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John Ash

Smoke

It was late in the year
and forests were burning a long way off,
the day the smoke arrived, almost unperceived.
It came as a ghost, as many ghosts,
visible in the mouths of tunnels.

Now that your neighbor is dead,
you recall casual greetings on the stairs,
snatches of show tunes in corridors,
and you look down into that well—

that well of uncertain light and air—and see an absence
which neither snow nor corrosive rain efface,
and the absence returns your glance, it follows like a cur
extending its tongue of smoke toward your hand.

The smoke enters the lamplight and the bed.
The eyes are clouded, the eyes are abolished,
and the ears that drank in the old arias of desire.
Venice is diminished, and Rome,

their bells dulled, their restaurants emptied;
in Manhattan the towers shrink from the sky;
all places and all scenes become the less observed,
the less heard, the less loved.

In a city of burnt throats there can never be
enough sweet water to start the songs
and if you would dance, you must dance to the memory
of that lighted window the dusk carried off,

those hands preparing the evening meal,
skeletal hands fumbling among
the bottles of useless prophylactics,
those limbs and mouths, smoke we daily breathe.

But don’t vanish, don’t take the path to the river.
It is cold there and lonely,
and the sky is a burnt page. Stay—

you and you others. If we are not to become
a dispersed people of smoke,
the monument that is us must be built soon.