Prac Crit

Toast to My Friend or Why Friendship Is the Best Kind of Love

by Dorothea Lasky


by Jack Underwood

I’m not sure I believe the statement ‘friendship is the best kind of love’. It sounds like the kind of thing you’d say to a friend, but then not to a lover, or it’s the kind of thing you’d say to a friend when you don’t have a lover, or say sympathetically when your friend doesn’t have one, which is all fine, only what kind of contest between loves is that: between the friend you have and the lover you don’t? Between a friend you can tell, and a lover you can’t? Why would we even want to enter our loves into a hierarchy like that? And what’s not equally ‘best’ about the love of lovers? What’s not ‘best’ about long-haul, potentially-ruin-your-life-forever love; love that you can find yourself living within like a submarine, practically oblivious to the mortal depth and pressure that surrounds you? Or parental love – the kind that makes ordinary people lift up cars, or tear their winter coats off to dive into the lake; the kind that taught most of us about love in the first place – does friendship really come out on top?

I have nothing against friends. Even thinking about my own in an abstract way makes me feel very amorous. I would breathe in the smell of their jumpers right now, were any to hand. But absence or distance is, I think, also part of what makes friendships good. Like cactuses, friendships can survive for months without being tended to. Nothing dies overnight on the windowsill. There are, of course, those intense, sustained, passionate, submarine friendships, though the existence of these only further complicates the claim of ‘best love’, because where do we draw the line between one kind of love and another? Can I not keep a cactus on board my submarine? And what of people that desire neither cactuses, nor a life underwater? What of their ‘best’ loves? No, this idea of a ‘best’ love is the problem, because it’s a deliberately cute reduction. It doesn’t want to be trusted.

But before I look at why the premise of Lasky’s poem might not want to be trusted, first I ought to try to clarify what I mean by ‘cute’. Cuteness is being extra pleased by a pair of children’s shoes because you imagine that they are trying to be bigger shoes; cuteness is assigned; we read it onto or into things, mainly to celebrate and enjoy them, sure, but in doing so we unconsciously belittle them, because in order for something to be cute it must be regarded in a real or imagined context in which it will fail. Cuteness is the consolation prize that we award to the little thing that wasn’t even trying to be bigger. For example, I find it true that my cat’s arms are truly adorable because they are such little arms, in their various poses, but to call them “little arms” is to place the unreasonable demand upon them to be bigger arms, human arms, when they are, in fact, perfectly adequate and serious front cat legs. To assign cuteness is to position something unreasonably as subordinate in relation to an idealised version of ourselves; cuteness is a form of othering. When we play cute, we belittle and other ourselves by deliberately performing failed versions of our idealised selves: we pretend we don’t get it, we act more vulnerable or incapable than we are, we retract our heads and hunch our shoulders and blink naively, because we imagine this oversimplified self to be more appealing to those around us than the unstable, inconsistent self who howls into the pillow some nights, who desires greedily, and also privately enjoys the sickly-sweet failures of imagined rivals. Cuteness seems to stem from a defensive impulse to reduce things into manageable, innocent, unthreatening forms, and when we turn that gaze upon ourselves we are seeking to deny those parts of ourselves that threaten our own self-mythology: the parts that are selfish, violent, visceral, complicated. Why would we want to simplify ourselves like that? Is performing cuteness a form of denial or self-loathing? I don’t know.

But I do think the speaker of the poem ‘Toast to My Friend or Why Friendship Is the Best Kind of Love’, contrary to the title’s claim, knows that love takes many complex forms, and these manifold intimacies and passions cannot be compared or forced to compete. I think the speaker is deliberately encutening their predicament; they are using the hyperbolic ‘best love’ to signal that this poem will be a romantic performance, characterised by ironic or melodramatic gesturing, because it’s about intimacy and friendship, and this is, after all, part of how we are with people that we love: we goof around, we over-egg and mythologise, we say, ‘I care only for you and am yours,’ despite the reality of all the other loves we weigh within our hearts, and then there are chores, and responsibilities that tug and bat us elsewhere and compromise the simplicity of such promises, such romantic claims. In love we make ourselves cute. Because we are rhetorical animals, we toast ourselves, our friendships and loves in this simplified way all of the time.

Which brings me on to toasting, because this poem is a toast. Toasting began in the 17th Century when people started serving drinks with spiced toast. That’s 100% true. Toasting someone as a form of publically honouring them derives from the idea that the announcement of an honouree enhances the flavour of the booze via the attachment of their name to the drinking act. Were you to toast to my friend Wayne, for example, the logic follows that the drink would be imbued with a certain Wayne-like character, improving things no end. Toasts are very poetic in their logic, in this sense. There’s also something in the history of toasting, about touching glasses being a reference to poisoning – as if the drinkers were saying ‘it all comes from the same bottle’ or ‘good luck, I hope we don’t die from this wine’ – which is also quite poetic, so there’s much symbolism behind the act of toasting. Even though these ideas and origins are now foggy to us, the ceremony of naming the honouree and drinking to them still generates a nice tension, a frisson, a collective sense of sentimental propriety. When someone makes a toast, it’s as if people have always been doing it, and no one ever made it up.

Nowadays the idea of honouring someone, by raising a glass and making a speech about them, has sadly passed out of everyday fashion. It is the sort of thing military men with great whiskers do all the time in Chekhov stories, but in real life it only tends to happen at leaving dos, or weddings, when sentimentality is called for, but one that requires regulation, formality. Is that what a toast is: the formalised regulation of public sentimentality? Sounds a bit like poetry. Lasky’s poem plays with the ironic tension between the public formality of the ‘Toast’ and the intimacy of the speaker/addressee dynamic. Recognising this as a reader brings you in on the joke, makes you part of that intimacy. While the sentiment of the poem is completely serious – the speaker loves Laura – the tone seems to suggest that summoning Seriousness and Gravity down from their mountain to speak the earnest language of deep, important feelings, would be at odds with how these friends operate. They seem way beyond formalities, so making a toast is deliberately inappropriate. Irony is one of the ways we can guard against the inadequacy and reductivism of a monological view of language. Irony is a demand that the binaries we use to conceptualise our thoughts and feelings (serious/frivolous, cute/austere) are collapsed, because life just isn’t like that. It demands that a more dynamic and accurate conceptualisation of how language relates to ourselves be formed, one that allows for confusion, ambiguity, duplicity and provisionality. How might we otherwise address the complexity of overlapping personal histories which close friendships operate within, and oscillate around?

I’ve been noticing recently that the speaker of a poem’s title is rarely the same speaker as the rest of the poem; they always seem to be slightly different people. Does the title of a poem belong to the poet, and the poem itself to the speaker? Whatever first-person poems talk about, they are always as much about their speakers, are always acts of characterisation, but titles usually feel as if they are trying to be unvoiced, neutral, in the third person. It’s as if the gap on the page between the title and first line is the length of time it takes for the actor to arrange her props and assume her position before beginning her monologue. But with its slight cuteness, Lasky’s title does feel voiced. It’s a rarity. The actor setting up her stage is just as much a part of the performance as the toast that follows:

Laura, Laura I am sad for you
But more than that I am sad for me
And when I make a toast to you
I make a toast to me, my friend.

This is a lovely rhetorical double-knot to begin the toast/poem. The admission that the speaker is at least as concerned with their own feelings, and that the toast is as much an act of self-honouring, is, one would think, an odd opening gambit. It’s being sassy, but a mutual understanding between Laura and the speaker is intimated by this sass: there’s clearly some amount of truth underlying this “performance” of egocentricity, and the speaker is making an ironic admission of it by way of apology, but also because it also seems understood that Laura already forgives and accepts this about her friend. The subtext here is intimacy. Firstly, an emotional interdependency between the friends is alluded to, but also, since we tend to perform cartoons of our worst behaviour to each other when we know we are already forgiven for it, these opening lines are a way of giving thanks for the friendship’s unconditionality. All this inference and double bluffing is nicely weighed out rhetorically with the line breaks: ‘you / …me / …you / …my friend’.

I love the big swooping metaphor that comes next: ‘Here on the front porches of our lives, / I toast to you, with goblet raised.’ I like that it has that ‘concrete of the abstract’ construction, which hardly ever works because it tends to sound too grand: the mountain of death…the cupboard of hope…the lobster of faith, etc. Generally, too much is asked of the little concrete vehicle, and it can’t take the weight of all the material dumped onto it by the big abstract tenor. In the context of a cute toast, however, melodrama is part of the dynamic. It’s a construction that Lasky uses quite a lot in other poems, and the appeal is the way these big-time, fluorescent moments of grandiosity are neither entirely camp, nor entirely earnest, but entirely both.

Something about the plural “front porches” rather than one “front porch”, works doubly hard here too, because of the way it simultaneously unites and separates the friends’ lives. We can imagine Laura and the friend sitting out on separate porches, but twinned; we know their hearts are still in close proximity, as each ponders like James Wright ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’:

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

The raising of the goblet then kicks the poem into a further gear: who drinks from a goblet these days? Who raises a goblet on their front porch? It is a delightfully preposterous image, with the arch omission of the determiner ‘a’, making it extra campy: ‘with goblet raised’.

Lasky then repeats the ‘abstract of the concrete’ construction, ramping things up even more: ‘And the house of our lives too, glittering / With decay.’ It’s nice to discover that the earlier front porches are now affixed to the front of the same house, bringing the friends’ lives together under one roof. And what about this decay? The ‘glittering’ hangs out on the end of the line, getting its extra 10% of eye-time, as we hold the image, carrying it over, until ‘With decay’ surprises us on the next line, suddenly giving us further imaginative work to do: we were thinking about general glittering and now we have to adjust, look again, and see that in fact it’s mould, slug-slime, wet wood. It takes a while to see this new rotting house with its two porches as beautiful again, but the effort makes us redraw the imaginative world of the poem, investing us further.

And the fatish ghost
Of losing and the sun and moon
Being the same thing outside our house, O!

Again Lasky goes for a ‘concrete of abstract’ construction, but this time the vehicle, the ‘fatish ghost’, is in itself something of an abstract. With ‘fatish’ being a neologism, for a start we have to get our heads around what it might mean on its own. Is something ‘fatish’ to do with fate, but only vaguely? Can we be sort of destined to lose? It can certainly feel like that a lot of the time.

I’ve always misread this line as ‘fattish’, imagining a moderately overweight ghost. This doesn’t exactly help matters in terms of clarity. The degree to which a ghost can actually be said to be ‘fat’ is a fairly out-there idea to begin with, before we get to thinking about one being ‘fatish’, but the cartoonishness of the ghost image (I’m thinking one of the mean ghosts from Casper here, or the Ghostbusters logo) gives both readings a solid outline to hang onto as we carry the image over to the next line, where, as with the ‘glittering / With decay’ break in the previous lines, we are confronted with a wider, more surprising idea, ‘the fatish ghost / Of losing’. Does the fatedness (or fatness) correspond proportionally to the degree of the loss? Is the ghost the ghost of the thing we have lost specifically, or is losing, more generally, a ghost that haunts us? Probably the image is all of these things. Probably, the fact the image is a ghost means that we are more easily able to allow these questions to hang, translucently, in a vague shape: a fatish ghost of questions, passing through our logical walls, unimpeded.

Whatever a ‘fatish ghost / Of losing’ is, without a comma after ‘losing’ we do at least know it’s the same thing as both ‘the sun and moon’, which are also the same as each other in this strange neighbourhood of friendship. That’s an awful lot to get your head around! No wonder the speaker becomes overwhelmed on our behalf and something finally gives, ‘O!’ The poem has built up pace and pressure with the number of ‘and’s running ideas together, and we’ve had to do so much imaginative work with all of the concrete-abstract manoeuvres and then everything being the same, that a little explosion is necessary.

There are many such ‘O’verwhelmed O’s in poems, of course: ‘O rose though art sick,’ says William Blake; ‘O me O Life,’ says Whitman; ‘O for a draught of vintage!’ swoons Keats; ‘O that I am nurtured at the sight and taste of love! O that the moon and the big tree / Of my childhood glow on me…’ writes Lasky in another poem for her friend Laura Solomon, making use of that ‘concrete of an abstract’ construction again. What makes the ‘O’ in ‘Toast to My Friend or Why Friendship Is the Best Kind of Love’ extra swoony is that Lasky places her ‘O!’ on the end of her line.

I can think of only one other poem that ends a line with an ‘O’ (‘Baby/Baby/Baby/O’ is not a valid answer, but it may be a case in point) and it’s an extremely good poem, in fact. It is called ‘Oh’, by Anne Sexton, and is mainly about death. It ends like this:

I see the child in me writing, ‘Oh.’
Oh, my dear, not why.

At one point, Sexton’s speaker says, ‘I would… / lift my madness / off like a wig”, which is wonderful, isn’t it? There’s also this lovely ‘Oh’ earlier in the poem.

It is snowing and the ninety
year old woman who was combing
out her long white wraith hair
is gone, embalmed even now,
even tonight her arms are smooth
muskets at her side and nothing
issues from her but her last word – ‘Oh.’ Surprised by death.

While Sexton’s ‘Oh’ here is a phatic gasp of surprise and mortal bafflement, Lasky’s ‘O!’ falls somewhere between the ‘O’ of an orgasm and a good old fashioned fit of vapours. I think it’s that ‘h’ which differentiates the forms and degrees of emotion and drama with these two forms of ‘O/Oh’, but that’s a whole PhD thesis. Anyway, the toast is going very well at this point.

But then the speaker begins to try to tie things together: ‘That in decay we could find that losing / Is truly beautiful.’ The concretes (the porches, decaying house and moderately overweight ghost) are gone, but the abstracts they qualified are left behind, struggling to align into a half-sensical sentence. It’s hard to work out exactly what it means – ‘That in decay we could find that losing / Is truly beautiful’? It doesn’t matter, of course; we can resist the temptation to force the sentence into a logical mechanism here, because the speaker doesn’t seem to be entirely sure either; emotions don’t translate into language that neatly. The speaker turns their attention instead to what they do know: ‘I love you and what’s so wrong / With that? Life is before us, so let us live!’ After all the metaphor and melodrama, it’s time now just to come out and say it:

In friendship we are one together and in friendship
I am all soul. No that’s wrong, too.

The toast is beginning to unravel. Friendship and togetherness? Being ‘all soul’? It’s gotten a bit baggy, a little trite. The circuitous tactics, the irony, the metaphor, the cuteness, were all there for a reason: they guarded against precisely this kind of ‘summing up’. The speaker knows it: ‘that’s wrong, too’, they admit. Meanwhile Laura is waiting for the toast to reach its finale. We all are!

What is a soul all aflame?

The ‘all soul’ idea from earlier is inverted, complicated, set on fire. This question is so lofty and abstract we’ve no hope of knowing exactly what it’s asking, let alone how we might answer. It could be the set up for a joke: What is a soul all aflame? One of its legs is both the same. But burning souls are surely about passion, and so in friendship the speaker is all passion. It’s almost baroque.

If it’s a bird in snow,
Then that’s what I am.

I don’t know what a ‘soul all aflame’ is, or looks like, but this small bird in the snow, with its busy life taking place in the cold – that’s a wonderful rug-pull of an image! The shift from the flames to the snow is a relatively obvious juxtaposition, but it works very effectively, I think, because of the drop in temperature the image implies as well. A sudden drop in temperature is a very different feeling to a sudden hotness arriving. A sudden drop seems more mortal, more like fainting, dying. And then visually there’s the whiting-out of the flames, again with an omitted determiner, so it’s just a bird ‘in snow’, a pervasive snow-ness.

The bird image also coincides with a downshift in register, from the high, archaic, abstract ‘a soul all aflame’ (who says ‘aflame’ these days, outside of poems? The same people who drink from goblets on their porches, I’ll bet) to the relatively plain and concrete, ‘If it’s bird in snow’. It seems to have appeared very suddenly and clearly, this bird in total snow.

And what about that last line, ‘Then that’s what I am’? What happened to our toast? When do we get to say ‘To Laura!’ and drink the Laura-wine? Has the speaker forgotten her? I don’t think so. This whole performance has always been for Laura. The bird-soul, ‘aflame’ on the inside, internally boiling its essence within itself as it stands against its cold-white backdrop, is a pretty darn good image to demonstrate how we feel when we find ourselves stranded and humbled by our feelings, humbled by the extent and complexity of love. The bird-soul seems a little cute at first, but look again and it’s not at all, because it’s not set up to fail; it’s winning, this “bird in snow”. Stuffed with fire, it’s a deadly serious bird, standing in serious, cold snow. It admits and owns its littleness. The bird is the speaker, the poem, the toast, the love for the friend: a soul all aflame, hidden inside this deliberate smallness, defying simplification. It is a touching poem about friendship, and that it allows us to look on and listen in only excludes us from its central intimacy. While we swoon away vicariously, we know this poem is only half our business, and so we search through the directory of our own loves and friendships for a locus. We toast to absent friends, with goblets raised, on all of our front porches.

Toast to My Friend or Why Friendship Is the Best Kind of Love

by Dorothea Lasky

Laura, Laura I am sad for you
But more than that I am sad for me
And when I make a toast to you
I make a toast to me, my friend.
Here on the front porches of our lives,
I toast to you, with goblet raised.
And the house of our lives too, glittering
With decay. And the fatish ghost
Of losing and the sun and moon
Being the same thing outside our house, O!
That in decay we could find that losing
Is truly beautiful. I love you and what’s so wrong
With that? Life is before us, so let us live!
In friendship we are one together and in friendship
I am all soul. No that’s wrong, too.
What’s a soul all aflame?
If it’s a bird in snow,
Then that’s what I am.

From AWE (Wave Books, 2007). Reproduced with permission of the author.

Related articles

Jamie McKendrick

“Yeats says that ‘Even when the poet seems most himself... he is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea...’ But what if you’re writing of a man, in this case, who is sitting down to breakfast...?”

Roddy Lumsden

“Perhaps we all get people wrong, but I think those of us with spectrum conditions are very prone to getting people wrong... I’ve written so much about miscommunication, simply because I have such a fear of miscommunicating.”