20 Pack, Denise Bonetti, If a Leaf Falls Press, 2017
I’ve only ever had one or two or three or four cigarettes, because I’m such a goody two shoes, but I do have kind of a fascination with smoking. I quite like the smell, for one thing, and the idea of the headrush, which I get anyway sometimes, or think I do. In Richard Klein’s 1995 book Cigarettes are Sublime, during the writing of which he famously ditched the cigs, he writes of cigarettes as “a crucial integer of our modernity”, seeing them as bundled up with “the age of anxiety”. His book though is really about seduction, compulsion, desire, control, power, pleasure, (just imagine all these topics rolled up and slotted behind this shiny thick silver paper) and the cigarette as an instrument of communication.
Still, even having inhaled all of this stuff about smoking as cultural phenomenon from Klein’s book, I hadn’t yet got around to thinking of cigarettes as poems, until reading Denise Bonetti’s pocket-sized pamphlet 20 Pack. The collection proceeds in smoker's cough-like fits and starts, non-sequentially, starting with 20, and going through 11, 19, 15, 3 and so on. It’s like we’re shuffling around in a pack, or like a little shower of ash?, or maybe numbers are just different for smokers and I don’t know because I’m not initiated.
But even I pick up on the creepy – subtle and fascinating - translation of Frank O’Hara’s “isn’t there an ashtray suddenly there beside the bed” to “my hand is touching a stone-hard ashtray.// I’ll always be there for you”. These are poems that explore dependence. I start to wonder though if what’s going on in these poems is a consideration of cigarettes as objects, as movable objects of hybridity, being objects that so readily become extensions of the human body: “the handshakes your palm still contains & figures / bleed into contingent surroundings”, “absorbs the energy of the object (yet not the / object’s own, never the object’s own)”.
But there is also some of the most beautiful writing of cigarettes I’ve ever read, and it feels kind of illicit because of it: “the seagull’s beak / the tip broken / pecking night waters”; “A referential dance: / yellow bees forever chasing pollen / a marbling of the air”. The sparks in the language continually light up this collection, little explosions and ignitions. The text takes a delight, a kind of jouissance, in “the pleasure of knowing what’s coming”. I’m already craving a follow-up, perhaps an E-Cigarette version.