25 & breathing
by Claudia Schoenfeld
under the surface
of a dream,
smoking marlboro and
riding waves to freedom
on a seahorse back, we
the deep blue ocean
with a fictile lung,
breathing tiny bubbles
and our lips turn pale
as if oxygen would leave us or
as if deep waters would take over–
as if sharks would smell the blood
hissing flags against the fear,
we’re kissing in the dark–
with salty tongues and
sea weed in our hair
There is much tension in this poem, palpable as a series of questions the images and word-choice give rise to:
Who are “we”? The narrator and a lover? A demographic group made up of people roughly the age of the narrator (25, per the title)? Or, as the poem suggests later, a couple or a group made up of magic/supernatural/dreamworld creatures?
Are we “under the surface / of a dream” or at the surface, “riding waves” on a seahorse back?
Are smoking and riding waves actual things the narrator does or merely metaphors? The use of a brand name (“marlboro”) and the phrase “riding waves to freedom” suggest surfer culture; “on a seahorse back” shatters such a literal reading.
The tension continues: are we inhaling the ocean (that is, breathing water) or breathing through a “fictile” lung (meaning plastic or ceramic, and thus artificial)? Of course, real lungs can not breathe water, and so the modifier “fictile” shatters the image of actually inhaling the ocean and reveals the description is a metaphor. In this case, the introduction of the fictile lung negates a solely magical or dream-world reading of the image, the exact opposite of introducing “on a seahorse back” earlier to negate a solely literal reading.
This negation is also present in the two “man-made” objects that intrude into the poem: the narrator smokes “marlboro” (the brand name rather than “marlboros,” the cigarettes themselves) and breathes through a lung (singular, though humans have two). Even when dealing with real things such as cigarettes and lungs, the poem undermines their reality in how they are described.
(Along the same lines, the “hissing flags” of the sixth stanza may be streams of “tiny bubbles” trailing the “fictile lung” of a scuba tank and regulator, but one feels the poem leans in a different direction: there is dream magic at work here rather than technology. These are not so much real flags as they are metaphors).
And so the poem gives us two very different (one might say incompatible) worlds the “we” of the first stanza inhabit simultaneously. However, the poem refuses to privilege one world over the other. The dream alluded to in the first stanza is undermined (we have gone under its surface with man-made artifice) but so is reality (elements of the dreamworld have seeped through). Thus, rather than downplaying the dream to privilege waking, or vice-versa, the poem insists on the validity of both.
In this context, the dangers of the fifth stanza must be seen not only as immediate to the narrator but as metaphorical dangers to this dream-waking state: beyond drowning, beyond sharks, a greater danger looms. This danger, the “fear” it elicits, and the narrator’s response to it lie at the heart of this poem.
Note that the “kissing in the dark” at the end does not resolve the tension: do the “salty tongues” and seaweed-strewn hair belong to living beings who have emerged safely from the sea, to corpses forever underwater (drowned or killed by sharks, as the fifth stanza suggests) or to magical creatures comfortable at home under water?
The title (“25 & breathing”) eliminates the more macabre reading and suggests the “we” are either living humans or magical creatures — or rather, given the tensions in the poem, both: these are beings who inhabit two worlds at once, both under the surface and riding waves, both breathing water and having to use a fictile lung to survive, both dreaming and awake.
Ultimately, the tension the poem must resolve is whether this dream-waking state, this magical duality, is sustainable or merely a passing moment bound to disappear (tough the moment is no less real, the poem insists, merely because it may be ephemeral). This is the danger that looms: the disappearance of the waking dream. The very real possibility of that disappearance is what the narrator fears.
The elegiac tone of the poem suggests the narrator recognizes the inevitability of the end of the dream-waking. The poem mourns the imminent passing of that state even as it affirms its validity, hence the tension palpable throughout.
The emotional heft of the poem lies precisely in that the narrator seems aware that the “we” of the first line (whoever “we” may be) may linger here (at 25, alive, in love, in a special time or place) but for a short spell, and that it is only a matter of time, to quote T.S. Eliot, “til human voices wake us, and we drown.”