Deep Breath

I’m people-watching beside the towering stone stupa that memorializes the spot where, 3000 years ago, Siddhartha achieved enlightenment while in meditation under a fig tree, and which now lures devoted Buddhist pilgrims from across this world, including the ones in front of me locked in lotus position with their eyes resting, and the others seated further on the grass that surrounds the stupa who are chanting sacred texts and/or reading from weathered books amidst half-empty plastic water bottles and fried momos, a soundtrack to the sweating devotees who repeatedly prostrate and stand and prostrate and stand on wooden boards, which is even more physically demanding than it initially sounds because the sun is beginning to throw its weight around in the cloudless noon, and beyond them all the selfie tourists are snapping away and shading their smart-phone screens with their hands as friends collectively lean in to peek at the captures held between tightly-clasped fingers, as if the owners are fearful their phones might fly from their palms and flutter around the stupa of their own accord like slightly-too-geometrical birds, giving the photos away before they can be uploaded and affirmed. The selfie tourists will relocate, conquer, relocate. They move with efficiency, experts in angles, backs to the giant stupa but harnessing its undeniable beauty in the natural light for optimum poses. This is not mere superficiality on their part, but how they’ve learned to make experiences feel real, make time feel real, a sense not altogether straightforward in our digital world.

The ability to immerse ourselves in the world is becoming increasingly difficult. Spectators to life, we watch time disperse into its tiny little wormholes, into the everyday objects it ferries across existence, moving from shell to shell. Recently, I’ve also been reading Herman Hess’ Siddhartha, whose fictionalized version of the sacred figure feels an estrangement from the world by maintaining a distinction between watching and living, a distinction that is collapsing in front of our eyes. While learning about love from the sensualist Kamala, Siddhartha feels “real life still passing him by and not touching him […] and wished that he would also be gifted with the ability to participate in all of these childlike-naïve occupations of the daytime with passion and with his heart, really to live, really to act, really to enjoy and to live instead of just standing by as a spectator.” While watching life move by like images across a screen, it’s hard to locate time to feel, time to self-consciously breathe. Perhaps this is what good literature does in asking for careful reading. Poetry allows words to breathe.

Several pieces in this issue breathe deeply. Jade Wallace slows the world in her poem “We are for you,” in which details in our phenomenological world inhale from the diaphragm, patiently announcing themselves: “There is an olive tree blooming in Italy / There is a gardener planting a mosaic of roses on the boulevard fifty yards from where you work. / There is a violinist wiping a cloth over a bow to meet you in the train station.” A poem contains within its borders a temporality that warps the wisps of time that wander through — here, the poem’s images, such as wiping a bow, require a moment for your mind to see, slowing the world as the image touches down, soft as snow. Wallace, conscious of a poem’s necessary temporal manipulation, reminds us at the poem’s end that “the clocks are not for us” — not that time itself isn’t for us, but that we don’t naturally dwell in instrumentalized time, which accelerates as we watch it tick by.

Not all literature demands a slowing down, but other poems in this issue echo Wallace’s linguistic meditation. Moments in this issue, from the narrator in Adrian Smith’s piece searching for poems about the rain in the law library, “procrastinating” from their school work but writing “down everything I wanted to learn today,” to Degan Davis’ poem, whose narrator sees a moment demanding a small heroism emerge as s/he witnesses a white man call two black women “monkeys” and feels “the reversal of falling in love,” the moment demanding the narrator to “come forward,” to step into judgement. Jane Iordakieva reminds us that “If nothing else, / light deserves an ode. / A crunching break of sun.”

In his story “Andy,” Ryan Gaio sprints through Andy’s teenage years with long out-of breath sentences, pausing at precise moments to control the emotional ebb and flow. The story feels familiar and surprising, the charismatic narrator’s high school drama holding elevated stakes, as we feel his character’s soul constantly on the line. Andy too, feels faced with the issue between watching and living. Several other pieces, including those by Yuan Changming and Mitchell Grabois, move through large scale temporalities, the former from a long-range historical perspective and the latter from a family lens. The pieces channel time through their porous borders, inhaling it with a certain speed and exhaling it another.

People tell me that as we get older, time moves faster; I can’t recall exactly who said this, but general people, outside myself, seem to hold this belief, a general people I can’t particularize because time is moving too quickly to know particulars. It could be placebo, but life does feel accelerated. Years zip by. Hopefully, these issues allow for an elusive deep breath. Read aloud and let language pull you into its own rhythm, its own temporalities. Let it remind you: the clocks are not for us.



YUSUF SAADI‘s writing has appeared in magazines including Brick, The Malahat Review, Vallum, Grain, CV2, Prairie Fire, PRISM international, Hamilton Arts & Letters, and untethered. His debut chapbook won the 2016 Vallum Chapbook Award.


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