Pause in Breathlessness: Jamaal May’s “Respiration”
Lately there is a thick blanket of smog floating over Los Angeles. I know it has been here for decades, far before I was born, but this smog sits differently. It covers the rooftops and seeps into vacant apartments. With this veil of dirty air comes a sense of fixedness, and anxious immobility that myself and many I know have become consumed by. There is a sentiment in Los Angeles and across the country that folks can no longer breathe. The stifling toxicity of the air in Los Angeles, and the saturation of tragedy bestowed upon all of us reminded me of the great poem “Respiration” by Jamaal May.
He opens the with, “A lot of it lives in the trachea, you know.” He is absolutely right. So much emotion is stored in this little muscle. I feel as if I have been sitting with this lump in my throat as I wait to exhale the fumes of an in-between myself, my friends, and my colleagues have all been forced into. I am carrying fear, anxiety, and placelessness right here beneath the skin in my neck. May goes on, “What if I sigh, / and the black earth beneath me scatters / like an insect running from my breath?” Every line of this poem, like every breath, is momentous. This is how I have had to live my life recently. Every new occurrence, and every piece of news adds to the weighted blanket covering my life and my way forward.
Amidst the anxiety evoked by the breathlessness of this poem, May brings the first stanza to a close by writing, “Am I insane because I worry about the disassembling of earth regularly? I walk more softly now [. . .]” I feel like the thought of the disassembling of earth is inescapable at this point. There is no insanity in this statement. As May walks more softly into an existence predicated on the realization of this thought, I found myself comforted. There is a sense of solidarity as many of us struggle with a form of insanity in our desire to breathe. I feel it strongly here beneath the shroud of LA smog. While so many of us are dealing with the uncertainty of the next day, I too hope to walk more softly towards what the future holds.
May ends the poem by asking the question, “When it’s you standing there with a letter/or voice or face full of solemn news, / will you hold your breath before you knock?” As we are confronted by the onslaught of violence, hostility and pure negativity during this time, I believe it is important to find a moment to pause. Hold your breath and confront the struggle with breathlessness. We can find power here. In this paused moment, I must remind myself as I hope to remind you, that there is always a step forward—a new door to knock on. So, while the hot, toxic, Los Angeles air continues to fill my chest, I must remember the words of Jamaal May’s “Respiration.”
By Jamaal May
A lot of it lives in the trachea, you know.
But not so much that you won’t need more muscle:
the diaphragm, a fist clenching at the bottom.
Inhale. So many of us are breathless,
you know, like me
kneeling to collect the pottery shards
of a house plant my elbow has nudged
into oblivion. What if I sigh,
and the black earth beneath me scatters
like insects running from my breath?
Am I a god then? Am I insane
because I worry about the disassembling of earth
regularly? I walk more softly now
into gardens or up the steps of old houses
with impatiens stuffed in their window boxes.
When it’s you standing there with a letter
or voice or face full of solemn news,
will you hold your breath before you knock?