11 August, 2014

A Prison Poem About a Bygone Habit

A Quitter

Smoke curls first then clouds, having nowhere else to go
but everywhere, as in sparsely patronized barrooms,
boredom-packed, midafternoons in small towns.
I pull up my shirt as a filter against my cellmate’s cigarette.
Three o’clock light slants in and I watch its hazy crawl
through this shared space, every centimeter’s shift
a forever. The sunbeam swirls with particulates
as he exhales and asks, “Why don’t you just move out
of the light?’’ His face is straight.

I used to smoke, of course, too. Lovely little boxes, paper, foil, and
sugared ends to make lip-licking, as I pulled the cigarette away,

a sweet absence.

The ritual. The lighter. The special way I had for holding
that was how I took and kissed my lovers’ fingertips.

The smell clung to my coat like a jealous paramour.
When I visited, my mother hung the thing outside so that,
diminished by the hours’ separation, it was returned foreign.

To divide the inseparable means what?

The whiff of a personality like to pollute any party.
I gave it up in time. Doctor’s orders. Scores
each day, of Turkish Specials and Djarum Blacks,
were too rich for my lungs. And in the end all he
had to say was “Stop.” Did I stay smoke-free
so long only to wonder when I became what
my cellmate says is “such a pussy”?

The smell clings to my prison grays.
When I lick my lips beneath my shirt,
the taste is skin.

* * * * *

This poem arose from some unfortunate living arrangements I endured more than a decade ago. Reflecting on it, more recently, brought to mind my own noxious predilection for smoking — a decidedly over-the-top addiction, even by most smokers’ standards — and my continued romanticization thereof, which I recognize as ludicrous, since I can’t stand to be around smokers today. “A Quitter” is about that tenacious push-pull of overcoming addiction, as well as the slant memory puts on the past.

06 August, 2014

Ghost Story

The son of the sister of my teenage best friend died in a car wreck at twelve. All over the news I never watch because my hometown is a pale memory, pictures of the little guy, blond and smiley, came up against mugshots of his killer. Then there was video of the man’s family crying for mercy. It was the PCP, they said; he had a problem. That, plus (somehow) four prior DUI convictions for which he never did time.

I saw this and recalled 1998, making fun of the boy’s enormous baby head, and his mother’s face contorting with indignance at such sidelong allusions to her vagina as we sat around their living room, eating pizza. Her expression outside the courthouse, ten years after my own sentencing there, was stoic: I know how ineffective our system is (I’m paraphrasing, but she was eloquent); I wish he could get treatment instead of time.

Her son was dead. Dead. The man pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter for a somewhat lighter sentence. Just like that, it was over. I sent her a pretty card expressing profound condolences. Four years on, she still teaches grade-school English and he picks up the dirty sheets set outside my cell door every Wednesday — empirical proof for all who doubt that specters haunt the living.