Sunday, January 20, 2013

a little priest of fire and smoke

I lay on my couch today and finished the story, "Journal," from Leonard Michaels' Collected Stories that I had started in Florida, read by the Gulf of Mexico there. Bits of sand fell from the book on to my chest as I paged through it. There are moments when I really love Michaels' style of writing - the matter-of-fact statements, the sad relationships among men and women, and the occasional stretch of prose that veers off into poetic rambling. There are moments as well when I get tired of it all and wish for something with more of an emotional core. I can only take this book in small doses. But when he is on, he is really on. I have reread this passage several times from this story and I am wowed by it each time I reread through it:

That quick efficient feeling in the hands, plucking the shaft free of the pack, dashing a match head to perfection. Fat, seething fire. You pull the point of heat against tobacco leaf and a globe of gas rolls into the tongue's valley, like a personal planet. Then the consummation, the slithering hairy smoke. Its danger meets the danger we live with in the average street, our lethal food, poisoned air, imminent bomb. In Morocco and Berlin, in Honolulu's sunshine or the black Siberian night, in the cruel salons of urban literati, in the phantasmagoria of brothels, in rain forests full of orchids and wild pigs where women bleed to phases of the moon and men hunt what they eat, in the excremental reek of prison cells, or crouched beside a window with a gun in your lap, or sitting in your car studying a map, or listening to a lecture at the Sorbonne, or waiting for a bus or a phone call, or just trying to be reasonable, or staying up late, or after a meal in some classy restaurant, hands repeat their ceremony. The shock of fire. The pungent smoke. Disconnection slides across the yellowing eye. True, it's very like but morally superior to masturbation; and you look better, more dignified. We need this pleasing gas. Some of us can claim no possession the way a cigarette is claimed. What wonderful exclusiveness. In company a cigarette strikes the individual note. If it's also public suicide, it's yours. Or in the intenser moment after sexual disintegration, when the old regret, like a carrion bird, finds you naked, leaking into the night, a cigarette redeems the deep being, reintegrates a person's privacy. White wine goes with lobster. What goes with bad news so well as a cigarette? Imagine a common deprivation - say, a long spell of no sex - without a cigarette. Life isn't good enough for no cigarette. It doesn't make you godlike, only a little priest of fire and smoke. All those sensations yours, like mystical money. Such a shame they kill. With no regard for who it is. (202-203)

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