Dana Tommasino

On “birdbreath, twin, synonym”

So much of birdbreath is ghost: ghost parts of me, my earlier pieces; unlikely collaborations with unknown, unknowing partners; ghosts of him, my brother, even ghostier now.

How It Started

I admired an essay that began with a woman eating ferociously in a kitchen. I made my own entrance “sucking soft figs,” set some rhythm/theme there unconsciously for the piece. I was channeling these sparse, oblique tweets for years, mostly mine, part single words from other’s tweets I loved the sound of (against mine). They said things I wasn’t entirely sure of, became a poem-thread through the essay. A beloved, in our first emails, confirmed a twin-ness in us that stretched to our twinly troubled brothers (who were twins of ours, too, if not by womb), their hole in the family of us, our older sister-ness made by them. In one note I bullet-pointed brother things, all the scenes of him that hovered, and it wasn’t quite a poem, but a stream, a brother stream I let myself down into, weeping, that feeling for him in my notes for years, some of which stretched into birdbreath. A paragraph in something unpublished I’d written early on about soft mammal moments that kept me alive, about my brother, Troy, playing early Elton John for me. I pulled that bit, entire, slightly finessed its edges to fit the final form the essay took, twined other memory fragments around it.


If I’m writing an essay on an essay I’ve written, should it have enough of its predecessor to stand alone, enough of its own oddness to stand new. If I’m essaying an essay that was filament in the first place, how filamental can I go. If its (bird)breath was in in-betweens. If I’m writing an essay on an essay about my brother, and if my brother has died since, how is that done. Is part of the newness of the new essay his death. Was his death threaded quietly through the first essay when you look at it new. Do I ask myself that. Do I ask the essay that, the new essay.


Why “birdbreath, twin, synonym.” I titled it after the essay was finished, composed it as if it were another sideways tweet, yet it wasn’t. I learned after that birds have more complex respiratory systems than we do, have air sacs located throughout their bodies that extend into some of their hollow bones, they have more gas in them, so are more lifted, yet also more vulnerable to tainted air. When my brother stopped breathing, crosslegged in a park under a tree, almost smiling, empty bottle of pills in his pocket, it was as if he had simply flown out of himself. A dove rammed itself into my mother’s windows over and over as though it were mad. This just before the sheriff came with the harrowing news.


If you google “brothers & sisters in mythology” and “twins” pops up immediately and often, as though any siblings are that enfolded without even being wombed together. If persistent in the mythologies there’s one twin that might be human, one semidivine. If your brother had more ease than you, more scatter, too, more dare. If you’re trying to undream this story as though you, too, were floating now.


I plucked bits of writing from things I’d been working on, older things I thought tight, but which, when returned to, seemed to let go of parts so easily, parts that made my new story. (How time writes.) I pulled parts of Troy, and left him another thing made of the parts not pulled. I changed his name so slightly.


I was writing about Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah when the request to write this piece (on a piece) came, writing specifically about Rufus Wainwright singing it, chorus-style, with a group of 1,500 people, chanting:

it goes like this:
the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift
the baffled king composing Hallelujah

I was writing about the perfection of singing, in the key itself, the name of the key; for naming a gesture while performing it, which came so close to both describing and decoding something complicated, and something endlessly near. Also: bewildered makers.


The essay was originally titled, “birdbreath, hymn, hallelujah,” because “hallelujah” made a small appearance in it as a word that didn’t seem to live in me, a song of praise that I persistently could not spell, in an essay that, looking back, seems a slipping hymn itself.