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The Unmapped Geography of Breath

Poet, poetry tutor, and GP Emily Wills writes…

In September 2019 I had the privilege of being poet in residence at the International Context of Death, Dying and Disposal Conference (otherwise known as DDD14) at the University of Bath. I led a workshop on creative writing for reflective practice and drafted my own poems in response to presentations and conversations.

‘The Unmapped Geography’ was written from notes taken during Havi Carel’s presentation Take my breath away: breathlessness before and at the end of life.

As a GP, I see patients suffering from breathlessness due to respiratory disease, heart disease, anxiety, terminal illness, and often a combination of these which defies precise diagnosis. It is a distressing symptom with limited therapeutic options. In COPD, the only evidence-based management after smoking cessation is pulmonary rehabilitation, which is not widely available or easily accessed.  The vast and changing array of inhalers, relentlessly promoted by pharmaceutical companies, often continue to be prescribed despite little or no benefit because of the health professional’s need to ‘do something’. I was therefore interested to learn of the research into the neurophysiology of breathlessness, and the model of the Bayesian brain.

As a poet, I was fascinated to ‘see’ breathlessness in a new way, as a shrinking terrain, and to realise how it fundamentally alters the perception of distance and familiar landmarks.

Working on this poem, I was thinking about the language of breathing, both conversational and medical, and how metaphors have become clichés, emphasising incomprehension and lack of empathy. The poem has lines of reducing syllable count and awkward line breaks to convey the sensation of breathlessness, while the perception of ‘home’ becomes increasingly restricted. I wanted the poem to require of the reader an uncomfortable awareness of their breathing, in order to simulate something of the lived experience of breathlessness.

The Unmapped Geography of Breath


is a walk in the park, cross-country, five-a-side,

munros and ceilidhs, underwater somersaults,

soprano’s operatic notes sustained —


it takes your breath away, such squandering

of careless breath! such porous frontiers between

the body’s ease, the generous air –


it takes your

breath away                   


this polyphonic







it’s a walk

in the park

avoiding in-

-clines paus-

-ing at every



your street reduced

the corner shop

the view from the gate

view from the door

the effortful

terrain from

chair to down-

-stairs bed

the air-

-less void






~Emily Wills 2019

Emily Wills has three poetry collections published by The Rialto and has won and been placed in various poetry competitions. In addition to the DDD residency, she has been poet in residence in a GP surgery, a hospice, and at Gloucester Crematorium as part of the Written in Stone project. 

This poem is part of a longer article ‘Concentration and Consideration: poetry at DDD14’ published in Mortality 2020

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