A Review of Julie Sheehan’s "Bar Book"

Bar Book, Julie Sheehan
Norton, 2010, 978-0-39-307217-4, $24.95

A Review of Bar Book by Julie Sheehan on Fogged Clarity

Bar Book, Julie Sheehan’s third title, is a concoction of poetry and prose. Sheehan centers the book around the voice of an American barmaid; and what unfolds is a narrative of lost comfort and security–both emotional and financial. Life does not always go as one planned.

More devastating is the barmaid’s sense of pain and struggle to hang on to giving focused love to her daughter while struggling with her own lacerated senses of self. Her sense of being worthy of love has taken (and rendered) a hit in an infantile divorce scramble. The poems, footnotes, charts, and prose passages fall into three cleverly titled sections: “Lunch Shift,” “Swing Shift,” and “Night Shift.”

Sheehan is artful. Sometimes poems are delivered in the voice of cocktails. The cocktails seem more successful with their boundaries than some of the help or clientele. The ingredients of lives behind and before the bar seem to fare better when more gently stirred than meanly shaken. Sober labor, ceremony, and privilege give way to entitlement, entrapment, and stealth.

And I’m like, sweet pea, homeboy,
listen up Queen Mab, you shush your lip
before Gabe rams a fist through those pearly white

fangs of yours. And he’s like, “Oooooh, you know
him?” Know him! Mother of Mailer, I’m meeting him
in twenty minutes at the Slaughterhouse.

(“Tom Collins” p. 22)

And here is another bar side dish:

And yet, I never heard a single call for Fernet-Branca,
though there was plenty of moaning about hangovers. It’s
in the sort of upscale bistro where I tended bar that you find
the kind of person who would order it: gallery owners,
executive directors of foundations, Brazilians on their
marathon holidays, Brits. Anyone who wears a Windsor
knot over a secret history of TV dinners.

(“How to Cure a Hangover,” p. 27)

Julie Sheehan Review on Fogged Clarity

In bar recipes, what’s mixed is not unmixed. And if a barmaid vigilantly does her side-work and stocking in advance, she does not have an erratic shift full of deficits and sideline surprises. But life’s recipe may be a bit trickier. The barmaid will have to bootstrap her way through to a more complex justice.

In “Swing Shift,” the second section of the collection, disappointment and lost possibility give over to bitterness, exposed desperations, and cruelties. But the rage is always hinged—and directed. After all, the barmaid has a daughter to ground her. Perhaps she recalls having read a famous question from Oscar Wilde: “Who, being loved, is poor?”

“Night Shift” roams all over the map. The barmaid even takes a literal swipe at ex-President Bush as the patriarchal warlord. Fierce, Sheehan makes it fit and stays inside of Bar Book’s frame. The collection is chocked full of wisdom for the spiritually thirsty: careful with the stout; careful with the sweet and oily froth of cream. Laying out a life takes foresight and trust: a little transport—and a careful sober look at investment and consequences.

“Do not confuse spiritual with spirituous.” The latter
means loaded with alcohol, the former with soulfulness,
which the latter, some say, instills, though the dictionary
seems keen to separate the two conditions, maintaining
distinction between distilling spirits and instilling spirit.
No semantic knot can be severed succinctly, just as no
drink can be unmixed.

(“Spirits” p. 35)