the subtle art of breathing
As a “performative” Healing Text
Ebony Noelle Golden
for Dr. Betty A. Sims & her daughter
i’m gonna be more than a survivor
i’m gonna be a celebrant inside myself
a party girl in my own soul
i’ll take myself out to fancy restaurants
bring me roses
i’ll make love to myself
and in the heat of passion
call out my own name
-from asha bandele’s
the subtle art of breathing
asha bandele’s poem, the subtle art of breathing, examines the intersecting performances of violence and healing experienced by Africana women. The poem unfolds around a single woman’s experience but quickly opens a familiar shared space as the speaker begins a process of reclaiming her body, voice, spirit—humanity from an abuser. Written as lyrical free verse, bandele's poem presences the healing poetics Audre Lorde conjures in Need: a Chorale for Black Women’s Voices, to offer a stereoscopic exploration of breath, movement, awareness, and poetry as a collection of performance practices that work to heal women who have sustained acts of violence.
Sunday mornings find me prostrate, on my back, with a lavender-scented pillow blanketing my eyes. As remnants of myrrh incense tickle my nose, my yoga instructor urges me to lengthen the space between inhales and exhales. She invites me to consider what healing manifests through deep, conscious breathing. I hear her, almost distant, as if under water saying, “imagine your Kundalini life-force warming your whole body, now breathe.”
Readers enter bandele’s poem as the speaker indulges in daily soap operas, which she heavily criticizes because of her “politically conscious” appearance. Watching soap operas allow the speaker to steal and still moments of her day. Here on her couch, she can disrobe; hide from the community’s gaze and stifling definitions of who she is supposed to be.
Additionally, the speaker’s soap opera addiction symbolizes the exploration of the characters “staged” experience with violence and the space and time needed to deconstruct such experiences. The character’s relationship with soap operas represents her attempt, not unlike the women in my family, to find respite while solving the problems of “…the fictionalized chaos/ of somebody else’s life…” asha writes,
“but this is not a poem about soap operas
it’s just that i cannot find another way to begin--”
To begin what, the troubleshooting process of solving the really real chaos this character experiences? The process of turning the gaze inward to mine, with mindfulness, tools like breath, as creative and personal ways to jump-start the spirit and move the body towards healing? It is possible the character cannot find a way to envision her life without the physiological effects of contemporary and historical violence(s). What is more, the character might not realize, in the face of consistent trauma, the metaphysical and physical rewards of actualized healing through breath; the subtle art addresses a myriad of possibilities.
Where does breath hide in the face of violence? My yoga instructor teaches that we choose to hold in our muscles, tissues, and joints stories of our individual and collective trauma. She instructs us to use breath and asana to release traumatic and violent episodes from our connective tissues. She does not encourage us to ignore these body narratives but instead to recognize their significance in our past and their relevance to our futures.
As such, the persona bandele evokes in the subtle art addresses how instances with, “the various sundry crises/ in [her] life” enliven and enrich subsequent experiences with pain and healing. asha explores this struggle in the following lines,
“there are people who have
accused me of refusing joy
and blanketing the sun
but then there are people who
know as i know
even as we laugh
we cannot ignore
the wincing in our eyes…”
The aforementioned lines illuminate the difficult journey the speaker, along with Africana women, travels in pursuit of healing from historical and contemporary violence. The speaker asserts the notion that violence/trauma and joy cannot live in the same venue. This excerpt also addresses a broader audience who may believe the speaker is behaving in a manner that supports “victimhood” and she is solely responsible for correcting her “wincing” experiences.
Sundays I practice Kemetic breath in addition to my regular yoga asana. Kemetic breath insists the body create new patterns of storing and releasing air. I covered one nostril at a time, inhaled and exhaled, taking care to alternate nostrils. At first, the practice caused dizziness, and disorientation, but soon I welcomed this new and creative approach to “down-loading” energy from the universe.
In the poem, asha presences her bond, all be it through instances of violence and healing, with the speaker. She continues,
“…I know this space of mourning
is not mine to occupy
but i cannot leave
since your life reads like
the details of my life
which is why i must know
how come you are dead
but i am alive
yet we both were young black female
and fighting histories of drugs
violence separation loss…”
These lines invite the speaker and the audience to consider themselves as more than repositories for violence and trauma. bandele reminds her audience that in the wake of trauma and subsequent internalized violence due to the intersection of race, class, gender and the patriarchal structures that support such culture, they are more than a collage of “violent marriages, newports, and suicide attempts.” These lines move the persona and the audience to recontextualize instances of violence and encourage the persona, as well as the audience, to re-imagine life as a kaleidoscopic journey that entails boundless and beautiful interactions with the “self” and moreover, support consistent engagement with breath and healing.
the subtle art of breathing’s theme centers around diverse approaches to healing. In the first fives pages of text, images and metaphors belabor and resist breath, which signify one aspect of actualizing the healing process, the state of anxiety, confusion or apprehension about how to transition from the place of victim to the place of victor. For example,
“…in anchorage today
a 30 year old black woman
was found in her apartment
dead of an overdose..”
“…there is no space to be second best
in a country trying to swallow up the earth
from the inside out
they incinerate their own children here
i have seen them scraping their own
8 year olds into garbage bags or compactors…”
These excerpts invoke kinesthetic imagery to invoke the audience’s understanding, viscerally and visually, about relationships with “self” in the presence of pain. It is almost impossible to read these lines without some hesitation of breath. However, the poet does not leave her audience or the poem’s speaker to sit with these globes of pain and remembered traumas left undigested.
Fire breath. My teacher occasionally begins our Sunday-morning asana with a series of fire breaths that warm the body before sun and moon salutations. I particularly enjoy fire breath. Filling my lungs with breath and stretching my arms to their fullest extent, then forcefully bringing them down and releasing every bit of stagnant energy from my lungs. It’s like a steam bath for every cell of my body. Usually, as I practice fire breaths, I think of any trauma or pain I have chosen to let reside in my body, as I pull my elbows along side my ribs and force my lungs clean. I visualize releasing those traumas and watching them evaporate into thin air.
As the poem concludes, asha’s choice of diction and imagery encourages the healing effects of fire breath. The final stanzas offer images of self-love, dance, and passion that fill the space formerly shared with meditations on and interactions with violence. In these lines, bandele exercises mantra like repetition that delivers the persona of “falling in love” with herself and the beauty and complexity there in. asha writes,
“…this a poem that wants to warn
breathing is a difficult and subtle art
this is a poem to say simply i understand
after three attempts i understand, girl, i do
but this is also a poem willing to assert itself and
say i’m glad, even proud, that i’m a survivor…”
These lines erase the speaker’s idea that she is alone in her experiences with violence or healing. Now the speaker recognizes as trauma and violence pepper her life experiences so do creative options for healing illuminate her path.
bandele’s poem is a performative healing text that elucidates the violence, fear, shame, confusion that muddy many women’s journey back from violent experiences towards health and wholeness. The poem delivers intimate monologue, critical and imagistic analysis of personal and community trauma that highlights a healing process incorporates breath work, voice, movement, self-love, and self-acceptance as a model for healing.
The speaker reveals, “then i’m gonna up and marry myself/ does that sound crazy?” The speaker asks this question because she now understands she must be intensely in love with herself and to the outside world this maybe seen as insanity. Possibly the speaker now believes the superficial education American culture indoctrinates its citizens to believe love is really an institution acted out on the bodies of Africana women as a means of perpetuating historical and contemporary structures of violence and more over, a world in which women cannot voice, move and journey toward healing.
This poem re-scripts recognizable traditional symbols of love (i. e. the institution of marriage, “sensual dancing”, and passionate lovemaking”) as symbols of healing and intimacy that empower, enrich and connote an intensely intimate relationship
with “self”. Ultimately when asha writes, “…i’ll make love to myself/ and in the heat of passion/ call out my own name…” she challenges her readers to invite breath as model for continued healing and renewal in the face violence. Making love could be taking a moment to pause and breath. Making love could be writing what you need. Making love could be sitting in meditation. Making love could be taking a long bath. What ever it is, the poet and the poem trust the insanity of self-love. The poet and the poem demand the space for it regardless. bandele urges readers to live in the space of love making, to breathe there, and be healed there. It is through the breath we recognize our power and our ability to be whole, it is through this practice we bring and make fire in our lives to burn away the debris blocking our divinity. It is here where we become free.