The Breathers

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Selected Reviews for The Breathers

“In Reiss, poems are laid in drawers, folded in books; memories are like pictures cut out of magazines, inertia and insomnia are the two forms of life.  Pursued by the same phantoms, which reappear on the telephone, in sequential rooms, in snapshots, in slides, Reiss writes them down in an accomplished plain style, with a momentum carrying whole poems along on the humming acceleration of a single sentence. … Reiss has the indispensable gift of rhythm, and that, combined with his compulsive subject, makes a very good beginning.”
—Helen Vendler, The New York Times Book Review

“Unusually good first book.”
The New York Times Book Review

“All in all, this is an impressive first book, solid rather than flashy; although these poems do not make grand pronouncements they have as their source what Howard Nemerov called ‘great primary human drama,’ and they are always interesting and often moving.”
—Peter Meinke, The New Republic

“[Reiss] writes with candor. . . . Like dreams, his poems lead to the brink of disaster and then wake us to the truth of ‘the horror’ that Conrad speaks of in his Heart of Darkness. . . . Nothing in this poetry is obtrusive, embellished or obscure; no hidden meanings await the initiated few. We enjoy the privilege of the poet’s circle because we are still among those who care about good verse.”
—James F. Cotter, America

“What is creative, Keats observed, must create itself; James Reiss goes about it so attractively that we are beguiled, almost, into forgetting the scandal, the labor, the pain of the negative in this first book of poems. He has inspected the nostalgias, he has scoured the horizon of reminiscence, and so ingeniously has he repeated his findings, his losses, that it is not until about half way through the book that the realization dawns—‘where the sky blooms like a dark rose’—that this is all one poem, one life. … But a glance at the way these spiels and routines deliver themselves to the page, the cunning enjambments which suspend our disbelief just long enough: Once an old man was an only child who lived in a tiny apartment, and the careful speech that strains for an echo of itself, for a resonance that might recur, that might meet itself where it started, and we are apprised of the hard fact: life and consciousness are enemies, reconciled only at those moments of impact, those collisions when language takes over. … The sentimental surrealism of many of these poems becomes a predictable tic, an adorable out—were it not for this rooting obsession with tenses, especially as it affects Reiss himself in his transactions with his parents and his children. In both senses, then, he must forge himself an identity: propped upon a disastrous knowledge of what will happen, of what has happened and therefore of what must happen, pressed in upon by all the gauds of immolation, he comes on as a stand-up tragic, ready to tell his little joke, to paint his little picture, and then with a terrible bright smile to twitch away the image and show us what lies beyond the frame.…”
—Richard Howard, The Ohio Review

The Breathers

(Jeffrey Andrew Reiss—October 5, 1969)

In Ohio, where these things happen,
we had been loving all winter.
By June you looked down and saw your belly
was soft as fresh bread.

In Florida, standing on the bathroom
scales, you were convinced—
and looked both ways for a full minute before crossing
Brickell Boulevard.

In Colorado you waited-out summer in a mountain
cabin, with Dr. Spock,
your stamps, and my poems in the faint
8000-foot air.

Listen, he had a perfect body,
right down to his testicles, which I counted.
The morning he dropped from your womb, all rosy
as an apple in season, breathing the thick
fall air of Ohio, we thought good things would happen.

Believe me, Dr. Salter and the nurses were right:
he was small but feisty—they said he was
feisty. That afternoon in his respirator
when he urinated it was something to be proud of.
Cyanotic by evening, he looked like a dark rose.

Late that night you hear

Think of the only possible twentieth-century consolations:
 Doris saying it might have been better this way;
 think of brain damage, car crashes, dead soldiers.
 Better seventeen hours than eighteen, twenty years
 of half-life in Ohio where nothing happens.

Late that night you hear them
in the

For, after all, we are young, traveling
at full speed into the bull’s eye of the atom.
There’s a Pepsi and hot dog stand in that bull’s eye,
and babies of the future dancing around us.
Listen, the air is thick with our cries!

Late that night you hear them
in the nursery, the breathers.
Their tiny lungs go in and out like the air
bladder on an oxygen tank
or the rhythm of sex.
Asleep, your arms shoot towards that target
with a stretch that lifts you like a zombie,
wakes you to the deafening breathers.

And now you see them crawling
rings around your bed, in blankets,
buntings, preemies in incubators circling
on casters, a few with cleft palates, heart trouble,
all feistily breathing, crawling
away from your rigidly outstretched arms—
breathing, robbing the air.