigue, morality plays, silk stockings, off-screen sex and murder? Sign me up. The poems did not disappoint, but one in particular stood out: Al Maginnes’ “The World of Whiskey.”

At first, I wasn’t sure how this poem fit the theme. It takes its inspiration from the blues lyrics “If the river was whiskey and I was a duck / Might swim to the bottom, never come up.” The imagery in the poem evokes a primordial swamp butted up against an ancient forest, of a creature early on the evolutionary timeline crawling out of the murk on to land: “And as we slipped into / the first fringes of tree-shade, / we found ourselves wanting / to sing for the first time / in a long while” (lines 19-23). 

After reading editor RT Smith’s comments on the issue, I realized that not all of the selections in the issue deal in noir. But after reading the poem several times, I came to understand that part of what I love about this poem, part of what works in this poem, is the juxtaposition of dark fantasy, black comedy, and the macabre; all of which are arguably part of the noir feel. The blues lyrics are humorous. Imagine a drunk duck diving to the bottom over and over again. It’s funny, but literally, the speaker would love to be drowned in whiskey forever. The speaker contemplates escaping his world through alcohol, permanently.

In the poem, the speaker includes the reader in a collective “we” who descend into an underworld, into a world of whiskey “Mired in sand and duckweed” (line 7). This is Lethe,  the limbo where alcohol makes us forget, where we stare “up through ambered layers […] searching the ice-melted memory of the sun” (lines 8-12). We are only pulled from the liquid prison by disembodied voices drifting through the trees and a desire to join them.

Maginnes writes a fantasy world complete with real world horrors. There is a membrane between the worlds of whiskey and, presumably, sobriety that is not easily broken. There is a world beneath where we float (“Down here, we all float,” with all apologies) aimlessly and forget, and there is a world above where we may emerge, dripping, and add our voices to the song of the world.

Read “The World of Whiskey” here, and check out the rest of the Shenandoah noir issue here.

Maginnes, Al. “The World of Whiskey.” Shenandoah. 64.1 (2014). Web. 12 Oct. 2014.