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Mort's Cigars
Mort's Cigars

Cigar Maker

1. Youth

Followed him in the full dark,
a lamp before him through the passageways.
The back and shoulders were my father’s,
how they swung like ridges I’d remembered
from another and a darker night.

Under the lamp, the bench was wrinkled with old scars.
Old skin, I thought, and grazed it with my palms.
He placed a dark block on the table, heavy wood,
adjusting screws and clamps
until its darkness opened like a book.
Canals were inside, chiseled from the wood.
The odor of tobacco filled my nose,
and something else, seeping up from midnights in the earth:
an odor of fish long dead and rotting stone.
I trembled, shot my arms out for the doorway and my bed.
But the old man gripped me, held me to the bench.
I vomited. I moaned. But learned just what he’d have me do.

My first cigar—it was a triumph!
Knotted leaves, twisting ends
like wrapping on a taffy.
My father smoked it
with a buffalo’s furious stare.

“He killed me, and you’ll kill me too!”
my mother shrieked. I took the suitcase up.
“Don’t go, my child: what have I got but you?”
And threw her arms out to the house, to Poland,
to the holy cups I had refused to take.
“America,” was all I thought; said:
“I’ll come back…and take you too.”
I think it was that lie which killed her
more than the Cossacks or the cancer ever could.

Placing a black rock on his gravestone,
I could remember only how he lived.

“Father, where do I go, what do I do?”
Wind sprang inside my pockets
and the cigar mold he had left me
remained heavy in its quiet wood.
Somebody shouted when I left,
or was it wind inside my ear?
I kept on toward the gate.
“I won’t turn back,” I said aloud,
and never did.

My mother died in Poland;
so did you:
she of heartbreak
and being a Jew;
you of causes
unnatural to age—
a heart’s fierce fire
and a madman’s rage.
Both forgive me, if you can:
Father, for being a child;
Mother, for being a man.

2. Early Misgivings

America’s my home now.
There’s something in my heart
that thumps like a voice hidden in a drum,
but what it says I do not understand.

Wrapping leaves,
wetting them down
in the wooden canals,
tightening clamps,
cutting off ends,
and still the odor remains;
fish changing into stone,
stone cracked through
and crumbling
to the root again.

Even sipping a cigar
the memory of cities
long buried under hillsides
rises in the smoke
and places on my tongue
a flavor native to the hills,
where underground water
flushes through bone,
nudges what’s bone
from a bone’s white walls
and packs in opal,
shelvings of agate,
crevices of quartz.

Immigrant heart,
Polish father,
is this what you
looked forward to?

3. Connecticut

Like a faint breathing through the field,
a descending chill, I heard rivers pour
through the green tobacco leaves.

(the warehouse)

The dead continent of a brown tobacco leaf:
Like dry mud, it grips to itself the memory of seasons.
Empty rivers, hardened land,
you turn in the auctioneer’s fat hand
obedient as paper, and allow your uplands
to be bitten through. But I saw your heart,
I smelt the spice that rose from withered graves,
I knew the querulous laughter of the seasons.
I saw in your land the dream that I was,
and never looked away.

Leaf of tobacco, you are the sun-parched skin
of a man standing at the edge of the continent,
on a windy cliff, calling out to the sea
in a voice that’s more a lament than a prayer,
a sound so deep it seems to bound from a drum,
as he envisions his death and the death of his people,
although his life is about to begin.

(the curing house)

House, house of no windows,
where the hands of tobacco
perilously hang,
I’ve smelt your damp fragrance
when rafters were empty
and sunlight widened
on the doorway’s floor.
The ghosts of tobacco
whispered in corners,
the rafters spilled down
a tremulous dust,
and all the timber,
remembering curings,
was singing with silence
a silent song.

Dust glimmered from rafters
like agate and quartz,
slipped down
through the floorboards
and into the earth.
Dark building, you glowed
like a golden husk
that evening,
and all the timber,
remembering curings,
was singing with silence
a silent song.

At end of day
the green hands of tobacco
were clapping to an old song.
I knew the melody
and began to sing.

4. The Every Day

These are the days and how they’re traveled through:
these are the days after the edges of gold
tremble and subside around the skin,
after the scales glitter from eyelids:
these are the groceries the body admits to—

Every evening, my wife is in the kitchen,
sorting dishes, folding wash.
We’re not so different.
I live in the odors of an older house.

My daughter is her mother’s child,
frantic for dresses and the fragrance of cologne.
Her brother whispers where her shadow is
and speaks to strangers who will never understand.

The children frolic in the waterfall of money.
Together they speak of the cigar’s “fierce” odor.

Son, should I have held you as my father did:
hauled you to the bench and made you breathe?
My father broke with his, seeking in cigars
another way to live. That was enough:
if you would break from me, I’d let you
for your own life’s sake.
What does the heart know of its own mistakes,
and what do they matter?
I wanted what I never had to give—
your understanding and your happiness.

My neighbors hide behind their eyes.
Passersby stare through the window of my shop,
looking for an address they cannot find.

Most trudge on. But some stop in to sniff the air,
others to talk about the day, and several,
as if choosing candles at a shrine,
to grasp dry leaves between their teeth
and taste the tang of the earth’s dark season.

5. Old Age

The seasons grind across the sky.
People continue to stare into my shop—
the wild-eyed, the rich, the poor.
They tramp these streets, always searching,
while on the other side of tomorrow
fields flutter and leaves spiral toward the sun,
as the light drains from the horizon
and dusk sweeps across the day.
Nothing endures in a landscape made of years,
yet everything remains to be done again.
I am at peace with that. I enjoy each day.
I work in a small space among the buildings,
spreading the broad brown leaves
like parched old maps upon the bench,
and spend my hours tracing rivers and plains
in a landscape I am coming to.

Now and then, a silence stills the traffic,
or a change of wind snaps across the river,
ruffling the light, bunching the air
into a field of transparent leaves.
At such times, I jump to my feet
and find myself dancing a spontaneous jig,
an old man capering in his shop
who claps for the wind and claps for the light
and claps for the clapping, hands like leaves
applauding their moment in the sun.



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