interpreter.

Jeet Thayil’s The Heroin Sestina.

***************

What was the point of it? The stoned
life, the chased, snorted, shot life. Some low
comedy with a cast of strangers. Time
squashed flat. The 1001 names of heroin
chewed like language. Nothing now to know
or remember but the dirty taste

of it, and the names: snuff, Death, a little taste,
H — pronounce it etch —, sugar, brownstone,
scag, the SHIT, ghoda gaadi, #4 china, You-Know,
garad, god, the gear, junk, monkey blow,
the law, the habit, material, cheez, heroin.
The point? It was the wasted time,

which comes back lovely sometimes,
a ghost sense say, say that hard ache taste
back in your throat, the warm heroin
drip, the hit, the rush, the whack, the stone.
You want it now, the way it lays you low,
flattens everything you know

to a thin white line. I’m saying, I know
the pull of it: the skull rings time
so beautiful, so low
you barely hear it. Itch this blind toad taste.
When you said, “I mean it, we live like stones,”
you broke something in me only heroin

could fix. The thick sweet amaze of heroin,
helpless its love, its know-
ledge of the infinite. Why push the stone
back up the hill? Why not leave it with the time-
keep, asleep at the bar? Try a little taste
of something sweet that a sweet child will adore, low

in the hips where the aches all go. Allow
me in this one time and I’ll give you heroin,
just a taste
to replace the useless stuff you know.
Some say it comes back, the time,
to punish you with the time you killed, leave you stone

sober, unknowing, the happiness chemical blown
from your system, unable to taste the word heroin
without wanting its stone one last time.

*****************

Let’s walk (drift?) through it, thinking about heroin.

First: a sestina! Note the repeated final words from stanza to stanza (with a few variations): heroin, taste, know, low, time, stone. Circling around again and again to those words conveys the obsessive ritual nature of the addiction dance itself, the getting-nowhere, time squashed flat, everything you know flattened to a thin white line recurrency of using. But also: Our sense as we read of the mental burdens the form imposes gives us access to the oppressive intellectual puzzle that generates the poem itself: Why would anyone inject heroin? Low, dirty, Death, junk, wasted…

Or, as Jeff Deeny writes:

The addicting substance is characterized as “cunning, baffling and powerful.” It sounds like a cliché until someone with more than two decades clean, with a beautiful family and a career that is the envy of the world trades it in for a glassine envelope of dope and a set of works.

The speaker of the poem, a former user still drawn – by the mere invocation of the word heroin – to the drug, poses the question. Why trade death for life? So the poem is a typical lyric in that it represents one musing consciousness questioning (insistently, repeatedly, and not very productively; hence the sestina choice) itself. Why did I do that? Why do I still want to?

The bizarre but familiar answer the poem provides is that a lot of people really like – adore – feeling dead. They find irresistibly seductive the idea of Stop the World I Want to Get Off. If you are astounded by something as massive as propofol – a drug “used exclusively by anesthesiologists” being in Michael Jackson’s blood, you should consider that fatal doses of propofol are the logical extension – given enough money and the capacity to find ways around rules – of the I Want to Be Dead idea.

Time squashed flat. Wasted time.

the way it lays you low,
flattens everything you know

to a thin white line. I’m saying, I know
the pull of it: the skull rings time
so beautiful, so low
you barely hear it.


… When you said, “I mean it, we live like stones,”
you broke something in me only heroin

could fix. The thick sweet amaze of heroin,
helpless its love, its know-
ledge of the infinite. Why push the stone
back up the hill?

Sisyphean life is one damn thing after another. Pushing the stone up the hill. A meaningless suffering that simply persists – deepens – until time ends it with our physical deaths. But if we end time? Heroin takes us into a strange micro and macro reality: It reduces everything in the world to itself, its thin white line, the immediacy for the user of the particular works he’s manipulating when he’s using. But heroin at the same time expands the universe out to infinity. It takes away our small painful one stone after another wretchedly individual lives and gives us instead a skull in which the flame of time and the self has been radically lowered, to the point where, subdued as specific suffering time-bound beings, our immortal souls (if you like) rise to the ether of the cosmic, the infinite, the non-human. Heroin isn’t death; it’s the glorious sensation of liberating oneself into non-being. As in Doris Lessing’s story To Room Nineteen:

delightfully, darkly, sweetly, letting herself slide gently, gently, to the edge of the river

So sweet is the thick amaze, the user risks being

unable to taste the word heroin
without wanting its stone one last time

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