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Lynn Emanuel: Some Notes on Intoxication and Simile

In this narrow world…a single familiar object smiles at me:  the phial of laudanum:  old and terrible love; like all loves, alas! fruitful in caresses and treacheries. — Baudelaire.


I have distilled these paragraphs from a talk I gave on an AWP panel entitled “Strong Medicine: The Poetry of Addiction.”  The panelists included Nick Flynn, Kaveh Akbar, and Dawn McGuire and Owen Lewis, two physician-poets.  When asked to participate, I initially turned down the invitation. I’ve written only one poem whose straightforward subject is addiction. However, the panel invited us not only to discuss the theme and subject of addiction but also, (and for me this was the most interesting part), we were invited to explore the way addiction was part of the constitution and design of our poetry.  


If my mother had not been an alcoholic, I might not have been a poet. My mother’s alcoholism underwrote a great deal of the writing in my first books. While I do not write about alcoholism, and the subject of alcoholism is not my subject, I do write from alcoholism; it is the style and structure of my poetry that have been influenced by the style and structure of the drinker—


which is, as Walter Benjamin calls it, in his book Illuminations, the “empathy of intoxication,” the ability of the intoxicated to abandon oneself and become something else. Quoting Benjamin, “The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else…  Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes. For him alone, all is open.” 

For me the poetic trope of empathy, par excellence, is the simile.

“Like” enacts the activity of the poet entering not only another person, not only a someone but a something, it can turn a girl’s pale arm into the belly of a fish, a glass of beer into a lamp, or a flower into a prison.  It is almost a verb. “Like signals a muscular jump in a text.   It requires the reader to keep two terms in mind (as does a metaphor) but not as seamlessly as a metaphor. The power of metaphor is its suddenness.  It is the trope of simultaneity and speed. “Juliet is the sun” is an assertion in a way that “My love is like a red, red rose” is not. A simile is not God speaking.  In a simile, a reader can see, if only for a split second, the hand of the poet stitching her two terms together. It is a very mortal trope. “Like” not only reveals the activity of the poet, it is also the forthright enactment of her longing.  A metaphor is a clinch, an amorous embrace; a simile is one half of an equation longing to be joined with the other.  And that longing is as eternal as that of the lovers’ on Keats’ urn.  The thirst of the simile is never slaked; the lovers never touch, the two terms never completely join. If a metaphor is an instantaneous transformation, the simile reveals the ache for transformation and the impossibility of transformation in the same trope.  The simile is always an imperfect equation—it is the longing not to be completed but complicated by otherness.

As for me, as a child, alcoholism is a feminine and interior activity, a domestic activity; it is maternal.  It has, as one of my fellow panelists wrote to me, “the aspect of connection and intoxicatory warmth.”  Late at night I am lonely and standing in the doorway of my dark bedroom under this spell: My mother asleep, passed out, in a butterfly chair, the living room reassuringly lit by a warm goblet of lager—The pin pricks of carbonation, rising toward the surface, were like (this was the 1950s) beads of effervescence rising from the skins of mermaids swimming behind their windows in swank Las Vegas bars.

It was the text of drinking that most deeply established the lesson of the simile for me. For me similes are homages to mothering. Through my mother I learned to accept and enter dramatic dualities: sobriety and inebriation, transformation and return.  A part of what I learned was the link between poet and drinker as similar empaths, even as similar creators. To be her daughter, to be mothered by her, taught me much about poetry as an embrace of the irreconcilable.  

In this poem, the narrator becomes her mother, drinking and simile are engines of transformation.  Through their agency, I return to this training ground of poetry. Within simile’s imperfect embrace, I can be myself and not myself; rather, I can be like myself and I can be like my mother.  The incomparable privilege of being someone or something else– For me the simile is the most intoxicating trope in English.

Copyright 2019 Lynn Emanuel

Lynn Emanuel (Photo: Heather Kresge)

3 comments on “Lynn Emanuel: Some Notes on Intoxication and Simile

  1. Sylvia R
    July 1, 2022

    Thiss is a great blog

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Arlene Weiner
    June 23, 2019

    “Distilled” is an interesting word in this context. Thank you for this empathetic piece.

    Liked by 1 person

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