what is this thing called breathing

For Karen Elaine Smith, Rashanda Franklin, and Sheila Abdus-Salaam



I’m sure you were headed to work

tasting the last bite of bagel on your tongue

freshly ironed slacks and wig right

all you could see were faces


Down into a windy city of forgotten


down the street, past that taco place

where you maybe first met him

down into the seat, red spilling over

because of a gun

and your sons sitting inside the car


What is this thing called breathing

a gift unfolded

the water so cold against your face



why did he come here?

to my space

i cannot feel my hands

and the water is colder than i remember

and we’re gone

cut off from the air that fed us

and the hands that held us

and the eyes that saw us

Really saw us

in dandelion golds and evenings on that porch

splinters in our fingers, running through weeds with flip flops on

and icees in our hands because DC is hot,

and Richmond is too, in an abandoned way

jumping on rocks and catching light

jumping into vaselined arms and fresh tats

he cried for me, once

he cried for me

and the tears soaked the cotton

the cotton close to my chest



I was breathing


I learned to swim from my father

who learned to swim from being pushed into a water hole

and fighting his way back up

I am heavier these days

and i am brown

I am finding it harder to move in the world

someone’s at my back

barrel at my window

The wind on my stomach


In this river,


what is this thing called breathing?


~Nijla Mu’min