Joy Priest
A Personal History of Breathing

We woke to life in the 80s. The air dying

from industry & industry dying. Train brakes

groaning to a stop & that singular scent

of horses, their muscular lather & manure 

moving down river to Mississippi. Our grandfathers


chain-smoked Viceroys in the house

& we developed asthma before vocabulary,

read books & held our breath, spelled

but didn’t speak. In our bodies, humidity thickened

into an argument with speech. When we joined


our fathers’ households they trashed our plastic bags

packed tight with medicine bottles & inhalers 

curated over the years by our mothers, who smothered us 

our fathers said, mumbling something under their breath

about being a man. We were daughters. We were Black 


& so, sons too. They vowed to make us stronger, 

big-lunged, lit our cigarettes, handed us grip-pleated 

paper bags in place of pills. In the 90s springtime, 

we suffered through neon particles of pollen 

suctioned film-like to all blooming surfaces, 


innocuous in natural purpose, but perverted 

by a chemical monopoly modifying plant sex 

& the work of bees—we became allergic to apples

because we were allergic to apple trees. At the plant

our fathers were talking their coworkers out of the ku klux klan


while we hooped on our still-segregated basketball teams, 

outgrowing childhood over an iron-rimmed summer

at parks oxidized to rust. At 14 we went to work

at drive-thru windows, fried batter air settling 

in our hair. Black n Mild smoke breaks 


freaked to extend time. & some of us 

went off to college with polluted memories.

& some of us ended up at the school clinic

with anxiety & traumatic stress, acid reflux 

& lactose intolerance, the nurses said was genetic,


we didn’t have the phrase environmental racism

yet. & sometimes we just forgot to breathe

or realized we’d been holding our breath. 

We tried kombucha & herbal teas, yoga & meditation, 

signed up for classes with suburban moms 


on Xanax & Ambien & we acted brand new. 

Until a man hawking cigarettes, second shift 

side-hustling like our fathers, stopped breathing 

on a sidewalk. A man who talked to plants 

like our fathers stopped breathing


in this state-sanctioned chokehold. & we found ourselves 

pacing the brainyard on a cocaine flight 

unable to locate our lungs, left arms going numb 

saying, this is it        this is it

with our heartbeats running out, 


leaping & whinnying & lying down long-nosed

in the grass, huffing, panting out. The train

of our childhood chugging backward

to a slow stop in our minds, come to take us

to the afterlife. Its ghostly porters, 


mask-less, finally, leaning over us 

with our father’s faces, reaching toward us

with a bag to breathe into. The trail

of white buttons down their uniforms

like blinding current peeking through.



Found In Volume 49, No. 05
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  • Joy Priest
Joy Priest
About the Author
Joy Priest is the author of Horsepower (Pitt Poetry Series, 2020), winner of the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry. She has received support from The Frost Place, The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where she was a 2019 - 2020 Fellow in Poetry. 
This poem is the winner of the 2020 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize, an award established by APR to honor the late Stanley Kunitz's dedication to mentoring poets.