This essay by Wellington’s beloved Verb festival director just placed second in the annual Landfall competition. ‘Poignant, vivid and intimate,’ said judge Emma Neale. We publish it here for the first time.
“Cigarettes offer (or used to offer) the writer a great range of metaphoric possibilities. They have lives and deaths. They glow and they turn to ashes. They need attention. They create smoke. They make a mess.”
– Janet Malcolm, from Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers
I have always been fascinated by cigarettes. Everyone in my family smoked. At funerals and Christmases in Pahiatua I’d eye up the packets of Holiday menthols, and Marlboro Lights, and Pall Malls. I knew where each packet was located on each body. In the back pocket of my grandad’s faded green pants. In the bruised handbag of my aunty Eenie. Lying near the ashtray on the kitchen table. And we all knew about the packets hidden in the cupboard underneath the phone and the notepads and the maps. My cousin once took me out the back of Grandad’s house where the grass tickled our knees and there was a stream with real frogs living in it. She pulled a single cigarette and lighter from her jean pocket and sat in the grass like a wolf. The smoke streamed out her nostrils and I was mute with jealousy. Dragon woman. Wolf lady.
I declined her offer to try a puff for the first time.
“Good,” she said, “they’d all kill me if they found out.”
I think they’d have thought it was funny. That the older cousin was corrupting the younger one just like the older people corrupted the young people all the way through. Family fires get started, nurtured, left to smoulder through the generations to skew vision and fuel strange stories. Sometimes I picture myself when I’m old, transformed into Gertrude Stein, puffing away on black cigars. Mischievously re-writing all the histories, stamping out all the old fires and arranging the kindling for new ones. There’s something permissive about old age. And something permissive about art.
While I was in my early 20s and studying at Vic I worked at City Gallery. I was a “visitor host” and had the Sunday morning shift. More than once I was still drunk when I arrived for work. So I’d wallow in the slow pace of my one job which was not to let anyone fuck with the art. I’d take a novel with me and read while I was meant to be standing at alert. Once, upstairs, I stood in a room full of Guy Ngan absorbed in The Catalogue of the Universe by Margaret Mahy. A few pages in, I became aware of a sturdy woman standing and staring at me. I smiled at her, attempting a welcoming “hope you’re enjoying your gallery experience” kind of look. She didn’t smile back. The next day all of us visitor hosts got a memo from our boss, Kate, asking us not to read while on duty. I later discovered that the woman was the Director of the Gallery, Paula Savage. Hers is a name I think about in the same way I ponder the endless indecision of “Mabey”.
I got to know each exhibition intimately. Guy Ngan, Sriwhana Spong, Patricia Picinini, Michael Smither, Elizabeth Thomson, Loni Hutchinson, Tony Lane. I paced around them on my party-worn boots raking over every speck, every letter in the captions, trying to find something new each time.
After all the years it’s the Michael Smither: The Wonder Years exhibition that shuffles closest to the front of my mind. The stolid yet luminous qualities of the people, the rocks, the water and the buildings. The frightening truth of the children, their poses and their games. The spasming, wounded flesh of St Francis in the ghostly grass. The unmoving stare of a nude Elizabeth Smither.
But it’s not the painting so much as a line of text that has fused to the language still turning over in my head. Somewhere, printed on one of the walls of that exhibition was the line: “the holding and carrying of fire”. The phrase sat within a paragraph about cigarettes though I can’t remember a painting in which anyone was smoking. That line articulated precisely what I have always been drawn to and can never let go of: cigarettes enable humans to make, hold and carry fire. The cave lady in me has her eyes fixed and her fingers twitching for that smoking stick.
Trouble is I’ve never been a successful smoker. My first real stint was a ritual study break on the verandah of my third student flat in Dunedin. My flatmate Fiona (seasoned and addicted) and I would pull polar fleeces on and creep out onto the worn weatherboards and sink into the rotten old couch that lived there. Fiona would hand me the weightless, smooth column to place between my lips. Then she’d pull out the lighter that lay like a tiny eel in the cave of the cigarette packet. Her movements were so enviably practiced, so fluid. The lighter would make a small rasp and we’d puff and suck until we had the glow.
It was a quiet 10 minutes. Squinting out across the city. I’d watch the snaking column of low cloud that often nosed its way into the harbour. I enjoyed the distance from the essays I had to bang out every week. It was peaceful. It felt adult. The methodical ritual warding off the world weariness that we had yet to experience. I wanted to relish the harsh taste wafting down my throat. I wanted to be cool about it.
But I couldn’t stick at it. Not like Fi could. The tar seemed to settle in my lungs too easily. Like the cancer was rubbing its hands together with glee gloating “I’ve got a soft one here boys!” After a while I’d just take my cup of tea out there and be content with second-hand drifts.
I tried smoking again when I lived overseas. One summer me, Fi, and two other friends travelled around Italy. We developed a taste for Campari and Fi would buy packets of Vogues. Long, thin cigarettes clearly targeted at those who prefer their smoking to be vaguely glamourous. The four of us would sit, puffing and sipping, and sweating in the high summer heat. We smoked in queues while we waited to see famous art works. I’d finally arrive and swing between disappointment and awe. I loathed the hypocrisy of the Vatican but when I stood in front of Michaelangelo’s Pieta, Mary overwhelmed me with her immense, capable embrace of a parent’s worst nightmare.
On the Cinque Terre we got told off for dropping cigarette butts out the window of our rented apartment. They were discovered nestled in the grass by the man who owned the place. I was ashamed of our carelessness. Our stay there had been the most nourishing of the whole journey: inside, the apartment was cool and outside there was a path that led down to the miraculous Ligurian Sea. I’d given up smoking again by then and instead ran the pathways between the rubbly, colourful villages while everyone else slept in.
I never managed to make smoke rings. Or breathe like a dragon as my cousin did back then in the long grass near the stream with the real frogs.
Yet, these days, I smoke daily in my head. I crave. The tips of my fingers twitch for ghost smokes. I have a potent memory of sitting in the corner of a dark pub with a whisky and my grandfather’s silver cigarette case stuffed with rollies. Chaining them. Writing. Surrounded in fragrant clouds like I’m Janet Malcolm in her unable-to-write-without-cigarettes phase. Nodding to people I recognise: musicians, artists, extremely attractive philosophy students. But there’s me hovering around watching her. She’s someone else.
She’s a composite of the images of smoking I’ve compiled over many years. From books, from art, from movies, from my family, from my friends. In The Catalogue of the Universe by Margaret Mahy there’s a chapter called “Mrs Potter Rolls a Cigarette”. In this chapter the son, Tycho, analyses his mother’s, Mrs Potter’s, smoking while they talk about the complexities of love, sex and happiness (they have a close relationship). He observes:
“Just for a moment, a different personality seemed as if it might be about to break through, something less cozy, even slightly raffish, much more the personality of a woman who liked to roll her own cigarettes. Perhaps it was to placate this tougher self that she smoked at all.”
And moments later: “Tycho watched her management of her cigarette with pleasure, enjoying the contrast between her cool, quick folding of the fragile fluttering paper around the tobacco (something she could do with one hand like a shearer or road man) and the flowery summer suit and apricot frill to her blouse.”
Why is it that smoking transforms a person? Allows us this kind of slant view like an Instagram filter. Sometimes it feels to me that watching someone smoke is perving on something that should remain private. People change in those few minutes preceding the act, during the act, the moments afterward. The mouth is preoccupied with the ritual lift and pull. The brain is washed with chemicals. The person crosses out of time and into something else: a greyer dimension. Margaret Mahy suspends us over this phenomenon: the private observations of the private ritual, on the pervasive, compulsive act of making and controlling small fires. She conjures, perfectly, how a son’s view of his mother wobbles as though he’s seeing her through a heat wave: the honed craft of her smoking is like a portal into another Mrs Potter, adjacent, but not separate to the mother/wife dimension. I wonder if Jesus watched Mary smoke and realised who she really was. More than the mother of god.
I was reading the novel during the year I worked at City Gallery for a paper on Margaret Mahy and Maurice Gee’s fiction for young readers, with professor Kathryn Walls. It must have been this chapter that prompted Kathryn to say that “someone should write a thesis on smoking in New Zealand literature.” At that time I was also in the art history department trying to figure out what to write a dissertation on. I was tossing up between something on Rita Angus and the self portrait, or something on the 14th century abbess Hildegard von Bingen and the relationship between her writing and her visual art. I went with Hildegard but Rita’s staunch gaze is always, regretfully, in my periphery. A vision in a camel coat and emerald scarf, Rita scolds me for not chasing the fragrant trail of smoke she wields so effortlessly.
Am I writing this for unfinished business then? For Rita. For Kathryn. For Mrs Potter and Tycho?
This is the culmination of Tycho’s observations in the cigarette chapter in A Catalogue of the Universe: “The cigarette hung a little on her lower lip. Tycho and Richard always enjoyed seeing it do that. It was a thin, uneven cigarette and, quite innocently, she looked like an uncertain beginner smoking a joint and doing it wrongly.”
Accidental wrongness. It’s a state I consider often when I consider myself as Mum. I remember the agonising shame I’d feel at my parents’ myriad wrongnesses. I imagine, with bitter-sweet amusement, what pains I will cause in years to come. I wonder if I will ever notice that my child’s clothes smell of tobacco. If the urge to make and carry fire will prove too strong for him to resist. I wonder if I will watch him and see another self. I wonder if I would ever join him.
When a friend, a dad, lights up outside a writers festival party it catches me out. There, suddenly, is that prismatic view: another version of him I rarely see. I drag the second-hand smoke into my nostrils. My cousin in reverse. For a second all the smoking Claires in my head debate whether I should ask him for one. But I haven’t smoked in a decade. The second I do the burn of it hurts. It obliterates the fantasy. The pang in my lungs says “you’re not Gertrude Stein”.
All I really want is to hold on to the tiny fire. To slow down and spend a cigarette-sized portion of time in the in-between. To shift my perspective.
I’m writing this smouldering with burnout. I’ve always needed art. But my way with it is getting strained with overuse. Too much time spent in the back end of the administration of it: trying to create spaces for people to gather around art like hands around a barrel of fire. The tedium of talking to people in office towers who tell me they understand the state of it because they’re in a band that plays once a year at the Tinakori Fair. Too many spreadsheets. It has turned me anxious, nostalgic, craving cigarettes.
I am craving time. As though each length of cigarette is 10 minutes gazing out from the porch. Ten minutes with my cousin. Ten minutes with my friends in Italy in our 20s. Ten minutes’ pause on being a parent. Art has a similar effect. Music, reading, gallery pacing: they allow the expansion and tanglement of time. My brain turns supple. Moveable. I consider the concept of tūrangawaewae and know that it’s not something that I have, or understand. I often feel like I’m not really here. I’m still wandering around assessing all of the possibilities. Like I haven’t been born. Like god has tipped me out into the options tank and has left me there bumping into things and only occasionally glimpsing myself in the glass.
Is that the work of art? To help us slide around the land of potential?
It’s Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday. I’ve binged his albums all day, travelling back and forward and sideways. I loved him as the sponge-like, earnest, soft-cheeked troubadour. I loved him more as the mildly unhinged performance artist on the road. He’s old and the man has still very much got it.
I worry that we Dylan fans are all the same. A bit sad. Sliding vinyl out of sleeves looking for the something that he has that we just don’t. Bob slips through the nets while we circle the tank.
He’s also one of the most captured smokers on the planet. A google image search throws up tiles of black and white: his shaggy cigarettes held languidly in his long-nailed fingers. His hair must have reeked, his clothes must be so comforting. I’d like to step into them like I used to step into my grandparent’s house and be immediately surrounded by lamb roast and tobacco. I wonder if smoking helped Bob write. Piles of ash marking piles of type-written lyrics.
I recently did a creative writing class at the IIML. A group of 14 of us wrote short stories with the teacher William Brandt. The class was a collection of vibrant, shy, young, wise, mothers and children. Almost every one of us at some point wrote a character who smoked.
Smoking inside was made illegal in 2004 in New Zealand and most of my classmates would have been little children, the youngest just toddlers, at the time. I moved to Europe in 2009 and walked back into centuries of smoking inside. My landlady in Belgium (who I fictionalised in a story for the class) used to burst into our house and talk to me in Flemish with her cigarette waggling between her lips. I didn’t have much of a chance of understanding her at the best of times. But the language of the cigarette was exactly the same. The goldfish in my favourite Belgian pub swam through dull grey water and I remember stroking the lumps of cancer that speckled the pub cat’s gingery ears.
In 2014, while I was still in smoke-filled Europe, my partner’s brother, an oncologist, emailed me: “Please tell me it’s a pen and not an elegant cigarette” he wrote.
He was referring to a show I was advertising called Women of Letters. It was an event created by two Australian writer/producers. A line-up of women were invited to write a letter on a theme and then read them aloud to the live audience. The Women of Letters logo was a silhouette of a woman holding a smoking pen to her lips. One of the founders has it tattooed on her arm. To me it’s perfect. The holding and carrying of fire. The power of the pen.
Tobacco control occupied much of my brother-in-law’s time. I understood his concern but resisted it. There is danger in writing. Even more when you have to read a letter, the most intimate of literary artefacts, out loud to strangers. There’s enormous power too: the crowd was with the women all the way, laughing, crying, leaving the venue with hearts swelling and ghosts of their own unleashed. But there can be a profound personal risk.
We did four years of Women of Letters before the whole thing folded. Something irreparable happened between the two creators and the event evaporated between them.
Perhaps I am writing this for the things that don’t survive?
My cousin died in a car accident when she was 16 years old. Not very long after she showed me her smoking skills. I remember sitting near my aunty, her mother, at the wake. One of my uncles sat across from us with his packet of cigarettes on the table. He was ashen. He told me I shouldn’t ever smoke, that it was a dickhead’s game. My aunty said she felt like she was in a dream.
I worry that my memories are turning to dreams. They take flight and hover in an expanse of time as deep as the night, and grow feathers. My memories aren’t as reliable as the stars. They’re as fluid as smoke. The thing that holds still, just, is the art. Rita’s portrait, Hildegard’s visions, Bob’s songs, Margaret’s books. They destroy linear time. I hook myself up to music, books and paintings and try to find something solid among them to stand upon.
In the gallery my hours as visitor host could crawl by. The lack of sleep would start to work its devilish tricks. The things I must have said or done that I couldn’t quite recall. I’d start to panic about the reading I hadn’t finished. The essays I hadn’t started. I’d grow increasingly sure that my skin smelled of the night before – the sweet, toxic mess of cheap drinks.
But the opportunity to simply stand and watch allowed me to log careful, slow minutes that somehow circle back on me. Watchful, interrogating, meditative. I saw the way all of the artist’s lives were arranged across the white walls in the temperature controlled rooms. The way the visitors were reverent. Like we were all congregating in a church to access our ghosts by contemplating images that might speak of them. Life hung still. Cared for. Everything was in place to ensure survival, continuation, renewal. Hope, even.
It’s no surprise that smoking has made a comeback during the pandemic. Existential threat breeds anxiety. A fair bit of turning inwards. But I think it’s more: the temptation to hold and carry fire, to trick ourselves into stealing time, stepping out of time, is too much. There’s wrongness in it: poison, deceit. We’re creatures both drawn to and repelled by fire. A deep conundrum. And yet little white sticks appear where all of my favourite art is, where all my favourite people are.
Janet Malcolm has just died of lung cancer. I know her writing will enjoy a resurgence now she’s gone. On the one hand time is kept still, extended, by a person putting their art into the world. To weave among us. Work its way in and expand. And on the other there is never enough time with the things and the people we love. Or not enough of the right kind of time with the things and the people that captivate the parts of us that move differently to the minute-by-minute.
In the end, all I know is that if I could paint myself into permanence in an emerald scarf with a cigarette between my fingers I would. And If I could refract the world like Gertrude Stein did while smoking black cigars, I would. And If I could roll a cigarette with one hand like Mrs Potter, I would. And If I could travel back in time and have my first smoke with my cousin, let her teach me to blow smoke through my nose to the soundtrack of tiny, impossible frogs, of course, I would.
The winning essay, by Australia-based writing and literature lecturer Andrew Dean, and full judge’s report can be found in Landfall 242, edited by Lynley Edmeades (Otago University Press, $30), which is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.