The Last Cigarette on Earth
In the afterword of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s new collection of poems The Last Cigarette on Earth the poet intimates “I wrote these poems not so much out of a need to create but out of a need to survive. . . . attempting to map the journey of my own heart struggling against itself and I became cartographer of a dark and unknown country.” And adds “I have often lived my life in extremes. I was once a Catholic priest. I was once married to a woman for fifteen years. And I am now living my life as an openly gay man.”
Despite these struggles in his private life, Sáenz is an acclaimed novelist, poet, scholar, and visual artist. His first book of poems Calendar of Dust won an American Book Award in 1992. In 2013 Sáenz was the first Latino writer to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club which also won the 2013 Lambda Literary Awards, in the categories of Gay Male Fiction. He received another Lambda in the Children’s/Young Adult category for Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Sáenz teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, El Paso and is a host for an online and radio broadcast Words on a Wire.
Some of Sáenz’s fiction has elements of magical realism and in contrast, The Last Cigarette on Earth has a stark verite style as he looks back on his own haunting past and reflects on his interior world now, sometimes revealing emotional pain and solitude, resolved that he many never find it.
Sáenz’s repeated motifs about smoldering cigs, rain, sparrows, shadows, and in this collection, however obliquely, his private world of drugs and falling in love with men builds a brave poetic realism. He dramatizes sexual intimacies, but at some point in the poems admits that his sexual life could be unreciprocated fantasy.
Some of the self-consciousness might be more potent in the context of a diary or memoir; consider this passage from “Ars Poetica’”: “There are days I want to believe that resurrection is me sitting in a dive bar having a shot of tequila/ a guy with tattoos glancing over at me.”
But past such moments of gay newbie clichés, Sáenz showcases much shimmering craft, ideas, and alluring atmospherics, as in the lines “Take in the smell of your skin as if it were the last cigarette on earth. To feel your touch, to feel your fingers on my back.”
One of the finest poems in The Last Cigarette on Earth is “Juarez, The Last Ode,” illustrative of Sáenz’s poetic subtlety and craft. It also continues themes expressed in his 2010 collection The Book of What Remains that chronicles the physical and political landscape he observes living on the US-Mexican border.
There is nothing but the sound of the raging waters of the river/The sky is full of sparrow singing.
Juarez has reappeared in El Paso/The streets are flowing with people
Everyone is listening to the songs of the sparrows/The people have discovered their hands again
The dead have come back to tell their stories/The reporters are writing down every word.
The Last Cigarette on Earth is a decidedly journeying collection with hits and misses, but Sáenz admirably lets us in on his unfiltered journey, perhaps writing down every word for a more resonant poetic point.