Poem of the Week |

Drug Abuse and Alcohol Abuse Are Not Created Equal

The fury an addict's ruined face evoked is no excuse for inconsistent charity: Hagit Grossman confronts her guilt.

Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
'Something that had once been a smile. 'La Calavera Catrina,' zinc etching by José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913).
'Something that had once been a smile. 'La Calavera Catrina,' zinc etching by José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). Credit: Wikipedia
Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden

Poem for an Addict

Hagit Grossman

A poem for an addict who infuriates me
I didn’t give her a coin because once
She had a full and beautiful face
And now the drugs have eroded her cheeks
And she looks like a corpse begging for spare coins
And I gave to Andre the drunk two and to her none
And I told Andre I’d write a poem about him
And Andre was glad and stood next to me
On the street corner and wandered around
And didn’t want to leave
And then she came
With something that had once been a smile
And she puckered up and tried to lift her cheeks
And I told her that I’d given everything
To Andre
And she smiled with embarrassment and walked away
And I dragged her home on my back
And couldn’t fall asleep
Because of her hellish body, still smoldering
And because of my regret that I hadn’t give her a shekel
Or fifty. All in all
Just a bill in my purse
All in all just a ticket
To something connected to life.

From “Ra’ad Ha’ir,” Keshev, 2013; translated from Hebrew by Benjamin Balint in “Trembling of the City,” forthcoming in April, 2016 from Shearsman Books, London.

Pity and fear in a work of art, said Aristotle, bring about catharsis in the spectator, a cleansing of the soul after viewing the downfall in a tragedy of a hero or heroine of stature.

Hagit Grossman and translator Benjamin Balint. Credit: Zoe Grindea

Here, fear and pity in urban life lead not to catharsis but rather to sleeplessness and remorse. The narrator recounts a small street drama. The other characters are pitiable but not heroic: an alcoholic man and a woman raddled by narcotics,who “infuriates” the narrator.

Why? There are two types of explanations for addiction, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive. One is collective: The addict, when someone of no particular distinction or celebrity, is a “victim of society”, which is at fault. The other is personal: Individuals are responsible for their own bad choices.

The social explanation predominates on the policy level – support for rehabilitation facilities, for example – but in one-on-one (non-professional) encounters, along with the basic human flight response to anything smacking of death, the notion of individual responsibility prevails, as it does for the woman in the poem. Hence fury. The addict is punished for “looking like a corpse” – and does not receive money.

However, alcoholic Andre – the name makes him real – is sort of companionable and he received two coins. His weakness is forgivable – social drinking is acceptable and the beverage industry is a lively part of the economy.

Narcotics addicts tend not to be pleasant company and the dope trade is linked to crime and to financing terror.

After the addict departs, for the narrator, pity suddenly replaces fear. Everything shifts. She can’t shake the image of the frail addict (“I dragged her home on my back”). Remorse sets in for having been unkind and judgmental. The two coins near the beginning of the poem balloon into NIS 50 – “a ticket to something connected to life.” In a kind of atonement, the poem she promised to write for Andre becomes the “Poem for an Addict” in the title.

Hagit Grossman was born in 1976 in Rishon Lezion and lives in Tel Aviv. She has published three books of poetry.

Translator Benjamin Balint lives in Jerusalem and is the author of Running Commentary (2010).

*Musing: What if the addict had been Janis Joplin or Amy Winehouse?

*Bonus: “They say it’ll kill you but they don’t say when” – Dave van Ronk sings “Cocaine”.



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