Monday, May 6, 2013

Light Up!

Today was a time especially geared toward the avoidance of yard chores, well maintenance or the impatient arrangement of stuff piled and waiting for placement in this country house beneath the oak trees. Too tired and too worn after the move to push myself into things that can easily wait a few days or even longer, I figured who cares if the guest bedroom is a heap of randomly stacked books, bed linen, knick knacks and unpacked CDs and DVDs? A week here could easily pass with me neither seeing or speaking to anyone, with truly no hurry about making the place ready for company. So I spent the day reading and watching the birds outside my back porch. One result was discovery of the poem “Smoke” by Faith Shearin.

Faith Shearin’s first book of poems was The Owl Question, published in 2002. Her second collection, The Empty House, came out in 2008. More recent work has appeared in North American Review and Sweeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework. Recipient of a 2009 NEA fellowship, Ms Shearin currently lives in North Carolina. “Smoke” is from her collection, The Empty House and upon reading the poem I knew that the writer had grown up with social customs the same as my own. We didn’t think much about it at the time, but in retrospect is it clear that the widespread habit of smoking permeated our days and nights in ways that imprinted indelible images in our memory. 

It was everywhere in my childhood: in restaurants,
on buses or planes. The teacher’s lounge looked like
London under fog. My grandmother never stopped

smoking, and walking in her house was like diving
in a dark pond. Adults were dimly lit: they carried
matches in their pockets as if they might need fire

to see. Cigarette machines inhaled quarters and
exhaled rectangles. Women had their own brands,
long and thin; one was named Eve and it was meant

to be smoked in a garden thick with summer flowers.
I’m speaking of moods: an old country store where
my grandfather met friends and everyone spoke

behind a veil of smoke. (My Uncle Bill preferred
fragrant cigars; I can still smell his postal jacket...)
He had time to tell stories because he took breaks

and there was something to do with his hands.
My mother’s bridge club gathered around tables
with ashtrays and secrets which are best revealed

beside fire. Even the fireplaces are gone: inefficient
and messy. We are healthier now and safer! We have
exercise and tests for breast or colon cancer. We have

helmets and car seats and smokeless coffee shops
where coffee has grown frothy and complex. The old
movies are so full of smoke that actors are hard to see

and they are often wrapped in smoking jackets, bent
over a piano or kiss. I miss the places smoke created.
I like the way people sat down for rest or pleasure

and spoke to other people, not phones, and the tiny fire
which is crimson and primitive and warm. How long
ago when humans found this spark of warmth and made

their first circle? What about smoke as words? Or the
pipes of peace? In grade school we learned how it rises
and how it can kill. We were taught to shove towels

under our closed doors: to stop, drop, and roll. We had
a plan to meet our family in the yard, the house behind
us alive with all we cannot put out... 


  1. Interesting because that poem told the tale of when I was a teenager, too. Our house smelled of cigarette smoke and there were ash trays on the coffee tables, on the corners of the bridge tables and always matches sitting near the ash trays . My comment about it all is Ugh! I'm so happy that environment has changed. What has to change now is the group standing right outside of the smoke-free restaurant making it impossible for one to enter without going through a cloud of smoke and smelling like a stale cigarette.

  2. Makes me want to light up. The poem is wonderfully evocative at capturing when smoking was associated with every activity humans could possibly do. Besides the pleasure and relaxation, cigarettes were second nature and definitely props for the smoker. The poetic descriptions bring back so many images of that time.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America