Smoking

Listen to Wes McNair Reading the Poem  
Smoking Initial Exploration
Once, when cigarettes meant pleasure
instead of death, before Bogart
got lung cancer and Bacall’s
voice, called “smoky,” fellinto the gravel of a lower octave,
people went to the movies just
to watch the two of them smoke.
Life was nothing but a job,Bogart’s face told us, expressionless
except for the recurrent grimace,
then it lit up with the fire
he held in his hands and breathed

into himself with pure enjoyment
until each word he spoke afterward
had its own tail of smoke.
When he offered a cigarette

to Bacall, she looked right at him,
took it into her elegant mouth
and inhaled, while its smoke curled
and tangled with his. After the show,

just to let their hearts race and taste
what they’d seen for themselves,
the audiences felt in purses,
shirt pockets, and even inside

the sleeves of T-shirts, where packs
of cigarettes were folded, by a method
now largely forgotten. “Got a light?”
somebody would say, “Could I burn

one of yours?” never thinking
that two of the questions most
asked by Americans everywhere
would undo themselves and disappear

like the smoke that rose
between their upturned fingers,
unwanted in a new nation
of smoke-free movie theaters,

malls and restaurants, where politicians
in every state take moral positions
against cigarettes so they can tax them
for their favorite projects. Just fifty years

after Bogart and Bacall, smoking
is mostly left in the hands of waitresses
huddled outside fancy inns, or old
clerks on the night shift in mini-marts,

or hard-hats from the road crew
on a coffee-break around the battered
tailgate of a sand truck—all paying
on installment with every drag

for bridges and schools. Yet who else
but these, who understand tomorrow
is only more debt, and know
better than Bogart that life is work,

should be trusted with this pleasure
of the tingling breath they take today,
these cigarettes they bum and fondle,
calling them affectionate names

like “weeds” and “cancer sticks,” holding
smoke and fire between their fingers
more casually than Humphrey Bogart
and blowing it into death’s eye.

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Transcript 1

   
Transitions and Structure
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Transcript 2

   
Endings and Line Breaks
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Transcript 3