Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Gerald Fleming: City of Breath

Something about the city alters breathing, but not in the way one might expect: not the contraction of breath in reaction to diesel fumes, cigarette smoke, but a longer breathing—a kind of measured breathing shared not solely by those in good condition—the early-morning swimmers, the runners keeping time at red lights, teenagers sprinting—but by everyone—the old, the indolent, the ill, the women with two jobs supporting four children who at the end of the day (end of the night, really) mount six flights of steps and enter their tiny apartments, kids under blankets sprawled across the floor.

            Is it the fact that the city’s air somehow refuses to be polluted, despite soot belching from its trucks & buses, despite the factory-owners’ disregard for even the weak laws in place? Where do those toxins go, we wonder, marveling at the purity of the air, its faint scent of ginger, though no ginger grows here: the climate wouldn’t allow it.

            And, of course, in the long breath comes what is associated with long breath: not simply a lower heart rate, but a sort of taciturn immersion that makes the city’s people famous.

            People here stop and listen to children’s conversations. People here not only wait in line—say, at the bakery—but in that line come to agreement as to who rightly should go first—the frail old man, for instance, who has trouble with his legs, the mother who needs to hurry home & cook, the busboy from the café sent to buy more bread for a sudden crowd, and only then the couple, plenty of time, buying bread for dinner.

            You can see that in this City of Breath many discussions are necessary—and so among five people waiting for a bus, there might be within ten minutes a discussion so inclusive and democratic it would shock those who live elsewhere—but here, unremarkable.

            It’s never been certain whether long breathing brings stamina, or if stamina brings long breathing, and no one debates it anymore. But I can tell you—having once passed through the City of Breath on business and having had the luck to be assigned here, and stay—that along with that long breath and stamina comes a lovemaking I can only characterize in my experience as a kind of interlacing—a kind of braiding: multi-tonal, multi-hued.

            In my case it began at the office in a conversation with a woman who in any city would be regarded as plain, as in any other city I myself am regarded as plain. I can’t remember what we were talking about—something not frivolous, but not profound—and soon it became obvious that the attention we were giving each other, our responses, the pause between those responses—sometimes many seconds—was a kind of lovemaking. As was our talk of what food to order at dinner, or the moment she poured me more wine, or the time at my urging she tried my dessert—all of it a kind of measured, highly erotic, lovemaking. And of the later evening, I won’t say much—only that in this City of Breath I learned what stamina really is—for it is not what I had thought, “bearing up under difficulties, carrying on”; when I see that word now, something flowers in me, the memory of that night (and, I admit, some others), and I think less of endurance than stamen, of the same flower being entered again and again by bees. City of Petalled Flesh, City of Exhalation.

            It occurs to me, as I write this, there seems a larger breath—a kind of overbreath that rises and falls in the city, that holds a rhythm highly evolved and self-perpetuating.

            My assignment here is ending, and I wonder if I’ll stay in the City of Breath—here, in the great drafts of its invisible bellows, where love’s first measure is lifetime.


Copyright 2019 Gerald Fleming

Gerald Fleming’s latest collection of poems is One (Hanging Loose, 2017). He divides his time between Paris and San Francisco.

Graphic by Maurer/The Fordham Observer

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