Glyn Maxwell’s The Sugar Mile is a unique exploration in poetry. The poet takes us on a journey into the past and back into the present, fluctuating between both to convey the trials and horrors of WWII in Britain against the backdrop of present-day impending disaster from the terrorist attack on America on September 11, 2001.
The setting is a bar in New York and conversations between a poet, a bar regular named Joe Stone (a fellow Brit) and the bartender and other folk in the establishment. Through the unique voices of each character, a story develops, entwining the story of the Blitz on Britain with the new reality of aggressive terrorism in modern America.
We’re introduced to the human bar fixture, Joe Stone, in the poem “Raul Chalking Up Specials.” We learn from Raul the bartender that
Don’t worry guy, that’s Joe. Joe’s got issues.
The bartender relates that sometimes, without realizing it, anyone can become a fixture in a bar as well, eventually not paying cash but running a tab and living a good part of one’s life in a bar for whatever personal reasons or issues. Through Joe Stone’s reminisces, the reader learns more about life in London, England, during the Blitz by the Nazis in WWII.
Maxwell takes us back to London in the poem “Granny May on the Stairs” and relates how people in their homes during the Blitz could hear other areas of the city being bombed, fearing that family and friends could be dying. This poem highlights the arbitrariness of death and the fear that enveloped the city and the nation during that time.
The poem “Robbie Pray Taking Off His Gas Mask” highlights how the citizens of London tried to live a typical daily life even with the threat of destruction from aerial bombardment a continuing reality. The highlight of this poem is the everyday banter of a family talking to Joe Stone, who back then was delivering ice cream to the home.
In the poem “Raul Emptying Ashtrays”, the irony lies in how Raul gently jibes at the two British bar patrons, the poet and Joe Stone about how America always has to protect Britain. Raul states
You nap, we’ll take the watch.
The paradox here is that in a few days America will be under attack—in essence having napped as well as concerns their own security. The present-day time period in the bar is a few days before 9/11.
Joe Stone relates how on Black Saturday, the beginning of the worst of the Nazi Blitz on London, he was on his bike and saw “this mass of planes”; it is evident that these memories have stuck with him and haunted him to the present day. He talks of how homes were destroyed and people they knew were being brought out on stretchers dead, covered in sheets. The horror of this time is shown in the simple words
That house it’s disappeared.
The contrast to this past gloom is Raul in the present in the bar in New York, not seeming to have a care in the world, really, and anticipating better future employment prospects to better himself. He talks of moving up in the world of catering. This exemplifies the optimistic attitude in America before September 11, 2001.
In essence, this is the heart of The Sugar Mile: it looks back in history at the terrible time of the Blitz, a Brit reliving past warfare and relating it in a 21st-century bar to people who have no inkling that a terrorist Blitz is about to come down on them on September 11, 2001, changing America and the country’s feeling of security.
Without spoiling the continuing story in the book, the crux of what is going to happen in New York and its effects on the city, the nation, and even the world, is explicitly conveyed in the poem “Raul Fixing A Cosmopolitan. “ The final stanza in this poem foreshadows the blistering drama about to take place in NYC.
The idiosyncrasies of the various voices in this verse drama and the conversational way that historic events are related was a bit of a challenge for me as a reader—one who enjoys more traditional, straightforward narrative poetry. However, the subject matter, and the seriousness of it, is what really drives this poetry collection, and what makes The Sugar Mile a worthwhile read.