Reading some Faulkner articles one day in a 2002 issue of Pipes and Tobaccos, which is edited by Chuck Stanion, one of my former students, I was reminded of my own first purchase of a pipe and tobacco. One day when I was a kid my mother caught me in the bathroom of the parsonage smoking corn silk in a pipe I had hollowed out of a horse chestnut. I don’t recall what I used for a stem.
Mom May was quite upset, of course, and she tried to extract from me a promise that I’d never smoke again. I wasn’t willing to go that far; however, I promised her that I wouldn’t smoke until my sixteenth birthday, and I kept that promise. But on May 2, 1950 — my sixteenth natal celebration — I went down to Whelan’s drug store on the corner of Colony Street and West Main in Meriden, CT. I looked over their stock, selected a Yello-Bole that looked exactly like a horse chestnut, and a can of Holiday Pipe Tobacco.
After my purchase I went home, sat on the back stoop, filled my new pipe and lit it. I was puffing away when my mother opened the back door, saw what I was doing, and went back inside, closing the screen door quietly. That was it. She didn’t argue with me about it. I’d kept my promise, and that was all she could ask. A number of years later I wrote this poem which was originally titled “To Smoke a Pipe,” but that I changed in order to include it in my collection titled, The Compleat Melancholick:
Listen to Lewis Turco read his poem,
A MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY
Tobacco divine, rare, superexcellent Tobacco, which goes far beyond all their panaceas, potable gold, and philosopher's stones, a sovereign remedy to all diseases. — Burton.
It ought to be a large old knot hole,
first of all, surrounded by most of the tree.
Black inside, as though Hell had poked
a smokestack out between your teeth.
Now, heave a wheeze downstem hard until
you've blown a beachful of igneous grains out
into the bowl's bayou. Knock them
onto your palm. Whistle them off
like a ruinous wind. The carpet
will thrive, grow lush as Virginia. Sit back.
Knuckle off the roof of your root
cellar where your tobacco, as
loamy as moss, masses and awaits
a spark's attack. Thumb up a balesworth; trammel
it down deep into the devil's
eye. Snatch up an eruption now
and spang! Puff a belly full of fumes.
Whoof! Off go angels and satyrs; clouds of them —
furry thighs and messes of wings
bearing you off like an orgy.
I no longer smoke, haven’t done so for decades, but I didn’t quit smoking a pipe because I had stopped enjoying it. In fact, I still have that original Yello-Bole, and many another of my old collection, including the carved brier of Romulus and Remus that I bought in Rome while my ship, the USS Hornet, was in Italy. Along the bottom of the bowl there was engraved the legend, “R-Roma,” a fine pun and one that reminds me to this day of the thing I liked best about smoking.
Not all my pipe purchases have been as successful as my first one was, however. On Friday, February 19, 2010, I received an e-mail message from William Becker, University Archivist of Cleveland State University, who loves to discover material and memorabilia of CSU’s predecessor Fenn College where I taught the first four years of my academic careeer, from 1960-1964. His message read, “Hello Prof. Turco, Do you think this fellow has a future as a wordsmith?” Attached was this letter:
All rights reserved. The poem is from "The Compleat Melancholick" in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2007, ISBN 978-1-932842-19-5, jacketed cloth, $49.95; ISBN 978-1-932842-20-3, trade paperback, $32.95, 640 pages. ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM.