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Circular Breathing | Summary and Analysis

Analysis of Circular Breathing by Jaya Savigne

Circular Breathing by Jaya Savige, published in Surface to Air (2011),  is a work that roots in hybridity and intermingling of cultural identities which puts an individual in a fix when it’s time to accept one. Modernity’s overshadowing influence over tradition calls for action. Colonisation’s responsibility in taking away homes of its colonised population as well as promoting an alternate lifestyle, distinct from the already practised ones is a subject of critique in this poem which is dedicated to the indigenous Australian poet Samuel Wagan Watson.  Jaya Savige is an Australian poet who paternally hails from an Asian lineage.

Circular Breathing | Summary and Analysis

Circular Breathing is a first-person composition consisting of four stanzas, the first and last comprising of seven lines and the middle two six lines each. There are a few internal rhymes but fixed rhyme patterns are absent and thus can be considered as free verse. One cannot sense the diasporic preoccupation of the speaker until the end of the poem. Various cultures intermingle to lend the speaker the ultimate realisation concerning the importance of one’s connection to his/her home. The didgeridoo becomes a linking tool for the purpose. 

Circular Breathing | AnalysisLines1- 7

There’s a man with dreadlocks playing the didgeridoo

in the Piazza di Santa Maria, and everyone is listening.

Kids sit by the fountain swapping smokes for laughs, 

tourists lick gelati as they pass illicit markets,

belts, handbags, sunglasses, all made in _____________, 

the place scratched off. Nuns halt, then the Carabinieri,

white gloves, black steel-capped boots glistening. 

The poem opens with a description of a fun seeming night at Rome’s Piazza di Santa Maria which is one of the four major basilicas and thus an important church in Roman history. The speaker observes “a man with dreadlocks” engrossing all the tourists in his musical melody playing a “didgeridoo” which is a wind instrument played by the technique of circular breathing. One simultaneously breathes in and out while playing the instrument. The dreadlocks hint at his non-European ancestry and his instrument is a representative of the indigenous Australian culture. The interlinking of three cultures– non-European, Australian and Roman sets forth a stage for multicultural discourse amidst the dichotomy between tradition and modern

The spectators comprise people from all age groups. The sibilance “swapping smokes” suggests the kids be in the company of adults who are entertaining themselves with both the music and smoking. The cosmopolitan atmosphere is not just about Italy’s gelato but also about “illicit markets” that sell imported products from all around the world. Their place of origin is missing from the tags. The namelessness symbolises the Diasporas experiencing the dissolving of culture and identity when they migrate to other countries. 

Apart from the common gentry, people who symbolise power and authority such as religious nuns and men from Italy’s police administration also halt as they hear the didgeridoo playing. The last line interestingly exhibits a contrast of colours through white and black to subtly expose and affirm the difference between the white Christians and people of colour in the race of supremacy

Savige’s craft incorporates senses in the first stanza as a medium to wholly comprehend and absorb the diverse scenario. He employs visual and auditory imagery that couples with Italy’s phenomenal gelato ice cream(taste) and smoking adults(smell).  

Circular Breathing | AnalysisLines 8-13

The crowd hems the young musician in,

faces glazed with wonder: from where could this

strange music have come? Surely not this hemisphere. 

A drone as deep as yet unexcavated ruins, far older

even than the Forum: Armani, Ray-Ban, Dolce

& Gabbana, all sink at once into equivalence.

The audience, in an attempt to protect the musician as well as to pursue their interest in foreign music, “hems” him in. Hemming is a clothing metaphor to signal his seamless amalgamation in the group without drawing any attention. The rhetorical question about the origins of the music the young man is blessing the ears with bears an immediate answer by the speaker, which is the technique called Hypophora. Since the music is not contemporary to them, they render it an otherworldly status that falls in the line of interpretation siding with “othering.” The sound from the instrument is compared to “yet unexcavated ruins” (simile) to establish its depth by playing with historical and archaeological imagery. The Forum, which is a rectangular plaza surrounded by the ruins of several ancient buildings at the centre of Rome is considered one of the oldest structures in the city. The didgeridoo and its music, according to the speaker predate even it. The stanza concludes with the speaker listing a few designer brands which, despite their respective values, come at an equal level. The sentimental and immaterial importance of the music and the instrument is juxtaposed with the contemporarily considered valuable material possessions. 

Circular Breathing | AnalysisLines 14-19

He doesn’t do the kangaroo, the mosquito or

the speeding Holden. Just the one dark warm lush hum,

the clean energy of circular breathing, lungs

and instrument the sum, familiar as the accordion

yet strange, as though not for money, nor just for fun,

but for reasons unknowable—some vast, unhurried Om.

This stanza focuses on the music the man plays on his instrument. It is none like the popular songs one might be aware of. Instead, it is distinct and untainted which the speaker specifies as an outcome of “the clean energy of circular breathing.” The music overwhelms the speaker which is both familiar yet strange. There lies a pure intent behind this music which is above all financial and entertaining purposes. Internal rhymes such as “hum”, “sum” and “Om” provide a rhythmical note to these lines. The “Om” at the end is a Hindu sacred sound and popularly believed as the “sound of the universe” which is all-encompassing. This Asian cultural syllable’s meditative function further leads the speaker on a journey of self-contemplation. 

Circular Breathing | AnalysisLines 20-26

I want to bolt up the stairs of the fountain

and claim that sound as the sound of my home—

but stop when I recall how rarely I slow to hear

the truer player busking in King George Square.

Memory kinks my measured walk into a lurch.

My stomach fills with fire. Far above cold stars wheel

around the spire of Rome’s oldest Christian church.

The last stanza witnesses a sudden surge on the part of the speaker to claim an agency over his identity. But the passion is short-lived as it is hit by a rock of recollection where he remembers his lack of attention to the similar music played in his hometown. The ungrateful and granted position people like the speaker often proudly occupy becomes the subject of guilt here. Such memory staggers his otherwise confident walk. Celestial images mark the last two lines of the poem. The stars wheeling around the Christian church evokes the truth about Christianity and the White culture’s dominance over others and the same church which is the reason for the phenomenon of colonisation ironically becomes a token of remembrance of a home for the speaker. 




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