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
it’s a walk
in the park
-ing at every
your street reduced
the corner shop
the view from the gate
view from the door
chair to down-
~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