nectarhoff: The First Line

The First Line

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
by William Matthews (1942-1997)

I love the smoky libidinal murmur
of a jazz crowd, and the smoke coiling
and lithely uncoiling like a choir
of vaporous cats. I like to slouch back
with that I'll-be-there-awhile tilt
and sip a little Scotch and listen,
keeping time and remembering the changes,
and now and then light up a cigarette.

It's the reverse of music: only a small
blue slur comes out--parody and rehearsal,
both, for giving up the ghost. There's a nostril-
billowing, sulphurous blossom from the match,
a dismissive waggle of the wrist,
and the match is out. What would I look like
in that thumb-sucking, torpid, eyes-glazed
and happy instant if I could snare myself

suddenly in a mirror, unprepared by vanity
for self-regard? I'd loose a cumulus of smoke,
like a speech balloon in the comic strips,
though I'd be talking mutely to myself,
and I'd look like I love the fuss of smoking:
hands like these, I should be dealing blackjack
for a living.  And doesn't habit make us
predictable to ourselves?  The stubs pile up

and ashes drift against the ashtray rims
like snow against a snow fence.  The boy
who held his breath until he turned blue
has caught a writhing wisp of time itself
in his long-suffering lungs. It'll take years--
he'll tap his feet to music, check his watch
(you can't fire him; he quits), shun fatty foods--
but he'll have his revenge; he's killing time.

I love the smoky libidinal murmur
of a jazz crowd, and the smoke coiling
and lithely uncoiling like a choir
of vaporous cats.

This line is far-out. It plays with your tongue to match the mood of the piece. The musical theme of the poem is perfectly embodied in the steady beat of the repeated sounds in smoky/smoke, coiling/uncoiling, and crowd/choir/cats. The strong C permeates the entire line as a backdrop to the soft, multisyllabic words like libidinal, lithely, and vaporous. The sentence is so sexual and feline that it makes me feel as if I’m sitting there in the jazz crowd with the poet. I love it. If only all first lines were so wonderful.

- 5/19/14

(nectarhoff)

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