Poem of the Week: Lucifer Takes a Break by Barbara Smith | Poetry

Lucifer takes a break

He stirs the sugar in black, looking at the white crystals
translate. He rolls a cigarette, crimping a white tip
and black tobacco carefully in the rustle of
paper and remembers, as he strikes a lit match,
a time before: just a moment.

It was dark there, but it was hot.
Yes, a magnificent heat … a hurry ‘shh’
to his lips before it was transmitted.
The murmur of white noise… voices?
He remembers the duration of the fall, its purity, its short duration.
He sips the coffee, grateful for its bitter sweetness.

Barbara smith is an Irish poet whose latest collection, the curiously titled Ann Askew on the Kafka Machine, is published by Eyewear Publishing, part of the Black Spring Press Group. Smith’s range of subjects is wide, his perspective often slightly feminist. She likes to challenge male dominated themes like the vicissitudes of growing up in rural Ireland: see, for example, her takeover of Seamus Heaney and Patrick Kavanagh in the poem. A woman’s work. His revisionist account of Lucifer, aka Satan, the instigator of the fall of Christian theology, is perhaps less of a dig in John Milton than a demolition of the Church-endorsed view of sex as evil.

Lucifer, the brightest angel of God, who has fallen from grace out of pride, is given a break as he takes a break. He is not deified, but he is clearly demonized. Lucifer can of course be the code name for a very ordinary man, guilty of a minor erotic transgression. If he’s the devil himself, he doesn’t seem more monstrously guilty than such a man. The poem reminded me the parody of Oliver Goldsmith included by TS Eliot in The Waste Land: “When the pretty woman looks at madness, and / paces in her room, alone, / she smoothes her hair with an automatic hand / and puts a record on the phonograph . “

Maybe Lucifer is a little less nonchalant than Eliot’s typist, though. The comforting rolled up cup of black coffee hints at a more intensely lived adventure.

The sudden change in his status seems dramatized by the poem’s demarcation in white and black, symbolized by sugar and coffee, tobacco and cigarette paper. He is identified or threatened by the most completely dualistic form of “black or white” morality.

“Transluce” makes an effective intransitive verb, containing an additional Latin callback for “light” (lux, lucis) from which the name Lucifer is derived. This suggests how small the light it can access has gotten, and how transferable it is, as the sugar in hot coffee dissolves quickly. Likewise, the fragility of cigarette paper is evoked by the sound: “carefully curling a white tip / and dark tobacco in the rustle of fine paper”. The cigarette could fall apart and, in any case, will soon be reduced to ashes.

The knockout match is another image of the ephemeral. An old slang word for correspondence is “lucifer”. This originally meant the kind of match that could be lit by hitting it against any surface, so the association with the devil had some justification. Even the modern security game has its risks.

Lucifer is described as taking a break from the title of the poem, but it can be ironic. He seems to have lacked choice in the matter, and to have been sent by another person from his sensual paradise: “There was darkness there, but heat. / Yes, magnificent heat… a pressed “shhh” / on his lips before it was transmitted. “Something illegal has happened, and now the time is up. Perhaps this is the bitter end of the matter: if the Lucifer’s analogy still holds, it must be.

The poem captures the ways in which time expands or shrinks according to a differently charged perception. Twice in the poem (verses 4 and 10) Lucifer is transported internally through time – remembering something. Placing the first comma on line 10 after “remembers” separates and emphasizes this process. We might even read the rest of the sentence as an exclamation: “how long did the fall last, how sheer and short it is.”

The new line is particularly intriguing. What is the “whisper of white noise… voices?” Such sounds might indicate some kind of public humiliation. If the title were reinterpreted, the “rupture” could suggest an accident, followed by a gradual recovery of consciousness. It is also quite tempting to read the poem as an allegory of the human “journey” – from a tightly closed childhood to an adult life of lonelier and more harmful self-comfort.

Whatever the cause of Lucifer’s status change, the metaphorical “fall” itself may be the mysteriously vivid central experience that he remembers but does not disclose. We don’t need to know. Poetry is capable of telling stories, but one of its pleasures is that it doesn’t need to. All it takes is a few sparks to be cleverly drawn from the reader’s imagination.

The poem’s balancing around a “bend” at the stanza break suggests a sonnet form, but there are of course only 11 lines. Seems exactly the right number. The sharper the story, the better the mystery and the more pronounced the flavors of bitterness and sweetness. Lucifer in the guise of mortal still seems to have pulled himself slightly off, and somehow it’s hard to fault his tenuous balance – or judge him too harshly for his coffee and fagot.


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