It’s always interesting to go back through a collection and notice what images or words recur. After I’d got the necessary distance from my first book ‘Division Street’, I returned to its pages and found a remarkable number of cigarettes lurking there. In a description of Lowedges, Sheffield ‘a woman rolls the afternoon into a cigarette’. In ‘Fagans’ – a pub quiz poem – smoking forms the central metaphor. In ‘The Girl Next Door’, a young woman blows smoke rings into her neighbour’s garden. I could go on. Perhaps I’m obsessed with the smoker as observer, slightly detached from the day, the perfect, contemplative uselessness of having a cigarette. Perhaps I’m subliminally influenced by the late, great Norman MacCaig who, when asked how long it took him to write a poem, would answer: “about two fags”. Or perhaps I’m in just love with Edna St Vincent Millay’s sonnet ‘Only until this cigarette is ended’ which you can read in full here.
The poem builds slowly from its opening lines:
Only until this cigarette is ended,
A little moment at the end of all,
While on the floor the quiet ashes fall,
And in the firelight to a lance extended,
Bizarrely with the jazzing music blended,
The broken shadow dances on the wall….
It’s only in line 7 that the poem’s central subject – the act of recollection – comes into focus (‘I will permit my memory to recall / The vision of you…’). The verb ‘permit’ is interesting here, strangely formal, suggesting a character who is always striving for control over their emotions. There’s certainly a resistance on the part of the narrator, an attempt to convince themselves that they are making progress in the difficult ‘art of losing’ (as Bishop might have put it).
Yours is a face of which I can forget
The colour and the features, every one,
The words not ever, and the smiles not yet;
‘The words not ever, and the smiles not yet.’ You can’t help thinking that a lesser poet would order those ideas the other way round. There’s something gentle and wistful about ending a line with ‘not yet’.
The ending of this poem ambushes me gently every time:
But in your day this moment is the sun
upon a hill, after the sun has set.
Those lines are deceptively simple, the line break used to dazzling (no solar pun intended) effect. We read ‘this moment is the sun’ as a complete unit of sense first, only to have it undercut – this moment is not the sun, but ‘the sun / upon a hill’. And there’s more: ‘after the sun has set.’ This complicates our understanding further. There’s almost an element of paradox there – the sun without the sun. And, as Millay knew well, the sonnet is a perfect place to contain a paradox, like the impossible, delicious problem of remembering and forgetting someone at the same time.