On Breathing and Not Breathing—The Sequence
- Not Breathing on Purpose
Once, a man stopped breathing
for seventeen minutes and stopped
He’d practiced a long time, expanded
his lungs so they could capture more air,
lost 50 pounds, lowered his heart rate, lower
than the best living athlete’s—38 beats
in a minute. He practiced.
He became the artist of not breathing.
This isn’t yet poetry, just a story that happened,
just the truth the best I can say it.
In New York, Lincoln Square, surrounded
by the intrigued and entertained, he descended
in a tank of icy water. It turned out like this:
At 6 minutes plus seconds, his body
went into convulsions. At 7, he began to black out.
That’s as far as he got in that tank, in that square.
Later, warmed up and dried off, he’d admit
he had “failed on every level.”
Next, he studied the techniques of the Ama,
“sea women,” who begin training at age 12.
No one can go deeper—toward the sea’s floor—
stay longer, inside the waters
near Ise-Shima and come up alive.
He slept in a hypoxic tent. What is a hypoxic tent?
One lies down to sleep in a high altitude,
Tibetan or Alpine. Imagine the oxygen
halfway up Kanchenjunga.
So, the body steps up its production of cells,
the red ones, hoarders, transporters of air.
He trained for months. Then, on Oprah, live
he descended again into ice-filled water, and
floated behind glass. It turned out like this:
At 11 minutes, the tingling began. Tingling.
At 12, ringing. In his ears. Left arm going numb.
At 13, pain rolled around in his chest, by the heart.
At 14, contractions in his chest, by the heart.
On the 15-minute mark of not breathing, he felt
his heart-rate plunge then soar, dangerously
low, dangerously high then, again, the drop…
So, he knew soon he’d begin to die. Even now,
he was starting to.
He released his feet from the restraints
and floated toward the surface, slow,
but stayed underwater at the top,
head down, so when his heart burst
they could pull him up from the water,
and try to re-start his heart.
He was the artist of suffering.
No, I’ll go farther. He was a poet
of suffering, but I use the word loosely.
Poet not suffering.
From just below surface, where water turned,
like a large, impersonal blessing, into air,
he heard cries and screams.
He knew then. He had not, this time,
“failed on every level.”
He’d broken the world’s record.
Warmed back to the living world, the world
arrested him with many questions:
Oh what was that like?! they cried,
the people, did you see Death? Did you see
God? Floating like that inside water,
like drowning, not drowning, were you thinking?
What, what were you thinking?
The man held nothing back. He told them.
“I was thinking I just really wanted to breathe.”
II. Breathing by Proxy
We cannot see them.
They are everywhere. In the big city,
and counties where paved roads turn
to dirt three miles out, but we cannot
and they cannot breathe.
We are a brilliant nation
so have machines that breathe.
Machines that breathe for them.
We are a brilliant nation,
but they’re dying. And sleeping.
Face down so nothing inside will press
on their lungs, they sleep
as if floating, as if the drowning
is over, the bad part over. As if.
It hurts to lie with a thick tube
stretching one’s throat, that’s why
they’re sleeping, a comatose
sleep. But they’re gentle,
the machines that push not
commonplace air, room air,
but oxygen, pure, the straight stuff,
to their lungs. Imagine those rooms
at night, never quite dark, figures
insulated as if on the moon or fitted
for a sojourn into deep sea, arriving
and leaving—and by day
the oddness of institutional light.
And the magnificent, programmed
inhaling, exhaling, that sighing,
that saying. (But what is it saying?)
Maybe somewhere a machine’s
attached to a person we love.
We love her. We love him.
Maybe they wake, these loved,
to a loneliness deep
as an ocean floor, but this
is no ocean–the breathing
still going, the drowning not over.
This is the ICU. They’re lonely,
but we cannot see them.
III. I Can’t Breathe
Neither common nor uncommon,
now and then these words line up, not
spoken so much as gasped,
not spoken but pushed out
the throat. But for now,
let’s call it saying.
I said it once, and so long ago I was young
—to a criminal.
Though only a criminal, he relaxed his grip
on my throat, just enough. He wanted me
to live, so I did. He did not want
me to scream but I did, to escape
but I did, and yet not without
carrying away— like needled-in ink
that rubs off, somehow, from assailant
to victim—a bit of his damage.
I can say now— I know what it’s like
not to breathe, and not on purpose,
though I never wanted
to say that.
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When Eric Garner said it, I Can’t Breathe,
he said it to law enforcement, two
enforcers of law, but
they didn’t let him. – Something to do
with cigarettes, untaxed.
They’re supposed to be taxed.
George Floyd said it to one
enforcer of law, I can’t breathe,
but he didn’t let him.
Others stood by, unsure. Although,
we can’t be sure they weren’t sure.
The one kneeling was certain.
He was not kneeling in prayer.
These were the guilty objects:
– A twenty-dollar bill that was not
actually, really, worth twenty dollars.
– A pack of cigarettes.
Remember that old story?
The guy who says he’s heading out,
down to the corner, for cigarettes?
And never comes back?
IV. And now the poem: Praising and Praying
Because in the beginning—if there was, ever,
a beginning, if all this has not gone on forever, all
of it forever, stamped in the genetic material
of the first mighty explosion—the ancients
cried out to the Unknown, prayed for mercy.
They prayed and they praised. And before
they called it praise, it was poetry.
Before they named it praying, it was poetry.
Who says this? I do. I’m saying.
Praise the ice water that slows the daredevil’s heart
to a near sleep. Praise the mercy of his obsession
that pushes him closer, closer, to death—“death’s
door,” they call it, maybe a little door you
have to shrink to get through, or a custom-made
door just your size, just your width, your face
on the knocker—praise the mercy of his obsession
that pushes him toward death but lets him live.
Praise whatever makes possible our narrow escapes,
Heart? Nerve? Luck? The stars? Which stars,
exactly? Praise them and our lives of escapes.
Praise the ventilator that does the job
it was made for, night after day after night,
in that deep, aqua, frozen place of the clinics.
Though it’s dumb as all matter and does not
feel—praise. Not all its nurslings will be peeled
from the sheets, unalive. Some live. It feels
no mercy yet somewhere
is mercy. Praise our hearts that we ignore,
our lungs that we take for granted, our breath,
our breathing like thinking. Who thinks
of their thinking? I’ve told you—see above–
of the body’s trauma if it can’t breathe
or if something won’t let it, told you
Oxygen. Air. Breath. Pray
that we never say it, that statement of fact,
that plea, that means in every language soon
I will begin to die. Pray you’ll never say it
against that large unbreathable element, the waters
of oceans, swimming pools that have floated
toddlers and small children, or to the criminal
who rode the same bus, got off behind you
at the same stop, followed you into the night,
or to some contraption that’s saving
or losing a life, or to a man, maybe an officer of law
or against it, or two men—of the law
or outside it—
or many. Pray you’ll never say it. Or think it.
Pray for mercy.