This poem seems at first to be a straight-forward narrative: a childhood recollection of the men who smoked outside of church on Sundays. But the poetic shaping of the narrative adds another dimension. Those very, very long lines, the end of each spilling over grammatically into the next, even between stanzas: this gives the sense of the entire narrative as a single long breath—like the deep inhale and exhale of a drag on a cigarette. And finally, in the closing stanza, a colon. Here, to the child of ten, was what manhood looked like, and the child admires it. Despite the health hazards of smoking that he knew of even then, despite the preacher’s sermons on “the body is a temple,” the child has a certain respect for this image of manhood: its daring, its stoic acceptance of consequences, its self-confidence in not really caring “how long before the sermon started.”
Three or four of them congregated outside the sanctuary of the First Baptist
Church in McKenzie, Tennessee, savoring
the last cigarette before service, voices low and knowing, a slight rasp-edge to their laughter. Cigarettes would kill you—
I was ten years old and could read what it said right on the pack—but ignoring warnings was just another habit
these men couldn’t kick. Once or twice a year the Reverend O.M. Dangeau singled them out, preaching against tobacco
with a spewing disdain he usually reserved for the package liquor ordinance coming up for a vote. “The body is a temple”
was the sermon text, and he hollered his exordium and exposition until his veins bulged. But the smokers were firmly in the grip
of this world and none of them seemed to mind it, a soft pack of Camels soon to be retrieved from the inside pocket
of their Sunday suit, an unfiltered cigarette shaken loose, the clack of their steel lighters becoming a kind of music. They were polite
praying earnestly into the pulpit microphone—they sat the pew next to their wives on Sunday and all through the week drove Towmotor forklifts
or pulled electrical cable, not once clocking in red. A lit cigarette looked like a paper trifle in their work-hardened hands. They exhaled jets
of milky smoke and greeted everyone who greeted them and some who didn’t. Mr. Fowler died of lung cancer, but I’m still not sure
it proved all the preacher said it did. To me, manhood looked just like this: stand up straight and take what you had coming, there
in the shade of the sycamore tree, no need to glance at a wristwatch to figure how long before the sermon started.
Bobby C. Rogers is professor of English and writer-in-residence at Union University. His book Paper Anniversary (Pittsburgh) won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts’ Arlin G. Meyer Prize. His work appears in the Everyman’s Library Poems of the American South.