Memories are like smoke. When you reach out to grab them, they slip between your fingers, and roll off into the darkness.
But more than that, memories linger in your mind, even years later, when you’ve forgotten what initial events gave rise to them in the first place.
It’s the same way with poetry.
I wrote this poem, Monte Carlo Night, a long time ago … back in 1995. I barely remember what that time was like. I know I was still in college (as indicated by the notes on the original printed poem), but I can’t remember what poem by Philip Levine stirred my own words to life.
But as I re-read this poem, vivid memories rushed back into my mind–of Friday nights spent working bingo at a community center somewhere outside of Pittsburgh–and the smoke (of the poem and the bingo room from my past) filled the spaces in my memory vacated by the passage of so many years.
This is the staying power of poetry–that even years later, it can connect you to an experience that you had all but forgotten.
Beyond the Smoke of Monte Carlo Night
(after Philip Levine)
They fill cavernous rooms with smoke
each Friday night
after returning from work
in a large factory
in central nowhere, PA.
They gather in their bars,
their houses, their churches
for booze, television, and gambling;
drowning into oblivion the smell
of the thrumming machines
that lingers on their skin,
and the smoke of cheap cigarettes
wafting through thick, humid air.
Hard-earned money (hours
of sweat and grease, the pain
of moving hundreds of pounds
each day and night, and baking
inside a red-hot furnace) passes
from their damaged hands,
slippery and greasy. Some
win back what they lose, but most
sink to the bottom of a bottle
of Iron City beer, rolled under
by one too few jackpots. Fifty-fifty
raffles drain their wallets,
make the other guy rich, always
the other guy. The color television—
out of reach–they stretch out
dirty palms, filled with greasy
cash, wads of cold cash hot
with their sweat. The kids
play the same games with their own change.
Cries of ooh and aah fill their mouths—
not yet twisted
under the strain of work.
The rhythm of the games,
like the rhythm of machines,
lures them with an easy score.
They sip their uncles’ beer; smoke first
second-hand, then second first-hand
when others stop noticing. Their lives
wrinkle beneath the smoke, curl
into twisted knots laid out
in spiraling circles of smoke
that dissipates in this cavernous room
in Iron City, PA,
lost in the smoke of their parents,
their cousins, their uncles, their
Poem: Monte Carlo Night © 2013 by Shawn Radcliffe
Photo: Poker hand and cigarette © gjfoto / photoXpress