Once I Was Told the Air Was Not For Breathing

Paolo Corso
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Corso’s collection examines industrial working conditions through the stories of those who worked in them.

Writes Maggie Anderson, author of Windfall: New and Selected Poems, “Paola Corso’s precise and vivid poems are lyric evidence of the harsh lives and labors of working-class men and women. In Once I Was Told the Air Was Not for Breathing, she documents the dangerous (still) conditions of those who work in and live near steel mills, factories, and sweatshops. Corso is a poet who remembers what happens, and what continues to happen to workers and to our environment as a result of greed and the push for profit at the expense of human lives. Tragically, much of our air now “is not for breathing,” but the essential and heart-breaking poems in this chapbook are pure oxygen. Breathe deeply and learn from this wise poet.”

“Paola Corso sings of bodies-wounded bodies, beaten bodies, defeated bodies, bodies weakened and diseased, dead bodies,” Edvige Giunta, author of Writing with an Accent: Contemporary Italian American Women Authors writes. “These are brave bodies. They are the bodies of working people from mines and factories, from Pittsburgh and from New York, from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 and from the sweatshops of Chinatown following the attack on the Twin Towers. This poet is relentless in her search for the traces of these unsung, the workers whose voices and stories resonate throughout this small book of epic proportions. She has given us poetry of witness in all its power to move us to remember and to act.”

Paola Corso was born in the Pittsburgh area where her Southern Italian immigrant family found work in the steel mill. A New York Foundation for the Arts Poetry fellow and Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award winner, she is the author of 7 books of poetry and fiction, including Catina’s Haircut: A Novel in Stories on Library Journal’s notable list of first novels in Fall 2010, Giovanna’s 86 Circles And Other Stories, a John Gardner Fiction Book Award Finalist, a book of poems, Death by Renaissance, and The Laundress Catches Her Breath.

Once I Was Told the Air Was Not For Breathing is available for purchase through Parallel Press. Discounts are provided for libraries, booksellers, and non-profit organizations.


Once I Was Told the Air Was Not for Breathing

I held my breath and counted backwards
until my lungs began sucking in
my body instead of the air
that was not for breathing
if I were to be particular
about the particulates and I
could and I was and I had to
for myself and for the memory
of the twenty in the smog
who blued from asphyxiation,*
waiting for a 130-pound tank of oxygen
strapped on somebody’s back, lugged
from house to house in darkness,
puffing them up with a little purity
and then gone for another who was
just as particular about the particulates,
the sulfur, carbon monoxide, heavy
metal dust trapped in the river valley
and I imagined all this as my lungs
inhaled my face and neck and chest
stomach, legs and feet
until I was all inside myself
and I took one look at my lungs
the sponge that was now a board
with no give no take
the color of an oil slick
the song of a worm
and I wanted out.

*In October 1948, 20 people were killed from the smoke and fumes of the zinc and iron works in Donora, 28 miles south of Pittsburgh in the first known American deaths from air pollution.

Crane Dance

            in memory of Francesco Antonio Corso

My grandfather’s crane
spanning fire

long-necked long-legged
teething molten bone

He rides
with a sweatband above his brow

stroking its mechanical head
to drop white hot ingots into a trolley

He rides
its flexion in crackled air

to machine through

My grandfather’s crane
spanning fire

long-necked long-legged
teething molten bone

as he becomes one of those
predictions of science*

In my dream he doesn’t die
I fold a thousand origami cranes

and he rides in a vim of
courtship dance—pairs of birds

whisk their wings and vault the air
high above the wintering ground

*The poem’s reference is also to The University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health’s study on the relationship between a steelworker’s exposure to cancer-causing agents and their mortality rate. What researchers found was that the risk for lung cancer, leukemia and other cancers was higher.

My grandfather was a crane operator at Allegheny Ludlum Steel in Brackenridge, PA for 47 years before retiring. He died of leukemia in 1966.


            in memory of Michela Marciano

She came to escape the fire

of Vesuvius, an eruption
that blew off the ring
of its crater, molten fingers
reaching for her village,
a fire that burned for ten days.
Roofs collapsing, lives collapsing
from the weight of ash.

She leapt to escape the fire

in a shop with 288 sewing machines
but only 27 buckets of water
and no way out except
to suffocate in the smoke
or jump—an ember
falling from the sky.
She left the way she came.

*Among the 146 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire