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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Inhale. Exhale. Ash.

November 1st, 2006

BY SAGE COHEN

womansmoking.pngAt Nancy’s birthday party at Eleni’s, the long, narrow table was divided equally into two camps: current smokers (who were outside smoking) and previous smokers (who were inside complaining about how much they missed smoking). Technically, I suppose I could be counted among the ex-smokers. When I lived in Manhattan from age twenty-four to twenty-six, I was in a graduate program with two dozen other displaced urban youngsters. Overall, I’d say we were en masse accomplished at two things: writing confessional poems and smoking.

New York, age twenty-four, was the first time in my life that I didn’t have to set an alarm clock to be somewhere in the morning. My leisurely workday in the English department was from noon to 5:00 Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Workshop was held one night a week for three hours. I’d have a PhD-level literature class punctuating one afternoon or evening a week, and that was it. The rest of my time was mine. I had come to New York for poetry, and my body assumed it like a dance partner, my weight tilted slightly forward in anticipation of its lead. I slept when the words didn’t come. And I rose to their call. My days were spent stalking the possibility of language coalescing into meaning — walking the streets of Alphabet City as I whispered breathy observations stealthily into the small tape recorder clutched in my left hand.

I don’t know how, exactly, cigarettes became a part of this ritual. In my memory, there is no beginning, middle, or end: only smoke that arose as devotion: a duet to observation. I walked and smoked, as if breathing in the burning particles of my hand-held death could somehow make the world a little more comprehensible. Nuar and I would do it together. And Liz. She’d sit in her underwear, smoking and plucking small songs from her guitar that made me think of moths at the screen door, desperate for their own illuminated deaths. I’d smoke in cafes, because you could then, and sitting in the white plastic chair that barely fit in my postage stamp of a balcony overlooking Thompson Street.

Cigarette smoke was my loneliness, and also my hinge to a wider community of lonely people filling themselves with the impermanence of comfort. My thesis advisor at the time — a famous poet who paid me ten dollars an hour to carry his crumpled white linen dress shirts to the cleaners, purchase his hand-pressed papers, schedule his dental implant surgery, and manage his correspondence with lesser poets all wanting something from him — advised me over lunch in some clumsy, tweed-meets-upscale faculty cafeteria that the primary problem with my poetry was that I was good at too many things. Perhaps I used the smoke, then, to make me smaller, more singular, less worthy of all that might distract me from whatever truth I was honing my life to penetrate.

The hitch in all of this was that my body could handle only two cigarettes a day. If I smoked more than two, my hands and feet would go numb. I developed symptoms of MS. My heart raced. I had a panic attack on the bus headed to my grandmother’s house in Elizabeth, N.J. I went to the health center a few times, convinced I was dying. All this for the comfort of watching something unfurl itself from nothing in my complicit hands.
What is romance if not the ecstasy of poison dancing us to our own precipice?

Every few weeks, I’d throw my mostly unused pack of cigarettes down the garbage chute in my apartment building because nothing was retrievable from the garbage chute. The next day I’d buy new ones at the newspaper stand across the street and start the dance all over again.

When eventually I moved back to San Francisco with MFA in hand, my schema of self in relation to city shifted. I was no longer on foot in a sea of strangers. I would drive from Point A to Point B with purpose, always at risk of being late. I would set my alarm, get up, and go to my job, where I sat surrounded by other tidy people politely pretending to be whatever title they bore. In my neighborhood in the Outer Sunset, I could walk for twenty minutes and encounter no other human, passing nothing but quiet suburban houses that were mostly indistinguishable from each other. I didn’t need the cigarette to punctuate such monotonies. No reportage was necessary. And so, over time, my smoking habit, lacking the context of my East Village angst, simply burned itself out.

When the table at Eleni’s divided into has-cigarettes and has-beens, I remained with my team inside, where we slouched our Northwest interpretations of urban, ad-agency chic. The food was spectacular. In the numbing comfort of abundance, it’s easy to lose perspective on the precipice; let middle age fatten our habits. From our ferocious attachments, we unwind to the possibility that even poetry is inadequate. There is only forward. Inhale. Exhale. Ash. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Smoking & Drinking Issue, Cohen | Link to this Entry

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