A PERSONAL HISTORY OF BREATHING.
We woke to life in the 80s. The air dying from industry & industry dying. Train brakes groaning to a stop & that singular scent of horses, their muscular lather & manure moving down river to Mississippi. Our grandfathers chain-smoked Viceroys in the house & we developed asthma before vocabulary, read books & held our breath, spelled but didn't speak. In our bodies, humidity thickened into an argument with speech. When we joined our fathers' households they trashed our plastic bags packed tight with medicine bottles & inhalers curated over the years by our mothers, who smothered us our fathers said, mumbling something under their breath about being a man. We were daughters. We were Black & so, sons too. They vowed to make us stronger, big-lunged, lit our cigarettes, handed us grip-pleated paper bags in place of pills. In the 90s springtime, we suffered through neon particles of pollen suctioned film-like to all blooming surfaces, innocuous in natural purpose, but perverted by a chemical monopoly modifying plant sex & the work of bees--we became allergic to apples because we were allergic to apple trees. At the plant our fathers were talking their coworkers out of the ku klux klan while we hooped on our still-segregated basketball teams, outgrowing childhood over an iron-rimmed summer at parks oxidized to rust. At 14 we went to work at drive-thru windows, fried batter air settling in our hair. Black n Mild smoke breaks freaked to extend time. & some of us went off to college with polluted memories. & some of us ended up at the school clinic with anxiety & traumatic stress, acid reflux & lactose intolerance, the nurses said was genetic, we didn't have the phrase environmental racism yet. & sometimes we just forgot to breathe or realized we'd been holding our breath. We tried kombucha & herbal teas, yoga & meditation, signed up for classes with suburban moms on Xanax & Ambien & we acted brand new. Until a man hawking cigarettes, second shift side-hustling like our fathers, stopped breathing on a sidewalk. A man who talked to plants like our fathers stopped breathing in this state-sanctioned chokehold. & we found ourselves pacing the brainyard on a cocaine flight unable to locate our lungs, left arms going numb saying, this is it this is it with our heartbeats running out, leaping & whinnying & lying down long-nosed in the grass, huffing, panting out. The train of our childhood chugging backward to a slow stop in our minds, come to take us i to the afterlife. Its ghostly porters, mask-less, finally, leaning over us with our father's faces, reaching toward us with a bag to breathe into. The trail of white buttons down their uniforms like a blinding current peeking through.
Joy Priest is the author of Horsepower (Pitt Poetry Series, 2020), winner of the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry. She has received support from The Frost Place, The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where she was a 2019-2020 Fellow in Poetry.
This poem is the winner of the 2020 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize, an award established by APR to honor the late Stanley Kumtz's dedication to mentoring poets.
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|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2020|
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