Thirst (Crimmins Poetry Prize Honorable Mention)

From Mexico I brought you a silver and red heart:

                                    a tin corazon to decorate our Christmas tree.

            And after a night in a luckless bar—El Gato Negro

a cocktail recipe: tequila and grapefruit soda—Poloma,

            the Spanish word for ‘dove’, the same pale name

as the stubborn horse I rode

                                                   through Guanajuato

                        without you by my side.


                                                I don’t know what I drank

that other night, an even unluckier bar in old San Miguel.

            Tecate? Negra Modelo? Some other cheap local beer?

La Cucaracha—the Cockroach dive that would not die,

            where Beats like Kerouac and Cassidy loved and fought.

And where local drunkards sighed at my American jibes

            as doe-eyed jotos sized me up from the back wall.


I missed you then, like I did this summer in Shanghai

            on wild Nanjing Road drinking Heinekens with a Hawaiian

named Billy, who never met a bottle of baiju he didn’t like

            —it helped him chase hookers along the city’s neon strip.

Baiju: rotgut Chinese white lightning distilled from sorghum,

            barley or millet. One swig from Billy’s tiny green bottle

and I quickly had my fill of it.


Never brought any home from the trip         —only stories:

of strange fruits, fried scorpions, whiskered fish.

Of the giant Buddhas carved from the Yungang Grottoes,

of the ancient monastery clinging to the Hengshan cliffs.

            I climbed the Great Wall, sang karaoke in Pingyao,

made a friend or two over a bottle of scotch—but for three weeks

among strangers in dirty coal-burning country

                                    it wasn’t just blue sky I missed.


                                                            On my way home

I bought you a bottle of Crown Royal from Toronto,

            duty-free and flavored with maple,


because I liked to imagine the sight of you in your boxers

            bringing pancakes to our breakfast table.

                        Something new to slake your thirst, I said,

handing the brown bottle over.

            You told me to add ice cubes and keep the drink simple:

                                       “We’ll call it a Mrs. Butterworth.”


These days,

            it seems I’m always returning from somewhere far off,

                        even if it’s just back to our conversation at the table.

Our lives drink up the years, I want to say.

                        They burn like a dragon, they sing like a dove.

            Don’t hate me because I can’t keep still

                        and need to fill my cup up to the brim—

                                    I’d drink your heart right now if I could,

                        even if it were silver

                                                        and red

                                                                           and made of tin.

Kelly McQuain will be a 2015 Fellow at the Lambda Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices in Los Angeles this June. McQuain has published poetry and prose in Painted Bride Quarterly, Redivider, The Philadelphia Inquirer, A&U, Kestrel, The Pinch, Weave and Cleaver, as well as in numerous anthologies, the newest of which is Rabbit Ears: TV Poems (New York Quarterly Books).  His chapbook, Velvet Rodeo, won Bloom magazine’s poetry prize. He hosts Poetdelphia, a literary salon in the City of Brotherly Love.