Writing with Pencil


Peter Huff





I can barely hold a pencil anymore

let alone write a damned thing with one


It’s not because of arthritis or some other disability

or abnormality or injury

or because I don’t like pencils


I do


I have pencils with presidents on them

and Bible verses

and school names

and the names of businesses from the 1960s

with telephone numbers that start with letters


and teeth marks


The pencils I like best

come from Sagrada Família

the unfinished temple in Barcelona

one of which a student swiped in Louisiana

and the Hermann Hesse museum

whose location I can’t remember


It might be Switzerland or New York

or even India

where I think his grandparents served as missionaries


Which is also the setting

for his book called Siddhartha

not about Shakyamuni

but about somebody else

who also found enlightenment the hard way

which I read in the last year of high school

when everything was turning round and round

like teacups at whites-only Fun Town

if you really leaned your first-grade muscles

into that metal dharma wheel

hot as lower hells because of the temperature

and the humidity

and the sun

which in Camus

made Meursault shoot that Arab on the beach


                  * * *


In the corner of my desk that year

I wrote a message in pencil

not by Hesse

which stayed there for days

until I lined up for graduation

and kissed a girl after she iced her lips with Vaseline


Inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre

or so I thought

I’m pretty sure it was yellow No. 2


At the time

I wondered what it might be like

to have a bad eye

a sexy publishing record

and a smoky female companion


who would say

“My reason for living is writing”


Everybody knows that Sartre wrote by hand

in cafés

military camps



weather observation stations

his apartment near his mother’s house

and in hotel rooms with his girlfriends


“I don’t understand the Americans

who use typewriters”

he said


Actually I think he used a pen


But then there’s poor Thoreau

whose tombstone among the transcendentalist dead

simply says Henry


“How can I communicate with the gods

who am a pencil-maker on the earth,

and not be insane?”


                  * * *


In those days

I used to write almost everything with pencil

squeezing for dear life

white-knuckled for god attention

cracking the karma code bare-handed


I’d even get a hard dark blister

on the third finger

of my right hand

if you count the thumb No. 1

the way violinists get that mark on their necks

who don’t number their thumbs at all


I dreamed a lot about higher fame then too



even sweet absurdity


But I never really thought much about

the emptiness of the page

the impermanence of the point

or the cloud of the dusty message

swirling round and round

on the paper

in my lungs

no bigger than an inflamed hand on the horizon


or the menacing eraser









Peter Huff has taught world religions at a variety of colleges and universities across the United States.  He worked in a bookstore and a psychiatric hospital before launching his academic career.  He is the author or editor of seven nonfiction books, including Atheism and Agnosticism: Exploring the Issues (2021).  His poetry has appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Humanist and 50 Haikus.  He lives in Chicago.



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