Review: “The Drug Of Choice” by Christopher Cahill

The Drug Of Choice by Christopher Cahill

Publisher: Turtle Point Press || Buy: Amazon UK / Amazon USA || More: Goodreads

The Drug Of Choice is a collection that celebrates Christopher Cahill’s home city, New York. New York has, of course, been recreated in pretty much every art form there is. It is perfectly understandable that a writer wants to celebrate their home, and no one can help where they’re born, but finding something new to say about somewhere that already enjoys such a prominent role in popular culture is always going to be difficult.

The first few poems struggle. The influence of another New York Poet, Frank O’Hara, seems to dominate. The colloquial voice is important in poetry, but it is often used lazily: poems beginning “And then…”, “So I…”, or variations on the conversational theme begin to grate quickly. Thankfully, The Drug Of Choice kicks this habit quickly, and the collection settles down to an impressive exploration of form, theme and language.

The strongest poem is “NYC”. The poem has a visual impact: the seven-line stanzas alternate long and short lines, in a style that alludes to, but doesn’t imitate, George Herbert’s “Easter Wings”. The poem has twenty-one stanzas and the tone and subject matter are far from devotional. Images are layered on images, as we read of “bums, well-hung / callboys, repairers of lutes, / scubadivers, / muffdivers, rabbinical scholars“. This could become a repetitive list, but the form, meaning and the sound of the language struggle throughout, giving the poem a visceral quality.

Traditional forms are used or adapted throughout to explore images that seem at once timeless and momentary. “Ocelle”, a sonnet, uses questions of grammar – “like whether it’s ‘mistaken’ or ‘mistook’” – to wrestle with a fleeting image of beauty. Its form is familiar, but the poem doesn’t quite fit: it is a Petrarchan sonnet, but the octave and sestet are the opposite way round. The reader has to pause and re-read it. The second reading reveals details: the confusion between “mistaken” and “mistook” echoes a reference to a “mismatched bikini” a few lines earlier. The metre is also awkward, snagging the attention. Ultimately, meaning proves to be as elusive as the moment the poem struggles to depict.

“The Hunchback of Nuestra Señora De Refugio in Matamuros” is a villanelle, a tricky form to pull off: the form can overpower the poem, and the repetition can become comical. Here, it is used to describe a tiring encounter at the end of the narrator’s “worst day“. The narrator seems bound in a perpetual struggle with an attendant who “gave me water when I asked for gasoline“. The sequence adds variations with each repetition, taking in “idiot peasants“, “Valvoline” and “Santana’s ‘Black Magic Woman / Gypsy Queen’“. The heat of the day and the speaker’s exasperation are tangible by the time the poem reaches its resigned ending “She gave me water when I asked for gasoline / and I’m still bound to the flogging machine“.

The Drug Of Choice uses a diverse range of styles and references to recreate a city which can be over familiar. Form and language interact to recreate the sensations of the modern city in a way that straightforward colloquial language often fails.

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Having spent most of his twenties trying to be a musician Jason Jawando was finally forced to give up and get a proper job.  He began writing fiction and poetry in his early thirties and has been published in a number of print and online publications.