by Jenna Swift
Breath travels. Our mouths are broken-open places—a house where only wind lives, searching the cupboards and closets. I replace your missing mouths with those of jars, mines, graves. What is gathered and dissipated by mouth? Once alternately filled and emptied, the cloistered breath swallows itself—_Dies irae_, desire drawn back in along a taut, slender rope.
When my late father was a child, he helped as a seasonal farmhand on an arid ranch near the Old Man On His Back Plateau. Lent out to extended family for manual labour, he carried a deep scarring love originating from that corner of southwestern Saskatchewan. Each scarce story I’ve been told from that time seems to encompass beauty and desolation in equal measure. As a child made responsible for the care of roaming cattle, he was dropped into the grasslands underprovisioned. To quench his thirst, he would search for cairns of culled fieldstones where a relative had hidden caches of water. The mythos surrounding that specific choreography of searching parches my genes also—evaporation a kind of deletion.
I subtract with my tongue; what I miss becomes inscribed on the roof of my mouth. My seemingly inexorable breathing is an extension of my father’s final exhalation that, left alone, could not last. The you I address now is diffuse. When the last breath is out and gone, its innate circularity is broken. Breath leaks from us invisibly, a kind of vector beyond the prone form, as in sleep, pointing toward a sense of relation beyond this discreet, visceral loop. Our many overlapping breaths accumulate. Dreams trace their circular logic through the air. I imagine what is under each breath as being weighted under a cairn. What traverses the pleural space among a pile of rocks? Vows and accusations make an instrument of heaped stones. The placement of these stones is a commitment to memory, the repetition of which we perform over time.
What we can’t hold in our mouths or hands, we’ll hold with our eyes. When craving to gather the world closer still, I often think of “Savoir,” an essay by Hélène Cixous recounting the author’s myopia and subsequent vision correction. Cixous observes that “eyes are miraculous hands … the delicate tact of the cornea, the eyelashes, the most powerful hands, these hands that touch imponderably near and far-off heres. … Violent gentleness, brusque apparition, lifting eyelids and the world is given to her in the hands of her eyes.”1
Seeking out the glacial erratic in Okotoks, AB, recently, I found such near and far-off heres.2 The attractive magnetism of mutual loneliness drove me out of town at midnight under the pretext of viewing the comet NEOWISE,3 though I did not encounter the remoteness I expected. Viewing the comet from a ballast of massive, quartzite boulders were dozens of others—flashlights bouncing off the fragmented rock faces in glimpses.
“This constant looking out! Is it the hunter inside me, or the lonely one? What different things do they make me see?”4
It is possible to love based on outline alone, that you can love shapes even as they recede in the dark. The reason we can see the tails of comets is by virtue of their evaporation nearing the sun. Sitting in the negative space between the cleaved boulders at the Okotoks Erratic, I could smell the cloaking charge of pollen accumulating. It is said in many cultures that bees are messengers of the dead. Inert stones house the narrowing and closing of time before propolis seals them together as tightly as forgetting. Propolis functions as a kind of glue manufactured by bees to seal cracks detected in their hive. As a matter of duration, it is possible to imagine the split rock healed into a unified whole again. The saliva of bees, mixed with beeswax and botanical resins, speaks the pathway shut.
The dead, in their bone forests, know the weather first. Predictions borne in the ground spread as leaching cold or surface humidity. Seeds can carry these secrets for generations. Outside of the Toronto Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory, I gathered seed heads from dormant hydrangea stalks. Plant life exists as an inherent form of instrumentation as keen as any anemometer, measuring wind speed and direction. At the time of this private ritual act of collection, I did not know of the Observatory’s role in an historical, worldwide research project to determine the cause of fluctuations in magnetic declination. Measurements originating from this site discerned that sunspots are responsible for this effect on Earth’s magnetic field. What does it mean to inhabit this space between earth and sky? What responsibilities are incurred?
Early in my own grief, the wavering compass needle found me in a cemetery sowing these seeds as weather and communion. Rather than feigning an unearned closeness, this communication progressed slowly—germinating murmurs underground. Surrounded by the graves of strangers, it was my father I was still searching for. Sunspots in my eyes misdirected me…
I caution you—rinse your hearts through the sieve your hands make, but don’t wring them. Return the heart to its rib cage by blinking hard and swallowing. The metallic cold of the spigot resounds in an aching there. An invisible weight of stones holds the heart’s place upon each retrieval. By the time you look up again, the flashlight of canola fields will have been switched on.