It is no mistake that Terence Winch’s latest collection, Boy Drinkers, begins with a poem entitled “Comfort.” These lovely, human poems represent a search for just that, in a world that offers little in the way of genuine security. Set up as a catalogue of Winch’s teachers (Fathers, Mothers and Brothers, all, for Boy Drinkers is also a unique window into a Catholic boyhood), the collection-and each individual poem-builds with the hope that someone will provide the comfort and be the mentor, the friend, the agent (or angel) who will ease entry into adult life. Alas, teachers, religious icons, and Winch’s actual parents alike fail here. Growing up, in Winch’s collection, is ultimately solitary and bewildering, though he paints it gently and with a good deal of humor.
The opening stanza of “Comfort” introduces a man who is beloved and seems to provide real solace:
Father Ray Byrne quickly became
a star. He played sports, danced,
sang, told jokes.
He was a man of the people, and we loved him
for that. He came to our apartments
and brought us comfort.
However, by the end of the poem both Byrne and the comfort he once offered become hollow. He painfully misreads the teenaged Winch by suggesting that he might have the priesthood in his future:
I wasn’t considering the priesthood.
I didn’t even think professional basketball
was a possibility any more. God had walked
out the door about a year before,
when I was sixteen, and never looked back,
even though I begged him not
to leave me, alone and weeping
in this valley of tears.
Here Winch seamlessly weaves comedy and tragedy, the personal or conversational and the highly lyrical, and points to the event that left him in desperate need of comfort in, ironically, a world that he also knew could no longer provide it. This is a stamp of Winch’s work — the acknowledgement that we live in “the sad world of men” (as he writes in “Human”) coupled with the dogged pursuit of joy and humor in that world.
So how does one persevere? One option: alcohol. The poem from which the collection takes its name is a funny and moving meditation on the ways in which people — especially teenagers — often lead two very different lives at the same time. Part One of this two-part poem seems a typical enough description of the pleasures of underage drinking:
In the bars…
the excitement of intoxication
filled our souls,
made everything pulse…
Winch tells us he had his first drink at fourteen and then “drank and drank for years.” This line comes to mean more as the poem’s careful journey unwinds; “Boy Drinkers” is a prime example of one of Winch’s particular skills: crafting deceptively simple poetry-poetry that, through its accessible, down-to-earth cadences, beckons casually like a best friend (or, perhaps, a regular at the bar) and then, when you least expect it, takes aim at the heart.
“Boy Drinkers” turns out to be a poem about the death of the poet’s mother. Significantly, Winch references her in Part One: “When we were sick as children / my mother gave us blackberry brandy, / and I later developed a taste for it.” Further, Winch describes how, while the other boys drank Scotch, he chose “the family favorite,” the same brandy he also recalls throwing up one night “over the chain-link fence/in front of Mister Donut.” In Part Two, the symbolism of these references to a distant home life becomes clear. Now, in a world just as present as the other, Winch’s mother is dying. The tone of the poem shifts dramatically from chatty informality to openness and intimacy: “She was crying and I remember / how frightened her weeping made me” and “My father stayed up with her / every night for years, / after having worked all day.” After she dies,
[He] never bounced back
and that was hard for me
to accept and made me angry
at him, although I knew his heart
Father Byrne, too, makes an appearance in this poem, coming to visit Winch’s mother in an attempt to offer comfort. And so, in a single poem, the speaker grows up; he loses his sense of the security and fairness of the world. Even the most popular priest couldn’t save his mother, whose death in turn destroys his father. The act, in Part One, of throwing up his mother’s favorite drink becomes the mode of writing in Part Two where Winch unloads his misery about her death and everything that accompanied it: the same sadness that must be restrained and contained (or, more pointedly, forgotten) in the presence of teenage peers.
And yet, despite the sorrows on display here, the poems of Boy Drinkers are not sorrowful. The book is, in fact, an uplifting read; it’s more funny and knowing than sad, and it holds a universality of experience that one enters into. Or perhaps what one discovers is a universality of feeling: the pleasure of being admitted to a world of strangers who speak your language. For instance, your reviewer didn’t grow up Irish or Catholic (or a boy, for that matter) but this collection spoke to her, its verses much like Father Ray Byrne, who “came to our apartments / and brought us comfort.”