• Jennifer Lighty

Breathing Again After a Long Time Underwater

Updated: Mar 27, 2021

Reaching my hands into the late afternoon light

glowing on the river's final curve, I didn't believe

I was beautiful,

like the valley's wild horses

hiding in high ferns I parted with my hands like

lace curtains, air

closing behind me without a ripple.

I came to a clearing.

Light streamed down.

From the far side a mare rose from crushed ferns to face me,

holding me in the liquid eyes of one

who can see in the dark without stumbling.

I wanted to

come closer, but her foal, still in its slick caul,

stood on shaky legs, looked from its mother to me

frozen on the edge between light and shadow.

When the foal

fell back onto ferns slippery with birth blood

I backed away, hoping they'd forgive me,

and remember me as a human,

who for a few minutes forgot

she could kill what she loved.

At dusk I bathed at the river's edge

where the horses came out of the ironwoods

to face the river's mouth. Sharks waited there

for pig carcasses to wash down,

jaws hacked out by hunters to mount.

People disappeared all the time in that valley.

I was just a girl at the edge of a clearing.

I don't need to tell the story of how I was

broken anymore. Now I can speak

of how a wild horse watched me from the ironwoods

and of how warm the river was when I knelt

to lift late afternoon light out of the water.

How I

poured it over my head. How it flowed

down my hair and shoulders, gilding my skin,

returned to river unbroken.

Hear Jen Lighty read "Breathing Again After a Long Time Underwater"


This is a poem that's written me, and continues to write me more than any other. In truth, I love it so much it doesn't bother me it never seems to be finished. As a poem inspired by the water of Waipi'o Valley-the streams and waterfalls and rain pooling on jungle leaves, it wouldn't surprise me if I keep allowing it to write me for the rest of my days, and possibly beyond. I have a relationship with this poem that flows from my relationship with water, both the external flows and waves of the material world, and the inner waters of my being that reveal themselves to me when I tap into their rhythm through the muscle, bone and sinew of my body that contains and shapes them like river banks, roots and boulders.

The first version began about 8 years ago. I can't remember how it came to me, what the first words were. It was more like the poem pulled me into it. I slugged through valley mud on a path that wasn't visible, unable to see the sky beyond the ferns tall as trees, and there we were, bound together in a relationship that has continued to birth new revelations that lead to more connection, hopefully for us both.

The events of the poem occurred in 1994 when I lived in Waipi'o Valley. So many extraordinary things happened to me there that the only thing I could do was assume they were ordinary. I do remember the poem was much more ornate and esoteric, the reader had to work harder to understand it because not only did I have no idea what the poem was about, I also wasn't capable yet of writing it. I was a sieve when I began it. It took me years to unravel a small spool of silk from inside myself that was strong enough to weave a container to hold the force of the valley's water. What I did know was that I needed to write it to resolve some shame within myself about being a human. It was a life or death matter.

As a person struggling to find my body's voice, it did not flow as well as it does now and told more than it showed. Somehow it managed to receive a prize of Honorable Mention from Cutthroat Magazine, a journal edited by a poet I admire, Pamela Uschuk. I was thrilled.

A couple of years ago later the poem took a blind leap into the unknown in a workshop at The Block Island Poetry Project with Li-Young Lee. Writing in a pew in the stained glass light of The Harbor Baptist Church, this was a legendary event in the eternal annals of poetry. Rilke was there, Marie Howe and Mother Mary stirring moonlight in a well, all the witches burned at the stake, and a harem of spurned goddesses and forgotten dryads and naiads drinking mead from a golden cup remembering ambrosia. Yeats' stolen child. Taliesin and Li Po, poet of Chinese rivers, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Ekiwah Adler-Belendez beaming in from Mexico. Coleman Barks and Mary Oliver were up in the balcony whispering blessings down on us. Machado of the bees and turning water wheel, Jimenez in his boat striking a rock anchored on the deep sea floor, Robert Bly helping us keep our small boats afloat with proper grieving-their names an incantation to muses past, present, and future. The ghosts of the Manisses Indians were there, and Jamie Rose descendant of Tormut Rose, first settler of Block Island. Joya Verde, scribe of the arcane and master of haiku was the only one who saw Lorca drop bleeding roses from his teeth on the church carpet. Carl Big Heart with tobacco and a tin bucket of water called us to the lodge. David Whetstone was on sitar. Vernon Fowlkes brought the Sound of Falling Water and may have been writing with a crow-feather quill, and of course Lisa Starr, so well named even the sky applauded when she spoke; and most important of all--the kind, envious, generous, mean, broken, fluttering, spontaneous, blocked, overflowing hearts of ten years of Block Island Poetry Project workshop participants. A seat for everyone at the table. Everybody welcome. For those of you who were there, if I've forgotten anyone, please enlighten us. As Goethe purportedly said on his deathbed, "More light! More Light!"

Li-Young stood in the pulpit above us only because that's where the microphone was, but he belonged there. Some say a golden glow was about him, and most likely there was a golden retriever somewhere nearby, if not under a pew, then outside the door barking for someone to let him because he knew how much we all needed him. Grief was there. Finally, she sighed. We all knew there was more to come.

He spoke of four voices in poetry: public, personal, private and unknown. He considered great poems to include all four. The public voice relates the news of the poem, the information anyone could have access to from reading a newspaper. The private voice relayed the information-feelings, observations, etc.-one would share with a friend or trusted confidante, something not for public consumption. The secret voice invited the reader into the internal thoughts and reflections of her inner world, what the writer would only say to himself, but something entirely different happens when the unknown voice enters a poem.

The unknown has no source, at least that we can know. It is tempting to call it the voice of the divine, but any words that attempt to define it and make it comprehensible to human needs and desires is a risk, because to name something is an attempt to control, not always a bad thing, but as anyone who has connected with any great force beyond the human knows, Creation is born of Chaos. This applies down the line from galaxies to poems.

As Emily Dickinson advises:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Success in Circuit lies Too bright for our infirm Delight The Truth's superb surprise As Lightning to the Children eased With explanation kind The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind —

If you need to say where the unknown dwells do it indirectly, something these lines came from the other side of the singularity at the center of The Milky Way, but I'd advise skipping that approach and not forcing. That's an immense amount of pressure to put on words, which after all, are made of air. Why not let them flutter in our mouths like serendipitous birdsong and court the unknown another way? How about trying reverent love poems and libations of blood, sweat and tears, or crying quietly on a riverbank after giving up the search for the last unpolluted spring on Earth.

I suspect no one past childhood makes contact with the unknown without being kicked in the gut by despair's scuffed boots.

Grace makes all I've said moot. She visits whom she chooses, both saint and sinner know her cool touch. There is no denying her when she enters a room. The tears of utter surrender will flow, and if you don't push her away and synch your heart with hers until it bursts you may find you stop seeking for meanings and live a holy life grounded in gratitude and beauty, dropping poems like bread crumbs in the forest for lost inner children to follow so they can grow into full flowering adults who will drop their leaves when it's time as elders, sharing their rooted knowledge, their wisdom, with generations to follow. That's what it's like to have a genuine ancestor, not a ghost.

As we wrote in a wave rolling over the church from Li-Young's feet to crash on the back wall and splash the scribblers in the balcony, that silence you hear in poetry readings that indicates a deity has entered the room descended on our shoulders. (A piece of advice-remember awe can be awkward. Don't kill it with nervous laughter. See if you can sit through your squirming until bells ring through your bloodstream and you can hear tree rings singing cantatas. Also learn to tell the difference between piety and genuine devotion.)

The weight was heavy, our hands were lit up like swifts newly arrived after wintering some place we all knew we'd never go. We wrote. Public, private, secret, unknown. Some people wrote from public, to private, to secret, inviting the unknown to enter. Some wrote in other sequential combinations. As an obtuse writer still grounded in shame, I had most difficulty with the public voice--the facts of the poem. I had been made aware of this by my teacher Fran Quinn, who over the course of a few tortuous years (--for me. I think he rather enjoyed it), guided me out of shame enough to write poems that actually touched the earth instead of floating above it.

Most of my poems up until this one were grounded in the secret and pretty much stayed there. As a poet and human who wanted to connect, this was painful. I had a need to be witnessed and understood that was somewhat juvenile and I was writing poems that were pretty much begging the reader to do that without giving them any clue as to why I needed their help. Not a source of great art and not the way to be in service to poetry.

Up until this poem, my poems had been in service to me, shoring up my ego after a series of traumas that had ruptured my boundaries to the point where I didn't know how to say yes or no in any definite way. They were recovery, not art. Compounding my shame, was the fact that I knew this and still wrote them anyway, exposing my wounds in public when all they wanted was some quiet and tender time in a fern glade watching gold spores release themselves onto the breath of the forest. Of course this is how the process of growth goes-- from self to service--pain and embarrassment are often involved, even for holy beings like the Dalai Lama or Kuan Yin, whose suffering as a human are a tale almost too unbearable to witness. Kuan Yin showed us how compassion blossoms through suffering, as did Christ on the cross saying, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Through this poem I developed compassion for myself, though I still don't know where the mercy that granted me this compassion comes from, but that's not a question I ever needed to ask. It came. My heart broke, overflowed down the river into the ocean, was carried up by the wind to become a cloud.

As I wrote out the events of this poem as they would appear in a news story, I was able to see the missing parts that I couldn't acknowledge because my shame had blinded me to them. The private voice had been there all along, and the secret, but as I grounded the poem in the facts of its genesis, the unknown graced me with its wisdom in two lines and elevated this poem into the one I'd longed to write for years. Pop quiz: which two lines are the voice of the unknown? Write your answer if you dare in the comments.

This poem healed me, and many people have told me when reading it or after hearing me read it aloud, that it healed something in them as well. Healing dwells deepest in the unknown. If you've heard that silence in a poetry reading, rich and thick and heavy with the weight of gods looking in, you know what I'm talking about. And this poem is still healing and writing me. I must have made a 1,001 changes to it, and there may be a 1,001 more. Some poems are like that. They tell you when they're finished, or the finish you. I have a feeling this one won't be done until my death, the real one, when my body leaves this world.

As a free diver I can tell you the more you get out of your head, the deeper you can go. The body holds reserves of breath you don't even know about. Discovering them will bring you into the unknown and the journey is both worth it and a worthy one. Crossing worlds by choice on one breath unifies. When you surface your skin will be sparkling with ancient whale songs you could hear in the womb and you just might start singing them back to the sea at dusk and dawn. I suspect as a being always in search of more flow and underground streams flowing up through dark crystals blooming in veined stones tuned to a deer's silent, heart-shaped foot-fall, that it will never be finished. For that I am grateful.

"Breathing Again After a Long Time Again Underwater," appeared first in my chapbook Breaking Up With the Moon, copyright 2016, Finishing Line Press. I'd like to express my gratitude to all my poetic ancestors and muses, especially Lisa Starr, The Block Island Poetry Project, Fran Quinn and Li-Young Lee.

133 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All