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When Breath Becomes Air

by Zettel 

Posted: 25 March 2016
Word Count: 75
Summary: Just a few lines to make known Paul Kalinithi - an extraordinary man who wrote an extraordinary book (Title as above) before he died at 36 in 2015.

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When Breath  Became Air

When breath became air
His body died
But something precious lingered there
A life gone
His life remained
Loved and honoured
In justly cherished memo
Of good deeds done
Of courage shown
Cruel, early; Death's Summer call
Denied us all a mellow fruitful Fall
Piercing hearts with a hasty Winter chill
Paul's body may have gone but
The Man, his daring mind, devoted heart
Unbowed, unbeaten, is here with us still

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Comments by other Members

James Graham at 21:13 on 26 March 2016  Report this post
On reading your poem the first thing I did was to find out about Paul Kalanthini. He was a remarkable man. The way he responded to the cancer is surely the most admirable thing about him: continuing to work, writing the book. ‘The real question we face is not how long, but rather how, we will live.’
It’s remarkable too that he excelled at university in both English Literature and Medicine. Reviewers of the book note how eloquently he writes.
His widow says about his decision to write the book, ‘The big question was whether people would actually want to read a book about dying written by a man who had recently died. We weren’t sure. But it turns out they do. I think it is because the book is about living as well as dying. And although it is about what happened to Paul it is also about a universal experience – and it is so beautifully expressed’.
The book must be of real value, real support, to others in the same circumstances, or who have someone close to them facing the same reality.
I’ll follow this up with a comment on the poem itself.

James Graham at 19:06 on 31 March 2016  Report this post
Having read a little more about Paul Kalanithi, I feel your poem should include more about the man himself, who he was and why he is so admirable. Perhaps place your existing lines at the end, and preface them with lines – even 10 or 12 – which say something about his very special qualities and achievements. Some of the following might give you a starting point.

He was denied a career as a surgeon but through his writings he is still helping others and will go on doing so for a very long time. This quote from the obituary in the Stanford medical journal says a lot:

His essays tapped an outpouring of gratitude from readers — from young people who had lost parents to seniors facing their own mortality, to teachers desiring to share his essay with students. “It completely surprised me that it resonated with so many people,” Kalanithi wrote of the response to the Times piece in a 2014 San Francisco Magazine essay. “I still get an email nearly every day from someone with heart disease or depression or another medical illness, saying that it helped clarify his or her own situation. The second, and really pleasing, development was the number of doctors who emailed to say that they planned to give the article to their patients or incorporate it into medical school curricula to help students understand the human impact of disease. That was really touching.”

You would have to try to encapsulate some of this in a few lines – easier said than done, but worth a try. The above quote is about essays published before his death, but the posthumous book will have even more impact. The writer of the Guardian obituary says: ‘The fact that I use the present tense in writing about him shows that the book has taken on a life of its own’ – i.e. because of the book it’s as if he were still with us and still doing good in all kinds of ways. In a sense, he does have a career.

If you had room, one other thing to mention would be his and his wife’s decision to have a baby – how life-affirming that is.

Maybe this will inspire you to write a few more lines. If you do, it would be most interesting to read them.


Zettel at 23:40 on 31 March 2016  Report this post
Thanks James. Thorough and insightful as ever.

I think the book will stand for itself. I can't add any real insight.



Kimberly12 at 10:25 on 23 January 2020  Report this post
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