• Anne Elvey

This essay focuses on the materiality of breath. Breath is encoded in languages and texts, for example, through the quality of letters/characters, punctuation, citation and space. Breath connects human bodies with their habitats, with air and atmosphere, with ecological exigencies of climate and pollution, and with the entanglements of social and ecological violence. I explore a focus on breath as a way of engaging with the materiality of a poem against a contemporary background where air and atmosphere are strained. In the context of climate change, I offer a reading of three poems by Jill Jones, Natalie Harkin and Susan Hawthorne. I focus on the interlinked materialities of breath and text and the ways a poem might speak into the strained breath of a climate change and pollution affected Earth.

Keywords: climate change; breath; atmosphere; Jill Jones; Natalie Harkin; Susan Hawthorne


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It hardly needs saying that breath connects air and animal bodies through processes of respiration, or that the circulation of air brings the breathing body into touch with Earth’s atmosphere (Logan 2012: 320–21). There is a kind of immediacy between the breathing body and the strains of air pollution and climate change. Yet thinkers such as Luce Irigaray (1999; 2004a) and David Abram (2014) write of a forgetting of air and breath. For Abram, this forgetting is a failure ‘to respect or even to notice the elemental medium in which we are immersed’; he suggests that climate change may be a ‘consequence of taking the air for granted’ (2014: 301). Irigaray critically compares aspects of Heidegger’s philosophy with a philosophy that, in valuing life and survival, accounts for vital needs (1999: 2, 13). She conceives a philosophy that acknowledges the necessary gift of air through the maternal body (28). For Irigaray, a thinking of air is an engagement with the unremarked — an engagement with the material substance without which place is unliveable (12–21).

Breath is a prior givenness in excess of what can be apprehended of it. Forgetting and the obligation of remembering air and breath operate on at least two levels. First, the invisibility of clear air occasions its being disregarded just as the corporeal act of breathing, being largely automatic, is noticed only on reflection or when processes of breathing are strained. Second, as itself material, air offers a basis for philosophical thinking different from the motif of a firm ground (see Mitchell 2019); air does so through its material characteristics of necessity and transparency (at least when it is clear), its composite nature, as well as its intermediary place separating the solidity of Earth from the unbreathable upper layers of atmosphere and the ‘vacuum’ of space. To recollect air and breath is not to disregard ground but to complexify the material interconnections of ground, water and air in the planetary habitat that is Earth.

Earth, moreover, is the place where poets breathe and speak and write.[i] The focus of this essay is on reading for the breath, encoded in three poems by Jill Jones, Natalie Harkin and Susan Hawthorne, as a remembering of the air in a time of climate change. Jones, Harkin and Hawthorne are not the only poets writing in Australia in relation to climate change, and there are many other poems I might have chosen. In this essay, I consider a poetics of breath around three aspects: first, the way space is used on the page as an indicator of breath; second, the notion of ‘auratic citation’ as opening the poem to the breath of others and to other times and places (Ford 2013a); third, the functions of punctuation and imagery acting on and against one another to shape the breath in the poem. While these features can be read across the poems I have chosen, I see Jones’s ‘Everything is Beautiful, Finally’, Harkin’s ‘Climate Change’ and Hawthorne’s ‘Earth’s breath’ as exemplifying each of these poetics in turn, in writing that consciously engages with breath, atmosphere, extreme weather or climate.


The materiality of breath and poetry

While in English ‘breath’ and ‘air’ have lost their immediate linguistic connections, in other traditions the link is stronger; for example, the ancient Hebrew word ruach refers to breath, spirit and air. Theodore Hiebert describes ruach as ‘the first sacred thing’; it is ‘the air of both atmospheric winds and animal [including human] respiration’ (2008: 13). In koine Greek, ruach is rendered pneuma, with the same range of meanings: ‘blowing’, ‘breathing’, ‘breath’, ‘(life-) spirit’, sometimes also ‘wind’ (Bauer 1979: 674–75). The Latin anima has a similar span of meaning, encompassing air, breath, life, spirit, wind and breeze (Morwood 2012). Air and its windy movements are linked across cultures to the sacred, because ‘air … constitutes a material grounding of our existence that can be withdrawn’ (Rigby 2015: 148–49).

In the eighteenth century, the way breathing transformed air into life in the body came under scrutiny, and scientists tested the ancient linguistic links between breath and spirit in devastating experiments on other animals, for example, involving drownings (O’Gorman 2011: 365–66). Poets, too, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats, examined the relation of breath to life (O’Gorman 2011). Not only corporeal life but ‘the life of art’, argues Francis O’Gorman, was ‘figured as a matter of breathing’ (367, emphasis original). Reading Coleridge’s ‘The Aeolian Harp’, O’Gorman argues that the notion of a breathing art was not a reaffirmation of ancient links between breath and divinity; rather poetic speech itself was seen as a ‘creative exhalation’, a controlled shaping of the air (368).

In the mid-twentieth century, Charles Olson (2009 [1950]) described a practice of ‘projective’ or ‘OPEN’ verse, focused in the materiality of the breath. For Olson, material energies propel the poet toward constructing a poem, in which these energies are transformed both in the poem’s composition and its reading. The method and form for this poetic transfer of material energies is ‘FIELD COMPOSITION’ in which form extends and coheres with content (Olson 2009). Olson revives a focus on breath where the line is not defined by the foot, but by its spaces and endings. Typography opens a way toward the shaping of the breath on the page as a projection of characters and space; the length of a space in a poem signals a timed breath, a pause to be held (ibid).

This poetics of breath has purpose; it is meant to be useful in the world, because it takes seriously ‘a stance toward reality outside a poem as well as a new stance towards the reality of a poem itself’ (Olson 2009: n.p.). A practice of attentiveness connects a poet’s inner world to Earth, even in its destruction. Breath is the medium of this attentiveness and a human’s ‘special qualification as animal’ (ibid). The ‘corporeality of the poet’ is essential to the open form of projective verse (Daw 2019: 356). Developing a breath poetics based on Olson’s ‘projective verse’, Chantelle Mitchell (2019) refers to ‘the porosity of the breathing body in relation to atmosphere’. Olson’s approach echoes in the contemporary turn toward understanding material agencies and their enmeshments (Daw 2019: 355, 363; Bennett 2010; Iovino and Oppermann 2014).


Breathy enmeshments and political poetics of breath

Air itself enmeshes creatures; materialities and livelinesses — organic and inorganic in concert — oxygenate the atmosphere from and in which animals (including humans) breathe (Rigby 2015: 149). A focus on breath and breathing — a remembering of the air that pushes into and expands the lungs — provides a discursive space for connection, openness and resistance to oppression. To highlight breath is to be reminded of the ways, in Western cultures, many are trained to hold their breath; for example, as a response to stress, to appear thin, or through constrictive clothing (Wells 2018: 150–51). Breathing deeply often needs to be relearned through practices of meditation. But mindfulness is not a ‘nice’ New Age panacea. Breath, remembered, links persons consciously with the compromised air of pollution and climate change. Breathtaking means life and death. It refers both to wonder and violence.

Violent breath-taking is the prompt for Ashon T Crawley’s (2017) writing in witness to the murders of African Americans, with particular mention of Eric Garner’s repeated dying words, ‘I can’t breathe’, on 17 July 2014, Staten Island, New York. Countering the constriction and taking of the breath in violent deaths authorised by racism, Crawley sees breath and its performance, especially in the ‘Blackpentecostal’ tradition, as a form of survival-resistance. Breathing is an embodied performance of survival in the face of racist violence. It is an enunciation of a community’s freedom producing a critical disruption that expands to what Crawley calls ‘otherwise possibilities’ (85). Such possibilities can alter ‘the normative worlds of juridical violence and violation’ (ibid).

The writing of breath as a performative of disruptive remembrances and possibilities resonates with Paul Celan’s description of the capacity of poetry to ‘turn the breath’ (2005 [1960]: 162). He suggests that poetry is ‘an Atemwende, a turning of our breath’ and asks if ‘poetry goes its way — the way of art — for the sake of just such a turn?’ (ibid). Can poems and our readings of them work to turn the breath toward ‘otherwise possibilities’ in the face of violence — social and ecological? Pierre Joris’s translation of the first poem of part IV of Celan’s collection Atemwende (2005) speaks of the ‘written’ as something that ‘hollows itself’ and ‘the spoken’ as ‘seagreen’ (105–106). The poem moves through the spoken’s burning ‘in the bays, // in the / liquified names’, reminding the reader of the genocide of the Shoah (ibid). That these names become seawater through which ‘dolphins dart’ might seem to recover the names of the lost to a kind of organic connectedness except that this creaturely play occurs ‘in the eternalized Nowhere’ which is both ‘here’ and ‘memory’ (ibid). The juxtapositions of oceanic play and memorialised violence flow, but the poet reminds the reader that they are jarring like ‘over-loud bells’ (ibid). They act on the breath. In the final line of the third stanza, punctuation — first an emdash before ‘where only’, then a question mark and comma — stops the reader. I hold my breath through the stanza break and then, as the poet asks ‘who / pants / in this // shadow-quadrat’ (ibid), I pant. Through the line breaks after ‘who’, ‘pants’ and ‘in this’, the poem performs a catching and release of the breath, a breath-turn that seems to speak to the reader — to the reader’s body — see you have held your breath, and now you must       pant. Opening with ‘shadow-quadrat’, the final stanza shifts, asking who shimmers. The poem closes as a question with the word ‘shimmers’ repeated three times (ibid). While the memory of the Shoah infuses the spoken, swimming in and through the poem is a dolphin. Where writing has made a space, has hollowed itself, a dolphin darts and shimmers, like language and its impossibility, its terrible ‘Nowhere’ that is perhaps everywhere.


The body’s breath and the media of poetry

In this space of language and its impossibilities, writing, reading, speaking and hearing are material embodied deeds that act on our bodies through the processes of breathing. If I write them as ‘writing — reading — speaking — hearing’ or ‘writing     reading     speaking    hearing’, I suggest links or pauses for breath between the words. Punctuation and space, and words themselves, bear relations to ‘the medium of air’ through which ‘all creatures … call to one another’ (Logan 2012: 18). Spoken word poetry arrives through this medium of air. Page poetry encodes the breath. Abram writes of Semitic languages, where only consonants were written: ‘almost every syllable of their language was composed of one or more silent consonantal elements plus an element of sounded breath — that which we would today call a vowel’ (1996: 99). He suggests that the ‘silent consonants’ are a ‘bodily framework or shape through which the sounded breath must flow’ (ibid). But poetry goes further than the alphabet in rendering the materiality of the breath that must play in a poem’s visual construction and oral delivery.

Discussing Wordsworth’s poetics of breath, Tom Ford comments: ‘As a technology of breath, rhythm calls attention to the atmospheric medium of communication. We become conscious of the material intertwinings effected by the linguistic processing of air, the mechanisms of our breathing.’ (2013b: 461)  As I have suggested in relation to Celan, breath becomes visible through line endings, spaces, punctuation, repetitions; each informs a reading either silently or aloud. Robert Pinsky writes: ‘The medium of poetry is a human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth... The reader’s breath and hearing embody the poet’s words.’ (1998: 8)  Voice, too, is a medium of breath, but voice is not simply that which carries word as sound waves across air.

Voice is a also breathy relation to freedom. For Irigaray, a focus on breath is a necessity for women in coming to voice within their bodies and beyond patriarchal identification of women with bodies (2004b: 159–60). As Crawley (2017) argues, this breathy necessity pertains not only to women under patriarchy but especially also to those subjected to the complex intersections of racist, classist, sexist, heteronormative violence. Seemingly intangible, a voice emerges in the interplay of the poet self, performed selves of the poet-speaker — on page or screen — and in the construction of a poem. Multiple relations and experiences, psychic rumblings and undoings, climates and tempests prompt something like a voice. The nuances of a voice, its deliveries and alterations over time, as well as its interrogations, unfold in a claim for freedom. This complex of experience and intention is in excess of what male poets refer to as the muse (usually feminised). Coming to voice is communal, social, ethical, Earth-breathed; it is part of poetic becoming in the space of colonialism and climate emergency.

A feminist ecological vocative declaration for freedom resonates with the ‘otherwise possibility’ which Crawley (2017) asserts. Alert to the linguistic link between spirit and breath that occurs in words like respiration, Jonathan Bate suggests that the concept of poetic ‘inspiration’ ought ‘be taken literally’: ‘The poet breathes in the being of the world’ (2000: 166). For Olsen (1990 [1950]), the poem’s expiration of the energies inhaled is transformative of those energies. In a ‘breath poetics’ derived from Olsen, Mitchell (2019) construes ‘[a]n embodied poetics in which the body and the self are brought close to the materiality of the world’. For Wells, ‘breath is the root of ecopoetics’ (2018: 151). Not only is breath the vehicle or medium for ecopoetic expression, but also the capacities to breathe, speak and write come from a more-than-human world (Rigby 2015: 149; Wells 2018: 151, 157). Ford writes that, ‘[t]hrough the exercise of poetic breathing, we inhale a new understanding of the ordinary objects that surround us’ (2013b: 462). What if such an object is atmosphere itself? In the space of interlocking colonialism and climate emergency, what poetries and readings of them might loosen the breath toward ‘otherwise possibilities’ for the atmosphere: communal, social, ethical, Earth-breathed?


Reading for breath in a time of climate change

My focus, then, is on reading for breath, rather than in developing a breath poetics. I will consider the way three aspects of poetic composition function: first, the way space acts on the page as a marker of breath; second, the way what Ford (2013a) calls ‘auratic citation’ operates to bring certain kinds of breath into the poem; third, the way punctuation and imagery perform on and against one another to shape the breath in the poem. In the context of climate change, I am interested in how breath is both freed and strained through these functions in a poem. While I will focus on space in my reading of Jones’s ‘Everything is Beautiful, Finally’, citation in my reading of Harkin’s ‘Climate Change’, and the interplay of punctuation and image in Hawthorne’s ‘Earth’s breath’, I will not limit my readings to one facet of each poem.

‘Everything is Beautiful, Finally’ by Jill Jones can be read as relating to climate change. The poem depicts the future as present, entangled with flesh, bodies, lungs, spokenness and writing, matter and breathing. Weather and human implicatedness are enmeshed with the exigencies of the way fossils and the fuels we derive from them work on the air we breathe, the sphere of atmos, that is our habitat.

Everything is Beautiful, Finally

Everything’s burned        You thought it was entirely secular
Or a belief in the healing properties        of wounds or music
But now they’ve stolen our teeth
It’s harder eating stones        until you learn drugs are dust
Strike each rock in time           until you shift it
As if there was more space        in the continuum

The weather is our fiction        And now here’s the revenge
Slain minutes making rubbish        of flags and armbands
Pissing on excuses        commandments and jokes

It’s getting worse       because it’s getting worse        becomes our lie
Here’s to the seething future        It’s no longer obtuse or ambient
In the silent howl        material spell breaks
Or it’s just fucking loud

Who says we will never part
We are together        Our waxworks are dying
Pooling, drying        in lumps like the fat we are
We’re in the front row        We are the performance
We are testifying        We are terrifying        But no longer awesome
No longer transfiguring

Days are mangled        Sky’s wrenched        The curtains are red
We put on the wedding dress        and we’re becoming
The place of vows and sorrow        divorce and sundering
The shredding of ties and veils        suits, leaves, vibrations, temples
Choirs of formulas        The end of the affair        The last sail
The last monster        The beautiful drowning

(Jones 2017: 90)

The obvious graphing of breath in this poem occurs in the mid-line breaks, that in the first stanza seem to signal a shift between the image or thought on the left and a counter thought or image to the right, as in ‘Everything’s burned        You thought it was entirely secular’. Sometimes the space signals a pause to emphasise the thought: ‘Or a belief in the healing properties        of wounds or music’ and ‘As if there was more space        in the continuum’. The breaks impel the reader either to take or to hold their breath and in so doing to engage with the juxtapositions of image and thought, and the questions they raise.

In the second stanza, the mid line break seems to suggest a contrast but also a contextualisation: ‘The weather is our fiction’, ‘Slain minutes making rubbish’, ‘Pissing on excuses’ stand opposite ‘And now here’s the revenge’, ‘of flags and armbands’, ‘commandments and jokes’. There is no set pattern to the sorts of pause in breath or contrasts in imagery these white spaces on the page signal, nor are they uniform. Rather they suggest the kinds of hiatus that exist between, and connect, our knowledges of ecological emergency, the contexts of inaction and denial, uses of power (political and social) and our own complicity. Ford suggests that ‘the imaginative conjunction in poetry of thought, shape, and breath can bring the air itself properly into view’ (2013b: 465). In the spaces of Jones’s poem not only breath but also the stressed atmosphere of the Anthropocene could be said to appear.

The pause after ‘jokes’ signalled by the break between stanzas two and three leads into ‘It’s getting worse’. This line is broken twice. First, before a repetition, joined by the conjunction ‘because’, and then before ‘becomes our lie’. The breath by now may have the reader panting, as the spaces and capitalisations are the only forms of punctuation in the poem. They function to break the flow and to juxtapose ideas that heighten the complexity of social-ecological interrelations. Through the tension around the intensification of present ecological trauma and the question of what can be said truly about this, stanza three builds toward the way the future seethes in this present. Nothing is simple when the line breaks again into a further negation. The future as present is not a lie. If the future is a kind of atmosphere (an ambience), it is evident (rather than ‘obtuse’). The line break and another capital both stop and lead the reader into a ‘silent howl’ in which can be heard the breaths of other voices that emerge in an extended atmosphere that circles and mutates across time.

Considering the emergence of the idea of atmosphere in European Romanticism, Ford (2013a; 2018) shows it to be multivalent. He adopts the concept of ‘aura’ to describe ‘an atmospheric medium of transhistorical communication’ (2013a: 69). In the moment known as the Anthropocene, atmosphere becomes ‘a space of sensuous cognition, an agency of cultural mediation, a material body of thought’ (70). The visibility of aura can be an image for the material agency of air/atmosphere in culture and around bodies. In relation to art, Ford comments that aura can be understood ‘both as the unique breath conveyed by an artwork, and as a breath from the past that becomes perceptible in the present’ (76). This breath may be ‘capable of being brought into being via citational practices of reading’ (ibid). Linking breath and atmosphere through the concept of aura, he describes a process of ‘auratic citation’ that ‘provides language with the means to fracture the impermeable carapace of the present, opening it to a breath of other times and other forms of time’ (ibid). Auratic citation thus has intersections with intertextuality which I understand as more than a practice of citation and allusion. Intertextuality is also the complex relation of textuality to the semiotic space of the maternal and the material, frequently forgotten in our processes of composition and reading (Kristeva 1984; Elvey 2011).

In ‘Everything is Beautiful, Finally’, the ‘silent howl’ is followed by a pause (breath), leading into and alongside ‘material spell breaks’, and has the effect of auratic citation, opening Jones’s poem to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ (dated 1955–1956), and the breathing resistances and repetitions of that famous work (2010: 1–11). ‘Howl’ refers to ‘the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism’, repeating in part I ‘who’: ‘who howled on their knees …’; ‘who sat in boxes breathing …’; ‘who coughed …’; ‘who sang out of their windows in despair …’ (3, 5, 6). In part II ‘Moloch’ — ‘whose blood is running money’, the god to whom we sacrifice our children — repeats over thirty times (8–9). Part III repeats ‘I’m with you in Rockland’ at the start of each unit; Rockland is where ‘you’ will draw and exhale breath to ‘scream’, to ‘split the heavens’ (10–11). Patrick Dunn (2005) links aspects of orality, such as spontaneity, parataxis and wordplay, in Ginsberg’s written poetry with the way breath is encoded there. For Dunn, part II of ‘Howl’ combines the use of exclamation marks with ‘short intonation units’ to produce a sense of breathlessness in the reader (112). ‘Copiousness and repetition’ are features of orality Ginsberg applies in ‘Howl’ (116). Differently and in a much shorter work, Jones’s poem uses repetition and excess of imagery and ideas building one on another around the spaces of breath in this Anthropocene moment of strained breath.

That Jones’s ‘howl’ is silent suggests an indrawn breath, a holding back — not necessarily the poet’s withholding — from the resistances that are needful in this moment. The penultimate stanza concludes: ‘We are testifying        We are terrifying        But no longer awesome / No longer transfiguring’. The negations suggest a question concerning what has been lost to culture where testimony and terror are neither ‘awesome’ nor transformative. In its spaces the poem may ask what response is adequate to our own atmospheric conditions and, differently, what response amid our collective failures is possible. From an ecocritical perspective, Rigby (2015) addresses these questions too, asking how we might ‘dance with disaster’ (20). In the final stanza, personal loss and trauma spill across the spaces of the breath on the page; they are distinct from and continuous with ‘mangled’ days and ‘wrenched’ skies. Framing the problematic normativity of matrimony and its breakdowns, and more generally the fissures in personal social relations, is a world trauma that is monstrous. The poem ends ‘The last monster     The beautiful drowning’. That the beautiful is being extinguished or will be drowned in some Anthropocene apocalypse is only one possible meaning for this line; another echoes the title of Jones’s earlier The beautiful anxiety (2014). In the rupture, the poet sees tragically a kind of beauty. Yet the final word, ‘drowning’, returns me to meanings of breathtaking that are not wonderful or beautiful but mortal, deadly, reflecting the kind of violence of which Crawley (2017) writes. To this violence, a politic exercise of breathing words is resistance.

Natalie Harkin’s (2019) ‘archival poetics’ are a kind of breathing poetic resistance to invasion. Her process could be read as a form of ‘auratic citation’ which critically brings breaths held and withheld, lives taken and voices claimed, into the present of the poem. In her poem ‘Climate Change’ (2015: 4-5), Harkin also uses archival sources as a form of ‘auratic citation’ in order to shift from the polluted breath of colonial voices. She quotes Tony Abbott on climate change as epigraph to the poem, and interweaves his words and those of his then Treasurer Joe Hockey with her own voice:


Climate Change

Australia should be an affordable energy superpower, using nature’s gifts to the benefit of our own people and the wider world. It is prudent to do what we reasonably can to reduce carbon emissions. But we don’t believe in ostracising any particular fuel and we don’t believe in harming economic growth. Energy consumption defines prosperity.

             — Tony Abbott, as Australian Prime Minister, 2014

The argument [on climate change] is absolute crap … however, the politics of this are tough for us. Eighty percent of people believe climate change is a real and present danger.

             — Tony Abbott, 2009


stealth-like winds            carry deserts
to overwhelm           hot cities
whole nations           sift possessions
fear               extinction

fresh-water            chokes
on salt-blooms
to season crops      shrink lakes
offering white-crust-thirst
in its wake

Climate Change?
It’s absolute crap!

said our coal-cash disciple
as our Treasurer     ups-the-ante
with his ‘aesthetic’ offerings

                                 [he observes
                                 on his commute to work]
are ruining the landscape
are utterly offensive
a blight
and quite appalling!

followed closely
by his             renewable-energy
budget cuts

in my Adelaide suburban backyard
sub-tropical fruits now grow wild              steamy
and smoke whispers sorrow      on autumn winds
while distant strangers cling
to homes       lands      boats
           watching livelihoods
                                 watching     lives
                                                     slip away

(Harkin 2015: 4–5)

Like Jones, Harkin maps the breath through mid-line spaces and line breaks, as well as evoking connections between breath, air and climate change, through direct reference to winds and choking. Not only the tone of her citation, but also her own words highlight the way the political speak she cites is a dangerous miasma, a polluting aura. She charts the toxicities of coal-loving climate change denial and, attending this, the literal breath-taking for communities already subject to drought, soil loss, rising seas and extended fire seasons. Auratic citation works here to bring the toxic, polluting breaths of climate change denial into the poem, not so as to repeat them, but to resist their intent. When Harkin arranges the citations on the page with spaces for the poet’s and reader’s own breathing, her poem negates the citations and makes them work toward a different meaning. The citations function to signal both grief and the possibility of practical responses to climate change. For example, in the ‘wind farms’ which enter the poem in the citation of the Treasurer, wind evokes a promise of ‘renewable energy’; wind is also a messenger of climate change — ‘smoke whispers sorrow      on autumn winds’ — bringing news of bush fires.

Wind can be extreme. The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as tropical cyclones, has been linked to climate change, though not always as a matter of direct causality (IPCC 2019: In 2006, Susan Hawthorne had direct experience of tropical cyclone Larry in Far North Queensland. Her collection Earth’s breath (2009) is both response and witness to that atmospheric tumult. Hawthorne’s poetics in the collection rely on plain language and plays of imagery. Auratic citation occurs through reference both to Indigenous knowledge systems and ancient Sanskrit, Greek, and biblical traditions as well as more recent feminist ones. The title poem reads:


Earth’s breath

Breath is an origin story
before breath is non-existence
winds ride the edge of the storm
cloud messengers galloping loud
orchestral kettle drums beat.

Summer has been long
its breath has spanned millennia
and now comes the rain
the storm, the raging
rotten breath of cyclonic winds.

Myths are made of such noise
the rampages of Heracles
have filled our childhood ears
the violence of men and gods
he sneezes and we all fall down.

Who will be Delilah, brave enough
to calm Samson with a pair of
scissors, his long hair fallen
trampled like old vines that
strangle the biggest trees?

We are not so lucky with
Larrikin Larry, no shears large
enough to make his pate shine
as we watch, the ground turns bald
with his blunders through the undergrowth.

A shredder over his shoulder, Larry
larks about turning bark and leaves
to confetti and in his next breath
plays graffiti artist, pasting every
wall door and window.

But even wind needs to draw breath
a moment’s stillness, earth’s smoko —
then we hear the trampling across the roof
the flue knocked off, the guttering
torn ripped and discarded

as Larry changes direction, running rings
widdershins, bellowing earth’s grief
no longer at play, this brat is serious
his blood has curdled, our souls are rattled
ears drumming against bawling Larry.

(Hawthorne 2009)

In this poem, rather than mid-line spaces, standard punctuation — especially the use of capitals, commas and full stops — advises the reader where to take a breath in the reading of the poem. Yet the absence of punctuation other than line breaks, for example, between clauses, shifts the pace of breathing, so that by the end each of the first three stanzas the reader may be a little out of breath. Stanzas four and five give the reader more direction concerning when to breathe, with punctuation throughout their five lines. Occasional enjambments that break the flow of a line, for example, ‘of / scissors’ in line two of stanza four, speed up or slow down the breath. Turns in the poem relate to both imagery and breath. The cyclone, gendered male, is situated as part of lineages of both earthy breath and patriarchal violence.

The poem turns first on the image of Delilah divesting Samson of his power when she cuts his hair; in contrast Larry exercises a force beyond our capacity to tame. Harkening to a kind of masculinist, blundering implication in refusal to act on climate change, the poet imagines Larry with ‘[a] shredder over his shoulders’. A further turn comes at the start of the seventh stanza, ‘But even wind needs to draw breath’, and the line’s rhythm slows the reader to share ‘a moment’s stillness’. This calm, like that of a cyclone, is short-lived and moves toward the end of the stanza to a description of Larry’s disruptive action and noise. This is the only stanza not to close with a full stop or question mark, and the change in style signals the cyclone’s shift described in the next stanza. Despite the multiple commas in this final stanza that might slow the reader, giving her pause to breathe, the participles — ‘running’, ‘drumming’, ‘bellowing’, ‘bawling’ — and words such as ‘widdershins’ intensify the pace of the poem and it is the cyclone’s immense, whirling breathing, its howl, that closes the poem in the name ‘Larry’.

The following poem, ‘Cyclone time’, like the title of the book itself, signals the poet’s linking of breath, air, wind, and the effects of each on the other in the extreme of the cyclone as a manifestation of planetary breath, when the poem begins:

when earth exhales
we inhale, hold our breath
as that great turbine of wind
rolls over us



In thinking about the possibilities for a climate change poetry that may be attentive in its poetics to these connections between breath, air, atmosphere and spirit, I wonder if there is a poetry to come that engages materially in new ways with the strained breath of our times. Might there be a climate change poetics between the poetry of auratic citation and archival foundness, between concretion and the ways writerly poetic technique works on the body of the reader, between witness to disaster and ‘otherwise possibility’? Earlier I considered Celan’s concept of ‘breathturn’. Ford suggests that lyric poetry ‘installs a discontinuity in our atmosphere; it enacts a break in the weather’ (2013a: 79). This may be a bit more optimistic about lyric poetry that I am, but I think Ford’s comment speaks also to the enactments of Jones’s, Harkin’s and Hawthorne’s poems as breaks in the weather at this point of taking collective, even planetary breath.


With thanks to Jill Jones, Natalie Harkin and Susan Hawthorne for permission to quote their poems in full.


[i] In case there are any poets in orbit outside Earth’s atmosphere, I extend this sense of Earth to the enclosed air filled spaces in which they live and work because the matter of their habitats is also of Earth.


Works cited: 


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