it seemed that the world might burst open
like a heart pumped too full of blood

we put our backs against the damp ground
and our souls fluttered up into the sky

things of gossamer, threads of silver
faint sounds, a depression in the fabric of air

it’s true, I heard the flapping of wings
above us in the cracked tree fingers

and something blew through me and shook me
that wasn’t the wind, but was silvery

and at such times it might seem
that this is what we add up to

a wish or a glimpse,
a fleeting image; the condensation of thought

and the hollowness of cold that fills
you up and leaves you breathless and blind

when things won’t hold together, but slip
and rub against each other and cancel each the other out

awash in the day, ragged in the night
and crushed in the grey area in between



Click here to read Ben Tufnell on the origin of the poem.

Image: Take Your Breath Away by Neil Parker, licensed under CC 2.0.

Ben Tufnell:
“Exhaust” attempts to represent a moment of transcendence, a state of mind arrived at through a sense of physical, mental or emotional attenuation. It visualises a glimpse of something “other”, an apprehension of the fabric of the world as somehow permeable to that other. Hopefully, it suggests rather than states a possibility.

To “exhaust” something is to ring it out, to drain it or consume it completely – or to complete a line of enquiry. But “exhaust” is also a residue or a trace; in this instance a kind of exhalation or a mental image. The poem hopefully plays with these different readings. I think perhaps I had in mind the tension inherent in Kerouac’s definition of Beat as being both beaten down and beatific, and Ginsberg’s association of the term with exhaustion.

The genesis of the poem is vague to me now. It was first drafted about twenty years ago and it has been knocking about in my notebooks ever since. It has stayed substantially the same over the years, with just occasional and incremental revisions, which suggests to me that I somehow captured – or nearly captured – something that felt real. It is nice to see it finally make its way out into the world after so long.

Ben Tufnell
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