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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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Author:Priest, Joy
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Poem
Date:Sep 1, 2020
Words:587
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