Poetry Friday: The Whiskey Box Sonnets

Jun 8, 2018

When you write poems, and you own a bar, and you’re a little bored during the winter, you come up with The Whiskey Box Sonnets. At least that’s what Flagstaff poet James Jay did. He gives us the next installment of KNAU’s series Poetry Friday.

Flagstaff poet and bar owner James Jay
Credit Jon Bannon

Hello, my name is James Jay and I’m a poet in Flagstaff, and I own a bar here. From those two things this last winter, I ended up working on a project which I call the Whiskey Box Sonnets. I was doing some inventory in the liquor room one day and I was taking the boxes out and I started unpacking this Connemara 12-year, this Irish whiskey, this peated Irish whiskey that was just absolutely gorgeous, this box, and it seemed like a shame to waste it. So I pulled it out of there and I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do with it, but I ended up pulling the flaps up, and slowly I started thinking about directions and the way things move and unfold, which made me think of the sonnet, which I’ve always considered a directional form. And there’s all kinds of rules that we learn in high school, but I’ve always thought of the sonnet as something that teaches me which way to look. So, I unpacked this Connemara 12-year and started writing on the back of it and ended up with whiskey boxes every week, of course. And I was working with the idea of work with what you’ve got, not what you want, and what I had with these goofy boxes and kind of a faint notion of writing a poem on the back. From that these poems came out.

“Whiskey Box Nebraska”

I found the scanned arrest record for my great grandpa first

through the genealogy research to which I subscribed monthly.

Bad check writing. Sixteen years old. Nebraska.

The family had come down on tough times.

He only found the ledgers, claimed his confession

to the court. It’s not like he pilfered firsthand.

Buy of this what you want.

He’s not my great grandpa anyway.

He’s yours. Your family had come down

on those old and familiar tough times.

Whatever makes you feel better keep.

The rest toss back, so many tiny fish hooked

on a wide sea of bad luck. You passed those bum

checks, so you’d be in a tale, whatever the role.

Because you went quietly, the sheriff kept

the cuffs loose. The rest the evidence is my record.

“Whiskey Box IX: The Mackay Poet”

Like a stag, tall, lean,

alert, you

must sneak about

to spot him.

Forget about the town

from which he hailed.

History swiftly and

certainly has.

It’s of no help

anyway. Logic

for ones such as us

is no way to wander.

Squint your tired eyes

at the end of the work day.

Breathe. Mad poet

of the Clan Mackay, your blood-

line, scratch for him a half

verse here and here

on stones and wait.

Bone handle knife

like a pen. Reclaimed

steel polished as a song.

Was he ever there,

you ask? In the Highlands

in the light of the first

rising of the sun,

don’t tell him how

to be.  With a strong hand,

manu forti,

on a hilt he speaks,

if you don’t like my poems,

you don’t like me—