I don’t want folks to think I always named poems after old movies or songs, tho I am a fan of the Jack Lemmon-Lee Remick film & Mancini’s great tune of the same name; & at one time I was quite a fan of the Dream Syndicate album, The Days of Wine & Roses. Of course the title ultimately derives from the following lines by 19th century British poet Ernest Dowson from his poem Vitae Summa Brevis:
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
Dowson is an obscure figure, yet he also provided the inspiration for Margaret Mitchell’s title Gone with the Wind; the phrase comes from his poem Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae (clearly Mr Dowson was fond of Latin titles). In addition to inspiring Mitchell, this poem provided the inspiration for Cole Porter’s song “Always True to You in My Fashion.”
My version of “The Days of Wine & Roses” was written not too long after I moved to San Francisco—probably in 1990. The poem previously appeared in the wonderful ‘zine Chump; thanks again to the editors, who were so supportive of my poetry.
The Days Of Wine & Roses
The hard part's keeping his feet; the tilt
jars him & is he a pinball machine
or just some guy whose wingtips understand craving?
A Wurlitzer orbiting, the world felt tipsy then,
a porkpie hat tipped on its axis—
but what doesn't veer slantwise windblown down boulevards?
A hat lost from a romantic flick
whose owner must think piano Manhattan
Studebacker; & too he thinks bouquets
but it's actually stemware catching
Pall Mall's reflections.
All right, the barroom's not bigger than
the Orient Express, but it's going places,
it's a quarter spun into a slot to ring up jackpots, it's
Jimmy Cagney's tripping-to-catch-his-straw-hat-
song-&-dance, it's upside-down
Chinese flowers in fishponds; &
he needed to feel the lurch, & it wasn't
the gusts rustling big trousers,
it wasn't the wind knocking off his porkpie hat,
it was the way the world moved then,
& he liked anyhow to get swept off his feet,
he said, as who doesn't?
Meanwhile, Sally walked inside revolving doors;
she's both there & not there, like
Gene Tierney in Laura.
But she's on time of course, so much so it's scary,
she's a sweep second hand stared at.
She arrives, he says, like Billy Holiday's tide
washing up B flats, murder mysteries, Old Fashioneds,
& what's more, inevitable things:
fortune cookies, a pretzel's twist, pearls strung into
a nervous breakdown,
this & so much more she comes in with.
He'd rather lounge inside the mirror lighting her
beautiful Lucky Strikes, her smoky orchids.
This must have been what it was like those days,
like a plastic tuxedo lit up all night in
the dry cleaning shop next door,
electrified but yellow as lemon ice, & like
a champagne cork rocketing past escape velocity
from Times Square, New Year's 19-anything,
like pink carnations peddled in the train station like
Shanghai contraband, it was like that
to be young & in love, both wearing sports coats,
& these larger than thought, & with such deep pockets.
This must have been what it was like,
this world: more his oyster than any shooter he slurped
awash in lager through Happy Hour.
Sometimes he gets so choked up he's hearing torch songs
sung 10 feet deep in a swimming pool
(& ripples radiate green from a hat afloat but
the water's not waxed paper flower wrappers, it
flickers a Chablis quart's anemic green glass)
sung 10 feet deep in a swimming pool
at 2 a.m. as the party moves elsewhere &
a corsage sinks in the deep end,
tragic as a blonde.
It was a rosé bottle dropped, was them, was
hats snatched from the haberdashers, them, was
flowers carried off on a subway, was
them, he & Sally, wobbly, asking,
Why does someone always have to drown.