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The Last Cigarette On Earth

Harvard Review Online
“Sáenz’s lines are at their best when they expose intimacies in unexpected places. … The Last Cigarette On Earth invites the reader to occupy spaces of contradiction, falling between love and hate, tenderness and violence, pain and pleasure.”
“I feel your pain,” writes PEN/Faulkner Award-winning fronterizo poet Benjamin Alire Sáenz in his seventh collection of poems. “Imagine holding on to that phrase. Not / Just on your tongue but in the softest part of your flesh, / The part that’s most likely to bruise, the part that’s tender / To the touch.” Layering explorations of trauma, mourning, intimacy, queerness, and love, The Last Cigarette On Earth dramatizes the tension between violence and desire, the tongue and the bruise.

Sáenz’s lines are at their best when they expose intimacies in unexpected places. Most often, this occurs at the intersection of violence and eroticism, mediated through the double-edged blade of the human body. “A hand is a thing that can touch, a part of the body / That can torture, that can kill,” he reminds us early in the book. In the poem “Touch,” the speaker daydreams about being tortured by a cartel and narrates the encounter in the third person:

A man grabs him by the chin
and lifts his face up towards him and says: ‘We are
going to cut off your balls.’
[…]
The men in the room are serious and sincere. They
have no irony in them. They believe this is necessary.
They believe he deserves this. And so he hears
himself tell them: ‘Go ahead. Go ahead and grab
my balls and cut them off. Be quick and cut them off.’


Like much of The Last Cigarette On Earth, “Touch” is primarily concerned with relations between men. The castration threat materializes alongside the gesture of the cartel man cradling the speaker’s chin as the speaker accepts the terms of the torture, creating a surprising amalgam of intimacy and threat between the two men. “Touch” highlights Sáenz’s sense of balance that runs through the book, as the poem closes with the tender and gentle wish to “touch someone. Not / to hurt, not to torture. But to take his own trembling / hands and touch another man’s hands / in a wordless and untortured moment.”

In contrast to the brutal intimacy seen in “Touch,” the centerpiece of the collection is the eight-page love poem, “For Carlos.” Off-kilter rhymes and fragments of Modernist poems and Annie Lennox songs stage the speaker as a latter-day Prufrock, struggling against addiction and alienation toward a sense of domestic harmony: “You and me. / In different rooms. Once I loved this place and made it mine. / I was just a passing tenant. That love is spent. It’s time—” Along the stream of its volubility, “For Carlos” offers the reader small eddies of images like the sound of rain, a ray of sunlight slicing into the house, the drift of a cigarette. Sáenz effectively pits these quiet moments of emotional clarity against the chaos of “the meth, the booze, apocalyptic nights” that characterize the relationship in the poem.

Despite the book’s moments of affective lucidity, Saénz’s speaker occasionally strays into a territory that feels voyeuristic or flippant, such as when he sees a homeless person at 7-11 and remarks, “You have / Already made up a story about him and his pedestrian / Afflictions.” Although moments like this may strike a sour note, they do speak to Saénz’s aptitude for honestly engaging the contradictions of the human mind. In the poem, “With the Flu: Lying in Bed For Days,” the speaker meditates on the disappeared women of Juárez from the confines of his sickbed:

You are disappearing into the desert. You will become one with all the bodies of the women who were lost there. Together you and I and they will become a we. And we will all rise from the dead and haunt the world until the killings stop. You smile at the thought and when you wake, you are happy. You have never been this hungry. You make potato soup.

Sáenz’s pronoun usage complicates the poem’s subjectivity in interesting ways, as the second person implicates the reader in the disappearance and the production of a new, undead body politic as a result of historical violence. In this sense, the Juárez poems recall Raúl Zurita’s porousness of bodies and landscapes or Dolores Dorantes’s use of polyvocality. Here, Sáenz juxtaposes the interesting deterritorialization of the subject with the bodily pleasure of potato soup, returning always to the inescapable factory of the body. The soup becomes at once an emblem for the inescapable solipsism that accompanies owning a body and a poignant image of helplessness on the broader social scale. While at first glance, this strategy runs the risk of trivializing real trauma, this poem forces the reader to grapple with the bewildering incongruities inherent in global capitalist life.

The Last Cigarette On Earth invites the reader to occupy spaces of contradiction, falling between love and hate, tenderness and violence, pain and pleasure. It suffers under the weight of its own length, but when it delivers its flashes of unexpected intimacy, the collection shines. In the end, Sáenz argues that simple human contact can be a shield against the atrocities of the world, that “it would be so beautiful / to touch someone like the morning light is running / its fingers through his room.”
- November 28, 2017  Visit Website
Eileen Myles, Poet and Novelist
Benjamin Alire Saenz’s poems are ballads. They’re stories but they also have a whiff of the life sailing by from the car just passing with the radio on. It’s music in stores selling stuff and suddenly it’s inside your heart too painful to ignore. I love the honesty of this work and the sharp sweet reminder that we pick up art, our own and other people’s (including their tattoos) same way birds hold onto something inside and out to fly forward. His tunes are wild and brave.
Benjamin Alire Saenz’s poems are ballads. They’re stories but they also have a whiff of the life sailing by from the car just passing with the radio on. It’s music in stores selling stuff and suddenly it’s inside your heart too painful to ignore. I love the honesty of this work and the sharp sweet reminder that we pick up art, our own and other people’s (including their tattoos) same way birds hold onto something inside and out to fly forward. His tunes are wild and brave.
New York Journal of Books
The Last Cigarette on Earth has a stark verite style as Benjamin Alire Sáenz looks back on his own haunting past and reflects on his interior world now, sometimes revealing emotional pain and solitude, resolved that he may never find it.
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 may 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.

Lew J. Whittington writes about the arts and gay culture for several publications including Philadelphia Dance Journal, Dance International, CultureVulture, and Huffington Post. His book reviews and author interviews have appeared in The Advocate, EdgeMedia, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
- Lew J. Whittington, September 12, 2017  Visit Website
Midwest Book Review
“An inherently fascinating, thoughtful and thought-provoking read from beginning to end, The Last Cigarette on Earth is unreservedly recommended, especially for academic library Latino Poetry & Prose collections.”
Author Benjamin Alire Saenz is an Associate Professor in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Texas at El Paso — which is the only bilingual creative writing program in the country.

The Last Cigarette on Earth is a compilation of the best of his personal poetry arising from an intimate but healing journey through addiction, human desire and broken love. A simple book of extended free verse poetry — but an extraordinary exploration into the human condition, "The Last Cigarette on Earth" is both an emotional and intellectual tour-de-force. An inherently fascinating, thoughtful and thought-provoking read from beginning to end, The Last Cigarette on Earth is unreservedly recommended, especially for academic library Latino Poetry & Prose collections.
- December 1, 2017  Visit Website

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