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‘She’s Breathing’ a poem by Alexandra Pârvan

While visiting the University of Bristol and working alongside Havi Carel and the Bristol team, Alexandra Pârvan was inpired to write this poem about the experience of breathlessness.

Alexandra writes: The poem represents my attempt to capture some of the experience of persons struggling with breathing conditions, and how that might be perceived by an “other”, when it comes to both ordinary and critical moments. This “other” may be a neutral observer, a colleague, a friend, a loved one, or a healthcare professional. The poet herself, as poet, is always the other. “I is another”, as famously put by Arthur Rimbaud (Je est un autre). To me, a poet’s main tool is her imagination and desire to inhabit or capture at a very raw level the reality of multiple others, in order to give it a singular expression in which many instantly recognise themselves. This empathic transmutation in the reality of a multiple other (be it an actual or a possible other) is what allows for creative work to emerge.

A less spectacular but no less essential capacity to perceive the reality of another is required from healthcare staff too, in order to be able to understand how to meet the treatment needs of specific persons, rather than a class of diseases. Providing healing is also a creative work, as I try to show in some of my research; that is why borrowing perspectives from the arts facilitates a certain freedom of action, broadness of view, attention to singularity and one’s potential for transformation, and a capacity to respond to and reflect the other, all of which build clinical skills that science, with its aims of generalising and controlling, cannot encourage.

We are all carers, we all care for multiple others, and a poem about breathing and breathlessness is fundamentally a poem about life and its ultimate limit, and the way we unavoidably experience it, in numerous ways, during our lifetime and not just at its end.

by Alexandra Pârvan

She looks fragile and fluid like the soft breeze
touching a young flower in the peace of a field,
any movement less graceful would threaten her breath,
she speaks in a calm, low voice, her tone
always offering two speeches with the same series
of words: the one you hear is words about the event
of breathing that reach you as does news about the regular
movements of the sun or some interesting chess plays;
the other is her truth – breathe in, let the words out,
breathe in again, careful, composed,
the business of being alive is done instant by instant.
You see her delicate, airy look and never guess
the horrors locked within her,
turning her inside out would frighten the bravest men,
death resides there, not as sung in verses,
but raw and ravaging all cry for life, scattering it like dust.
The dust of death penetrates her breath,
weighs it down, makes it thick and solid, like an intruding
quantity, a palpable presence to be carried
inside, a pulsating object, “handle with care”;
this is not the matter of breathing as presented in some
conference, a fact for everyone to accept and move on:
there is breathing, and that is that; this is to produce
each of your next breaths with patience, knowing
it will be as unstable as a child’s first walk.
You cannot hear her breathe but she feels
her every draw of breath, each one is a complete beginning,
life started anew, beautiful and rich,
each one means: I am here, I can speak my
tempered voice and shelter you all from the truth
that will catch up with everyone – the end.
You can rest easy, I will not show you the face of death,
I chained the monster inside,
the terrors, the rage and struggle that roar within me
will never pierce my soft voice,
you will not know…

Thin as the air she breathes, she fades
further away from here, something has to be done quickly
and so I smile. I smile to bring her back,
I smile because each isolation, hers, mine, any other one,
reaches a point of radiance where all agony collapses,
where the senseless necessity of life takes over
and we call that mystery or beauty.
I smile because she breathes,
wishing that smile become breath, the new air
she’ll soon need in her lungs. I smile
to stay around her, when all the air in the world
could not offer her one more breath.
She takes her transparent isolation away
and goes on to live her double life – the one
we all see, and the one that gently pushes her chest
up and down, instant by instant,
as the world around continues its robust happening.
If I do not see her, I will not ask myself
what she’s doing, because I know:
she’s breathing.