Mark O’Brien 1949–1999

Grasping for straws is easier;
You can see the straws.
“This most excellent canopy, the air, look you,”
Presses down upon me
At fifteen pounds per square inch,
A dense, heavy, blue-glowing ocean,
Supporting the weight of condors
That swim its churning currents.
All I get is a thin stream of it,
A finger’s width of the rope that ties me to life
As I labor like a stevedore to keep the connection.
Water wouldn’t be so circumspect;
Water would crash in like a drunken sailor,
But air is prissy and genteel,
Teasing me with its nearness and pervading immensity.
The vast, circumambient atmosphere
Allows me but ninety cubic centimeters
Of its billions of gallons and miles of sky.
I inhale it anyway,
Knowing that it will hurt
In the weary ends of my crumpled paper bag lungs.

Mark O’Brien, “Breathing” from The Man in the Iron Lung. Copyright © 1997 by Mark O’Brien. Reprinted by permission of Lemonade Factory Press.
Source: The Man in the Iron Lung (Lemonade Factory Press, 1997)

POET Mark O’Brien 1949–1999
Poet and journalist Mark O’Brien was born in Boston and raised in Sacramento, California. He contracted polio when he was six years old; the disease left him paralyzed from the neck down, and he used an iron lung to breathe. He earned a BA and an MA from the University of California–Berkeley. An advocate of independent living for disabled people, O’Brien was a frequent contributor to newspapers, writing columns on such topics as sports, religion, and disability issues. In 1997, he cofounded Lemonade Factory, a press that publishes work by people who have disabilities. His books include the memoir How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence (2003) and the poetry collections The Man in the Iron Lung (1997) and Breathing (1998), among others.
Two documentaries about his life, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien (1996) and The Sessions (2012) have been made. O’Brien died in 1999 of complications from bronchitis.