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Making the invisible visible

by Christy Ducker, Writer-in-Residence

Earlier this year, Northumberland poet Christy Ducker was writer-in-residence for the Catch Your Breath exhibition, Palace Green Library, Durham. As part of her residency, Christy ran a series of writing workshops for the general public, exploring the language of breath and breathlessness. Participants were invited to write in response to the exhibition’s themes, and to play with breath in the poetic line. Christy writes about the workshop process, and posts some of the participants’ poems…

Image: Nelli Stavropoulou

At the start of this year, the public and I worked together in Durham, exploring the Catch Your Breath exhibition through poetry. Because it links so strongly with voice and breath, poetry took us directly to key themes and tensions around breathing: we investigated ways in which breath could be made visible; how breath connects self and other; the experience of breathlessness, and of pollution; and how breath influences poetic line. 

The poems which emerged were hugely diverse, reflective of breath’s unique status ‘at [the] juncture of the physiological, psychological, existential, spiritual and cultural dimensions’ (Havi Carel). Among many other subjects, and always by way of the breath, participants wrote about: birth-rooms, deathbeds, seething arguments, meditation, miners’ lung disease, social exclusion, teaching the ocarina, Ella Fitzgerald, kissing, smoking, and being in love. Breath itself was depicted variously as ice, puff pastry, blades, incense, a lion and precious jade.

Some of the participants’ work is posted below, grouped according to the cultural, spiritual and personal significance of breath.

Breath’s cultural meaning: ‘we always think with breath’

Philosopher Petri Berndtson suggests that we ‘always think with breath or according to breath’; we look at the world in collaboration with breath. Distinctive to Durham is the historical dimension to breath: a history of coal-mining and industrial lung disease runs through generations. This cultural element breathed into some of the participants’ poems, for example in the final stanza of Barbara-Ann Whiting’s poem ‘My Father’s Lungs’:

from My Father’s Lungs 

Memories of mining, tattooed  
onto the landscape, cannot  
be erased: the memory of the  
miners who breathed all 
their love into it are reborn  
in every clean, fresh breath 
their descendants take.

Barbara-Ann Whiting

As Barbara pointed out, when discussing her father’s emphysemic lungs, ‘when there’s something wrong with your lungs, you can’t breathe and you can’t speak but your thoughts are long’. This links to some of the key tensions in our understanding of breath: because of its ‘invisibility’, there are multiple disparities between clinical or cultural experiences of breath, and the actual lived experience. These disparities are implicit in Rachael Barnwell’s poem ‘Inheritance’, which counterpoints a polluted, if cherished, past with a cleaner, more loosely-moored present:


My great grandmother bound her hair in a cloth,
Fine linen wound to worn clout, cured slight as air.

I fell heir to it in time: gauzy, gritten,
Smoke snapped, the spectre of the coal man, bitter
Scent rising still, through the ghosts of black gold trade –
Pit shaft and frayed seams for greener fields, purer shades.
It doesn’t wind the same way for me, tethers
Less, lets fly more without loosing memory.
I hold it up to the dewed winter sky’s
Upturned bowl of deep-breathing blue
The way she lived then,
The way I am now:

Rachael Barnwell 

More broadly, cultural representations of breath and breathlessness are scarce in English literature. In our bid to ‘oxygenate’ our writing, and make breath manifest on the page, we responded to Mark O’Brien’s ‘Breathing’ and Julia Bird’s ‘Blue’. We also considered Charles Olson’s treatise Projective Verse, which argues ‘breath should be a poet’s central concern’ in shaping a poem. As a result, participants produced short, urgent prose poems the length of one of their own breaths. This exercise was then repeated by breathing through a straw to compromise the breath and shorten our poems.

One group member managed this long, panicky poem-on-one-breath:

On a dark dense day all I see is grey till I reach a door turn a knob and am blasted by something green trapped cloaked soaked in a nightmare filled with green walls and mirror halls trapped in green cloaked in my own reflection, choked. I see nothing but mad distortions like monsters crawling on the wall. Walking through halls of horror I break the mirrors and mould a glass, a glass stethoscope to scope the walls and diagnose the halls with a problem. On the walls I find mirrors and my own reflection trapped, cracked but still trapped. My lungs expand and collapse against the walls and the halls till I hold the glass stethoscope against my chest and force myself just to listen.

Trishla Singh

Breath’s spiritual meaning: ‘breathe in for all of us, breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine’ (Pema Chödrön)

Image: Jade Westerman

Writing from the body, and the length of one breath, participants wrote in response to the embodied experience of breath. This intersected with Catch Your Breath exhibits on meditation and spiritual beliefs about breath. Wim Hof’s shorts appeared in a number of drafts, as did the power of meditative breath to manage pain and awaken compassion. Barbara Morley addresses Tonglen meditation’s principle of ‘sending and receiving’; her poem suggests breath might recalibrate the self in relation to the pain of others:

Image: Nelli Stavropoulou

Teaching Tonglen 
I will breathe in your angst at the dinner table, 
Where everyone is talking carelessly about their family and you have none. 
I will exhale cool connections that steer us away from these topics 
Close to home. 
I will inhale your sobbing scrunched form as you stare at the blue indicator 
And feel its impossibility. 
I will breathe out loving-kindness and place an arm around your decision 
Lightly, acknowledging the weight you will bear. 
I will breathe in the endless pain of your bereaving, when your child, eye taken off the ball, 
Is knocked down by a car, flung like a skittle. 
I will breathe out the comforting mists of time. Gently show you the beauty of the world anew 
Unfolding some calm contentment, now. 
I will inhale the fractured family fall outs that isolate, the mistress of insinuation, 
The master of negativity, that flings minds into freefall. 
I will exhale a gathering together, a smoothing of words, 
A folding of fabric around us all. 
I will breathe in hurt and harm. 
And breathe out healing and health. 

Barbara Morley

Breath’s personal meaning: ‘queueing to wait for your breath’ (Charlotte Grobler)

Artwork: Stefanie Posavec & Miriam Quick’s ‘Sleep Songs’. Image: Nelli Stavropoulou

Apart from our skin, only our lungs facilitate a constant exchange of the interior and exterior worlds. Breath becomes a tool of connection, not only spiritual but physical and emotional. These ideas of breath and the relational inspired a number of poems; we began these partly in response to Stefanie Posavec and Miriam Quick’s Sleep Songs, an artwork in the exhibition which grew from the artists’ breathing patterns whilst asleep. We explored how our own breath might interact and connect with the breath of another person, also reading Ann Sansom’s ‘Breather’ and Mary Oliver’s ‘Oxygen’. Participants’ poems conjured various differently-breathing pairs: a calm doctor & a nervous patient; a dying father & a grieving daughter; a keen lover & a bored, snoring lover; an argumentative pair of hikers; a constricted Victorian woman & an educated 21st century woman. Katharine Goda writes about the ways in which a newborn and a mother resolve into a double-act through breath. Here is a brief extract:

from A Room of Our Own 
Our room – door to shut, square of sky, 
crisp blue-white air streaming 
as I hold you, soft and strong, asleep,  
pink now and warm-blanketed,  
bright and wild as summer fruit, 
our in-breaths singing newness. 

Katharine Goda 
Image: John Donoghue

One of the ways a writer can connect breath to emotion is through the immediacy of metaphor. Participants explored the ways in which we might write about breath as a tangible object, to generate empathy and understanding between writer and reader. In this, we considered a Victorian respirator which was designed around concepts of ‘eating’ pollution, and Greta Stoddart’s poem ‘You Drew Breath’. In our workshops, breath became ice cream, bagpipe music, the entire city of Cairo, and also condensation, as in this poem by Barbara-Ann Whiting:

Drawing Breath 
The window is weeping: 
softly- tipped fingers  
have traced its surface 
where the passion of our  
love has heated the air  
to opalescence, and  
condensation, in rivulets,  
runs down the panes of glass  
as silent sobs for a love 
which will never be more  
permanently etched than this. 
The mingling of breath lingers 
in the ethers, long after our bodies  
have unfurled, and I see our union  
and its cloudy, billowing oblivion  
for the transitory illusion it is – 
yet I have breathed your air, and  
you my love, have breathed mine.  

Barbara-Ann Whiting
Image: Jade Westerman

Metaphor has force in another of Barbara-Ann’s poems below, where she makes manifest the invisible act of breathing. This is particularly powerful in depictions of breathing difficulty, as was also the case with Charlotte Grober’s description of ‘queueing to wait for your breath’ at the pharmacy. The unexpected, physical image can help us to ‘get hold of’ asthma, to understand it, and ‘breathe ourselves into some other lungs’ (Jennifer Thorp):

Milky clouds of breath on a cold,  
       winter’s morning,  
puffed out like layers of flaky pastry,  
          remind me of  
the cakes I used to eat as a child –  
      packed with fruit  
and fresh cream,  
they created a tower of tantalising  
delight, almost ethereal in beauty: 
      they fascinated me: 
it’s the air which creates the  
      voluminous ecstasy  
of those treats; air which evaporates  
          at the touch of  
the warm tongue, the cream dissolving  
       in rivers 
and sliding easily down the throat.  
Today, my lungs ache  
     to release spent air,  
       my diaphragm is 
  painfully distended,  
 my ribs ache and my breaths  
     are shallow 
and how I wish my breath could 
into the nothingness of 
 whipped cream  
so I could breathe well enough 
to enjoy such delights again 
breathing deeply, and without pain.

Barbara-Ann Whiting

Rilke described breath as ‘an invisible poem’, situated at the core of our being. In our writing workshops, we developed depictions of breath into ‘visible poems’. Making breath visible and tangible like this situates it more assertively within our literature and culture. It foregrounds breath’s unique ability to individuate and connect us simultaneously.

On Thursday 13 June 2019, Durham and Derwentside Breath Easy group and Christy Ducker showcased their poetry at Lanchester Community Centre.

Christy also led poetry workshops and showcased the work she created with Kate Sweeney in London at the Royal College of Physicians. This is part of their Museum Lates series, and took place on Thursday 4 July 2019.

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