The rhyme of “business” with “Is-ness” is worth looking into. The is-ness arises from recognition: “‘You’re in business.’ / ‘OW’ he responded.” It’s all about the trade-offs, fame on one hand, which leads to the legacy of reputation—what most any artist wants—and on the other, the “OW”, the pain and ravage of the alcoholism that he felt was the driving force behind his reputation but that he also knew was killing him. “The subject: triumph—disaster.” Linked, like in the Asian art featuring dragons and hunting tigers of the middle stanza. When a tiger makes a kill, it’s triumph or disaster, depending on your point of view. Objectively, it’s both at once. The poem establishes pretty decisively that the poet’s life is both and that alcohol is behind both aspects of his success:
God’s own problem, whistled the whiskey priest.
I cannot help him. But, if he repents,
I’ll do what I can, man.
Like exorcize: a slow process: at least,
unless he dies, he’ll scream with less vehemence
and we’ll get the Devil a bus ticket.
So this art is a vehement scream, a caterwauling, and a simple inevitable consequence of his managing to stay alive. Maybe it’s a bit pretentious to cast one’s alcoholism in such cosmic/religious imagery, but it was his world he was writing about. I suppose we’re all narcissists to some extent.
I’ll Never Belong Here
If I choke on phrases
Like they’re fish bones
And I forget for a moment the pluck it takes
To reach down my throat
And yank that white, curved needle
Out of my left tonsil
Let me stammer
Gagging like a freshman.
Nod, smile, radiate your encouragement—
Chalk his failure at the podium
Up to a bad day
And forget that I ever lived.
I imagine back eight hundred years.
Tearing the skin
Of their backs over
Thirty seconds of stone
Rapture in a dank latrine.
They lived, pleasured,
Suffered for it, sin
Paid for, they thought, in pain—
Their passage to grace—
Until only the pain mattered
Stammering joyful vespers
That stuck in their throats
Silent, finally, on their kneelers
Longing for the whip.