Clara McLean

by Clara McLean

In my father’s final weeks he would collapse
into a chair to catch
his breath each time he crossed
his kitchen. What work the lungs
had left to do, a tumor pressed
against the heart’s soft artery.
Afterward, in Cabo Pulmo,
where divers held their breath
for centuries, grappling for mother
of pearl, I heard the hiss
of gills, that movement outward
and inward, gasps
of microbes and stars.
I remembered the staccato
of his last breaths, the way
his body kept on trying
to do what it knew.
There were long, long pauses,
and then his ribs would rise again,
his lungs the last believers
in the life that was.
In a barren landscape of agave,
dust, and thatch, a life
can be remote from us.
I felt the ebb
and lift, air’s rhythmic fist.
I stared for hours into
the sky, but found him only
in a sore spot on
my ribcage, like a bruise.
I read of free divers who can hold
their breath for 20 minutes.
The current record holder
is a German: 22:22. They compete
side by side, suspended vertically
in tanks. Their chests grow
more capacious over time,
air displacing bone. Lung:
the light organ–
to lunge, lungen, leger–
that thing that weighs so little.

In the desert, I picture him
in the distance, as a boy,
blowing diligently on his clarinet.
All this a parachute–
expansion and
contraction. Even the Bang
one big exhale.
All this impossible.
1,500 miles of airway in
each body. At night the atmosphere
drops in oxygen, and plants
respire in complement
to us, sipping in what we call waste,
breathing oxygen out.
In the weeks before he died, one
of us would enter his apartment for the breakfast
shift, before he woke, hearing aids
out and his back
to the door. At times I would approach,
afraid, checking for that gentle rise,
the way he told us he did
with his first born, in the anxiety
of new parenthood.
I’ve marveled at the small
incision on a friend’s chest
where one cancerous lung
was zipped out. The other one
has slowly poured
toward its missing
sister, ballooning
beyond itself in buoyancy
and mourning. What am I without
you then. A guide takes me snorkeling
off shore. I doubt when I’m about
to jump–what if the mouthpiece
doesn’t work, what if
I drown out here.
I am submerged
for a moment. Then intake,
and the self exceeds
its trap, cells plumping, all molecules like tiny
lights, remembering inspiration.


Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 21, Issue 1.

Clara McLeanClara McLean lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Earlier poems have appeared in, FoglifterBy & By, Bird’s Thumb, and Berkeley Poetry Review, among others.

See all items about Clara McLean

Visit Clara McLean’s contributors page.

Leave a Reply