top of page

A Recipe for Drinking Life to the Lees

after Tennyson’s “Ulysses”

Wait until after two a.m. to start cooking.


After work, after you and Jax have a few rounds of pineapple rum and sour beers at The Local. After you see Cassandra there, the flesh of her forearm tender-fresh with a tattooed cactus.


After the barman calls last call, sense with a wet fingertip a subtle shift in the headwinds.


Wade from ankle- to waist-deep the summerly waters, dipping into the fuming, cicada-laden night.


Convince your contingent comrades to commune in your cramped kitchen, believing that your beauty lies in your ability to keep going—like Ulysses, your relentless thirst.


Tennyson imagines the warrior-king back home, bored as a prisoner, trying to convince his fellow seafarers to return to the open ocean, to wander with him the waves ad infinitum.


“I will drink/ Life to the lees,” Ulysses says on Ithaca’s snaggle-toothed shores.


Your supplies: spaghetti, bacon, onions, parmigiano, eggs.


Heard, carbonara.


First, get the water boiling, put Jax on bacon duty. Dice the onions while Cassandra, your cactus-armed ex, smokes a cigarette by the window.


“Tho’ much is taken, much abides,” Ulysses says.


Though you’re a financially strapped grad student, bartending to make up for what poetry does not, bust out the Cru Beaujolais you’ve been saving. Swirl the wine in your chipped crystal glasses and don’t worry about what’s lost—spurts across the black and white tiled floor. They can wait, like dried blood, until morning.


Sweat the onions in the bacon fat on medium-low. Play the eerie version of “Summertime” by Sam Cooke, the bassline trotting like the heartbeat of a teen sneaking out the house, riding across town to a family-forbidden lover.


Now salt the water so it tastes like the sea. Get the spaghetti swimming. Add the starchy water to the pan ladle by ladle, cook off, and repeat, until the onions get silky.


What deep, wondrous glooms of sea Ulysses had to give up. Back home, lying beside Penelope, did he dream of Circe? Did he wish he’d eaten the lotus, followed the sirens down to the depths? Here he is now, an unslakable old man, emboldening his crew, “Come, my friends,/ ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”


It’s almost three o’clock now, almost time. Lightly beat four egg yolks to a glossy sheen. Fold in a handful of powdery cheese. Season the sauce with salt and a copious amount of black pepper.


Jax, brilliant barman, top-bun behemoth, holds forth on Gamay from the Loire; Cooke croons, on repeat, about the high cotton, the fish jumping; Cassandra says next to nothing. There, but not. Like a shadow, or an echo.


When the pasta’s al dente, toothy to the bite, it’s showtime. Drain, saving some of the precious salt water. Moving swiftly, deliver the pasta to the pan of saucy onions, add the yolks, and toss, toss, toss. Add some splashes of water and toss again. Add the bacon, more parm, a knob of butter for good measure. Have Jax rain down several dozen cracks of black pepper. Toss more. Plate with a ribbon of good olive oil, a few leaves of parsley.


This is the recipe for the best carbonara of your life.


You’ll want to cook it again, but it won’t be possible.


Jax will get fired in a few weeks for drinking too much on the job.


Cassandra will go vegan and never come back.


Still, the night rows on.


After you send Cassandra off in a Lyft with all the love you have left, you come back inside where Jax is passed out at the table. There’s still a little wine left in the bottle.


Wake him up, rally your oarsman:

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


The sun begins to honey the sky now. Go outside to survey the good weather. Pass the bottle back and forth. Ask Jax about lees again.


Lees, he explains, are the old, dormant yeast cells. Their duty done in fermentation, they wait at the bottom of the unfiltered bottle. Done, but not dead, they wait, like Ulysses’ crew, for the next adventure.


At thirty, you have a lot of life ahead of you, but how many more nights like this can you survive? Where’s your Ithaca?


Jax asks if you want the last swig. You can see the flotsam of lees in the early morning light. They’re harmless, he says. You shake your head.


He swills the bottle empty, staggers toward the bushes, and retches up the dregs.


Life to the lees.


The empty bottle fills with green morning light.


Gregory Emilio’s poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Midwestern Gothic, Nashville Review, Permafrost, Pleiades, Spoon River Poetry Review, The Poet’s Billow, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Recently, he was selected for the 2018 Best New Poets, and won F(r)iction’s 2018 summer poetry contest. He’s the Nonfiction Editor at New South, and a PhD candidate in English at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

bottom of page