The Best Cigarette

And “Ten Days of Spring Rain Have Kept Me Indoors”
is a servant who shows me into the room
where a poet with a thin beard
is sitting on a mat with a jug of wine
whispering something about clouds and cold wind,
about sickness and the loss of friends.
I’ve been a fan of this American poet laureate for a while now, one of my favorites was the slow death of brain cells he portrayed beautifully. I came across this poem at a time when I realized I was forgetting names and places one by one, while the feelings those names and places created remained etched. A poem or for that matter any work of art reveals it’s true depth when the reader or the boy in the audience is prepared for it. If I’d read ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ now, it would have left a better revelation in my psyche. Reading about Macondo as a teenager, while impressive, was in hindsight a not-so-optimum idea.

 

So when Shashi Tharoor says he read 365 books in a year, I am impressed. It shows his intellectual horsepower or at least his reading speed, which again is an important thing (because even at that speed, as per google, it will take one person 355,794 years to read all books ever written). But when you read a book or treat yourself to any form of art, for which you are not emotionally or intellectually prepared, through experiences in life and through learning, you would end up reading the lines without reading much between the lines.

This has been my personal experience, and I acknowledge the fact that I have many friends who read through ‘Amsterdam’ and ‘Love in the times of Cholera’ without getting emotionally swayed. Again, at a personal level books like ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’, ‘Love in the time of Cholera’, or Kundera’s ‘Unbearable..” left a deep impression on me, affecting my deliberations for weeks, and I doubt if those revelations would have come to me for good or bad if I’d immersed myself in those books before I’d experience some subtle, sensitive, and at times tiring strains in relationships. I mean, my ability to appreciate tragedy was not inborn, though it gets better over the years. It’s like they say about Frank Sinatra’s voice – he had a voice which developed over one too many heartbreaks.

Smoking used to be sexy,  it used to be a sign of that creative energy symbolized by Albert Camus and Hemingway and Picasso and Guru Dutt and MT Vasudevan Nair and a thousand other literary geniuses.  Smoking isn’t sexy anymore. Cigarette smokers are outcasts in almost all walks of life. Outcasts in office buildings which ask cigarette smokers to keep twenty five feet from the other office workers who are gonna live a thousand years, outcasts in rental applications which make you lie that you do not smoke so that you have a place to stay, outcasts in the Starbucks of the world which sell that pink colored cake with two icings of cream on it, outcasts in the trains and airplanes where people would rather sleep for fourteen hours than smoke a cigarette, stay awake and do something productive for the world – because one cigarette shortens your life by seven hours. But the outcasts still light their cigarettes over freshly brewed cups of coffee, stare at the evening skylines, and make those final decisions which can only be made in silent rooms.

Billy Collin’s poem “The Best Cigarette” speaks only to those outcasts, listing out those moments of calm, induced by nicotine, before they make those brilliant decisions. Then he reveals his favorite moment. I could have put this in a more simple way, that’s what the second poem speaks about. As I understand more, I guess I will simplify more. For now, two poems from Billy Collins. And that ladies and gentlemen, brings up the 350th post on Talkies.

The Best Cigarette by Billy Collins

There are many that I miss
having sent my last one out a car window
sparking along the road one night, years ago.

The heralded one, of course:
after sex, the two glowing tips
now the lights of a single ship;
at the end of a long dinner
with more wine to come
and a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier;
or on a white beach,
holding one with fingers still wet from a swim.

How bittersweet these punctuations
of flame and gesture;
but the best were on those mornings
when I would have a little something going
in the typewriter,
the sun bright in the windows,
maybe some Berlioz on in the background.

I would go into the kitchen for coffee
and on the way back to the page,
curled in its roller,
I would light one up and feel
its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.
Then I would be my own locomotive,
trailing behind me as I returned to work
little puffs of smoke,
indicators of progress,
signs of industry and thought,
the signal that told the nineteenth century
it was moving forward.

That was the best cigarette,
when I would steam into the study
full of vaporous hope
and stand there,
the big headlamp of my face
pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.
Reading An Anthology Of Chinese Poems Of The Sung Dynasty, I Pause To Admire The Length And Clarity Of Their Titles – By Billy Collins

 

 

It seems these poets have nothing
up their ample sleeves
they turn over so many cards so early,
telling us before the first line
whether it is wet or dry,
night or day, the season the man is standing in,
even how much he has had to drink.
Maybe it is autumn and he is looking at a sparrow.
Maybe it is snowing on a town with a beautiful name.
“Viewing Peonies at the Temple of Good Fortune
on a Cloudy Afternoon” is one of Sun Tung Po’s.
“Dipping Water from the River and Simmering Tea”
is another one, or just
“On a Boat, Awake at Night.”
And Lu Yu takes the simple rice cake with
“In a Boat on a Summer Evening
I Heard the Cry of a Waterbird.
It Was Very Sad and Seemed To Be Saying
My Woman Is Cruel–Moved, I Wrote This Poem.”
There is no iron turnstile to push against here
as with headings like “Vortex on a String,”
“The Horn of Neurosis,” or whatever.
No confusingly inscribed welcome mat to puzzle over.
Instead, “I Walk Out on a Summer Morning
to the Sound of Birds and a Waterfall”
is a beaded curtain brushing over my shoulders.
And “Ten Days of Spring Rain Have Kept Me Indoors”
is a servant who shows me into the room
where a poet with a thin beard
is sitting on a mat with a jug of wine
whispering something about clouds and cold wind,
about sickness and the loss of friends.
How easy he has made it for me to enter here,
to sit down in a corner,
cross my legs like his, and listen.

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4 Responses to The Best Cigarette

  1. Payyan August 20, 2010 at 8:34 am #

    Thumbs up outcast amigo.. 🙂

  2. bvn August 20, 2010 at 2:55 pm #

    Athu kalakki 🙂

    nammude blog entha invite only? ningalana ee secret ramu?

  3. balu November 11, 2010 at 4:20 am #

    when I would have a little something going
    in the typewriter,

    this and some other lines gave me a beautiful picture..like i see in some movies..a kick lasting a few seconds..thanks 🙂

  4. Steven May 22, 2014 at 7:16 pm #

    I found it bizarre, knowing the sterile sanitation of the US and it’s coffee shops– to spend a few years in Paris– where every curb had its own siege tower of cigarette butts trying to reclaim the sidewalk. It seems one place at least in the world disagrees with our “smoking isn’t sexy” conclusion. In spite of EU restrictions, in the shadows of every french bar and cafe the underground perseveres in tiny trails of smoke

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