Many years ago I read Innumeracy, a slender, astonishing book by John Allen Paulos, about how the understanding or lack thereof of basic math and statistics affects everything about the way we live our lives. What I learned in that book humbled me and has stayed me with me ever since, especially the singular fact that every breath every one of us takes contains at least three molecules of the air breathed by every human being and creature who has ever lived on this earth. Gandhi. Hitler. Wooly mammoths. Jesus Christ. The prophet Mohammad. Your great grandparents, your great grandchildren. Every, single, breath. This poem makes me think of that all over again, in yet another way. Poem of the Week, by Ellery Akers.
– Ellery Akers
I love to feel as if I’m just another body, a breather along with the others:
blackbirds taking sips of air, garter snakes
lapping it up with their split tongues,
and all those plants
that open and close and throw up streamers of oxygen:
maybe that cottonwood that tilts across the creekbed
is the very one that just sucked up carbon dioxide
and let me breathe, maybe I should hang a card around it,
Thank you for the next two minutes of my life,
maybe some of
the air I just swallowed used to be inside the hot larynx of a fox,
or the bill of an ash-throated flycatcher,
maybe it just coursed past
the scales of a lizard–a bluebelly –
as he wrapped himself around his mate,
maybe he took an extra breath and let it out
and that’s the one I got.
Maybe all of us are standing side by side on the earth
our chests moving up and down,
every single one of us, opening a window,
loosening a belt, unzipping a pair of pants to let our bellies swell,
while in the pond a water beetle
clips a bubble of air to its shell and comes back up for another.
You want sanitary? Go to some other planet:
I’m breathing the same air as the drunk Southerner,
the one who rolls cigarettes with stained yellow thumbs
on the bench in the train station,
I’m breathing the same air as the Siamese twins
at the circus, their heads talking to each other,
quarreling about what they want to do with their one pair of hands
and their one heart.
Tires have run over this air,
it’s passed right over the stiff hair of jackrabbits and road kill,
drifted through clouds of algae and cumulus,
passed through airplane propellers, jetprops,
blades of helicopters,
through spiderlings that balloon over the Tetons,
through sudden masses of smoke and sulfur,
the bleared Buick filled with smoke
from the Lucky Strikes my mother lit, one after another.
Though, as a child, I tried my best not to breathe,
I wanted to take only the faintest sips,
just enough to keep the sponges inside,
all the lung sacs, rising and falling.
I have never noticed it enough,
this colorless stuff I can’t see,
circulated by fans, pumped into tires,
sullenly exploding into bubbles of marsh gas,
while the man on the gurney drags it in and out of his lungs
until it leaves his corpse and floats past doorknobs
and gets trapped in an ice cube, dropped into a glass.
After all, we’re just hanging out here in our sneakers
or hooves or talons, gripping a branch, or thudding against the sidewalk:
as I hold onto my lover
and both of us breathe in the smell of wire screens on the windows
and the odor of buckeye.
This isn’t to say I haven’t had trouble breathing, I have:
sometimes I have to pull the car over and roll down the window,
and take in air, I have to remember I’m an animal,
I have to breathe with the other breathers,
even the stars breathe, even the soil,
even the sun is breathing up there,
all that helium and oxygen,
all those gases blowing and shredding into the solar wind.
For more information about Ellery Akers, please click here.