“First Breath Last Breath” is a poem written by Antler. The central theme of this poem is the beginning and the end of life. Antler manages to translate through words the cycle of life, using two characters the baby boy and the mother. The characters are connected in life through a strong relationship. The cycle is presented by the event of birth of a child and the death of the mother who gave him life. This poem is also about love, the love between a mother and her “baby boy”.
The title of the poem “First Breath Last Breath” is composed of two parts. Breath” by definition it means the air inhaled and exhaled in respiration but it also means life, spirit or vitality. First part is “First Breath” means the beginning (“first”) of life (“breath”) and second part “Last Breath” means the end (“last”) of life (“breath”). The first part is also present in the first stanza in the ninth line “his first breath on Earth” emphasizing the topic of the first stanza – the beginning. The second part is present as well in the poem, in the second stanza, ninth line “exhales her last breath” emphasizing the second part of the title and also the topic of the second stanza – the end.
An important aspect is the structure of the poem. It is composed of two stanzas, each stanza containing one sentence that is broken up at various intervals. Both stanzas have each ten lines. The intervals that the sentences are broken differ from line to line, the longest line being 8 syllables and the shortest being 3 syllables. This structure gives the author flexibility, writing this poem like he is writing a story. He is breaking up the sentence into various intervals in order to create “musicality” among the last words of each line.
We could say that a summary of the poem can be composed of the first line and the last two lines of each stanza: “When a baby boy is born/…/his first breath on Earth/the Mother breathes it. ” and “And when the Mother dies,/…/exhales her last breath,/her son inhales it. ” The voice in this poem is the poet’s voice. He is invoking a sad, melancholic tone emphasized by the words “dies”, “last breath”, “grew up”. It is possible for the poet himself to transpose with the baby boy, showing his gratitude and love for his mother.
It is just a supposition to say this because the verbs and pronouns are all used at the third person: “he”, “it”, “breathes”, “dies” etc. The third person mode along with the fact that there are no particular names given to the personages (“baby”, “midwife”, “Mother”) demonstrates that this poem is not about a particular story it is about every one of us. The place where all the events in this poem happen is unknown.
The only word that answers the question: “Where? ” is “on Earth” used in the first stanza ninth line. Although it answers the question “Where? the meaning of the words is to emphasize the importance of baby’s first breath. Putting into the equation the fact that the poem was written in 21st century and also the fact that the majority of events of this kind happen in a hospital, we can suppose that that is the location. One of the most important characteristic of this poem is antithetic view of the first and second stanza. In the first stanza it is about life, “baby boy is born”, “first breath” in comparison with the second stanza where it is about death, “Mother dies”, “last breath”.
The poet creates a perfect antithetical symmetry using opposite words in the same location. For example: “When a baby boy is born” (location: first stanza, first line ) in comparison with “And when the Mother dies” (location: second stanza, first line), “his first breath on Earth” (location: first stanza, ninth line) in comparison with “exhales her last breath” (location: second stanza, ninth line). Another particularity of this poem is the transposition between the mother and the son used in the last line of first and second stanza: “the Mother breathes it” transposed into “her son inhales it”.
In the first line of the first stanza we can identify an image of a baby boy born containing two monosyllable words “boy” and “born” that elongate the line with the help of the literary device alliteration: “baby boy born”. The first line also expresses the time when the next events will happen with the help of the adverb “when” identified at the beginning of the line. In the second line through enjambment technique “the story” it is continued with the presentation of an episodic personage, “the midwife” – the woman skilled in aiding the delivery of babies.
As we continue with the third, fourth and fifth line the first important thing happens: the boy takes his first breath. Here we encounter the conjugation of the pronoun “he” – “he”, “his”, “him”. In the third line we encounter another alliteration “holds him”. The coma at the end of the fifth line delimitates the first event: the boy takes his first breath – from the second event: “the Mother breathes it”. It also expresses a short pause in speech. The fifth line is end stopped.
The words “first breath” are also repeated in the ninth line in order to emphasize the importance of these words. First breath can also be translated into the beginning of life. If the first four verses were imagistic the fifth verse it is more auditory – the sound of breath. The second event starts with the movement of the child near his mother. This second event also uses the technique of enjambment and it is in symmetry with the first event having five lines as well. In the seventh line the author introduces the word mother with a capital M and using “the” an indefinite article.
He uses this technique in order to express the connection between the Mother and her child and in order to particularize her as an important person in this poem. In the sixth and the seventh line the author shows how small the baby is by placing him near “the Mother’s face”. In the last line of the stanza the poet is using a figure of speech “the Mother breathes it” to show the connection that the baby just born made with his mother, to show the love between the mother and her child and to show how close the mother was to the baby.
The second stanza starts with the conjunction “and” in order for the poet to emphasize the continuation of the story, to show what happens after, what is the next episode after the birth of the child. Through symmetry technique he again expresses the time when the events are occurring using the adverb “when”, but this time it happens “when the Mother dies”. The coma at the end of this line shows that there will be a short explanation, and also a short pause in speech.
In the second line the poet shows us how much time has passed indicating that the “baby boy” from the first stanza is now a “middle-aged son”. The third verse expresses the admiration of the baby boy who grew up. The hyphen used at the end of this verse indicate a possible different continuation, indicate a longer pause where the reader can think about what the boy has become. The answer of the third line is given in the fourth line showing the admiration and love of the child for his mother: “… grew up to be –/by her side,”.
Through parallelism technique the author shows in the fifth line how the son placed his head next to his mother’s head: “his head next to her head”. Here are also present two alliterations: “his head”, “her head”. The hyphen at the end of the line indicates a longer pause. In the sixth line he again uses parallelism technique to show how close and how alike the mother and the son are: “follows her…with his…”. In the seventh and eighth line the author describes in a slower tone how the mother dies.
In the last line of the second stanza the poet is using a figure of speech “her son inhales it” to express that the connection is never lost between the son and his mother. The poem is framed around the boy, because he is the one whom at the beginning of his life he is near his mother (“place him over/the Mother’s face”), during all his life he stands by his mother (“the baby grew up to be–/by her side”) and at the end of his mother’s life he is still near her (“And when the other dies/…/his head next to her head—“).
When the baby boy takes his first breath it represents new life/vitality . The fact that the son “inhales” “her last breath” can have one other signification. By the definition breath means also spirit, and the son might inhale her spirit to always be with her, to always remember her. Both the mother and the son can be seen as a single organism, always close to each other, unity being powerfully emphasized in the words “follows her breathing with his breath”.
Courtney from Study Moose
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