Monday, October 21, 2013


A poem inspired by Jack Kerouac's titular Tristessa.

I drink bourbon out of a bag
Tristessa sticks a needle in her arm
After saying her prayers
I'm drinking in the Mexico of my dreams
Tristessa dreams on morphine

Introduced by a mutual gringo
Tristessa, another face in a bar
Full of sweaty, smiling Mexican faces
Who were hopped up on everything
from watered down booze to secret vials of LSD
Meted out microgram by microgram
where the turistas don't go

Neither of us knew of our failings
And it didn't matter much
We were to fill a void in one of the holes
In our respective lives
For me it was the hole in my heart
For Tristessa it was the hole in her arm

I never thought that we would fall in love
Skipping through Mexico nights
Kissing atop topes — Mexican speed bumps
In more ways than one
Dancing to songs I never heard
In a tongue I could barely understand
Tristessa led me home but not to her heart

Darkened rooms with foul smelling couches
The exhumed smoke of cigarettes, weed and desperation
That one couldn't cut with a machete
Making room for fleas and cucarachas
And whoever it was who would fall in your lap
Having given up on the day
Given up on their desires
As their eyes rolled back in their sockets

They'd look at me up and down
The locals did — with a certain disdain —
When we bounced through the town
At two in the morning looking to score
Or when Tristessa let down her black hair
Along with her skirt

It was that time of the month
To pay for her rent
How many months since I'd paid my own?
I lived closer to the Centro
But Tristessa lived closer to the action
We'd pass my landlady who asked for the renta
I'd mumble mañana and she'd shake her fist
As we staggered away on unsteady streets

There were nights, maybe weeks
When we wouldn't be seen
Stocked up on liquor and junk
We never ate much but the occasional soup or
Mexican meat tacos
We would feed off the loneliness of each other
The emptiness of our unguided lives

She had her prayers and her god
I had my koans and my buddha
What we had most of all, was nothing in common
She would be cared for in Heaven or so she believed
I was a monk who could not get it up

How could I fall for this junkie? This whore?
We'd lay side by side on a nude mattress, nude in her bed
The breeze might blow through for a minute or two
Swaying the curtain (or more proper the sheet)
That Tristessa knotted and hung on a nail
We'd laugh at the sound
And the sight of two geckos in love
Having sex in the hole on the ceiling where once hung a fan

Tristessa would glow from the bulb on the street
When the wind wafted through
She'd talk all night about all that was wrong
With her life and the decisions she had made
And the mistakes yet to come true
She tried her best to keep me at bay
Then I'd drift off to sleep while she'd stay awake

Our season would end
Though I had nowhere to go
I had no reason to stay
Headed back north away from the drama
Open blue skies and breaths of fresh air
We'd keep in touch, Tristessa and I
Exchanging letters and lust
While drifting apart

I yearned to return
To save myself and Tristessa
I packed a bag, some favorite books
And left once again the north of my life
Mexico, sweet, intoxicating, Mexico
Was the same as it was when I had left
And so was Tristessa

I drink bourbon out of a bag
Tristessa sticks a needle in her arm
After saying her prayers
I'm drinking in the Mexico of my dreams
Tristessa dreams on morphine.

— Mark Butkus


  1. heck what a story... moving... "naked" in more than one way... the filling of holes... yeah..we all do in our own way...

  2. Mark, this is fantastic.. I have never read that book.. but this way of capturing a book... really it's perfect. The Buddhism vs Christianity for one, and the cyclic repetition...

    What we had most of all, was nothing in common

    really loved that sentence

  3. Can really feel the heat in this, the passion, the urgency and despondence, even the setting.

  4. nice homage to jack in this...i know def tell the story well in this....tritessa led me home but not to my heart....smiles...for sure....some really great lines in this man...

  5. What a wonderful story. You had me hooked from the first line.

  6. What a brilliant merging of poetry and story. I'm in too much awe to say anything useful.

  7. Enjoyed this - stark and revealing - and a whole mix of emotions and undercurrents - impressive.

  8. Great storytelling, great piece.

  9. The desolation in this is amazing, with a stark beauty. I love so many lines in this - the holes that need filling, the monk, the sheet used at the window instead of the bed.. it's all so powerful. This has really moved me.