Helium Sonnets

I want to know which website taught you how 
to die, which instructions you repeated 
in your head as you fastened tube to tank 
and opened up the valve. How can a person  
drown in air? For months I kept the hose clamps 
in my jewelry box, the rings, the tightened 
metal collars that fastened death to you— 
I didn’t know where else to put them, didn’t 
trust the cinch of tin. And was it really easy  
not to breathe? You should have struggled, panicked, 
torn the bag away. Now cut a hole the size  
of two thumbs in the plastic and feed the tube  
inside. A length of string or velcro will do 
to secure it around your neck. 

When the diver descends to ocean depths 
he mixes his air with helium to ease 
the effort of breathing. The only time 
I dove, suited with a tank and mask, 
I inhaled too many times for fear 
of losing air. How the fish can simply swim 
escapes me. I learned signs for distress 
along the ocean floor: a shaking hand, 
fingers to lips, hand in a fist, sharp coral,
crossed arms, shudder of anemones. 
It isn’t easy, learning how to breathe.  
If you surface in a panic, pressure 
rises in your lungs until they burst; 
if you don’t, the water swallows all your air. 

When I saw you at the wake, your lungs 
still held air, a breath or two to balance 
all the atmosphere. I watched you lying 
there on the table while gravity 
tried to pull your skin down. I still don’t know 
how long you sat on the carpet dying 
with your legs outstretched, the air in your bedroom 
pressing the plastic bag against your face.  
When will we run out of helium? When 
did you run out of the will to live?
They can’t detect the gas in autopsy 
and neither can they see despair, but 
one of them glows red in an electric field. 
It must be easy not to have to breathe. 

Did you know how little there is on earth? 
Five point two parts per million and now
one breath less—how many particles 
released in death. You are too large a thing 
to mourn. I can only think of atoms, two 
electrons still circling their core.  
And when you went to the hardware store 
for the helium tank they must have asked 
about the party you were planning, even 
offered you balloons. What could you say? 
Helios is still a Titan, and you were 
a man. You used a regulator to prevent 
the puncture of your lungs—even in death 
you wanted some way to be filled. 

All we have is what there was back 
when the world began. I have learned 
that your last breath came from the prairies, 
not from the wheat fields, but below: 
subterranean well we filled and sealed and 
never saw again. You breathed it in 
and let it out—up and away into 
a stratosphere. The price of helium 
is rising. Count two breaths until 
unconsciousness, seven minutes until 
the death of the brain. I’ve read that 
helium is still abundant among stars. 
There is a phrase—interstellar 
medium—for the empty in between.  

I’ve read that helium is inert, which means 
that it is not toxic, it does not 
act upon the heart. And ten years 
past your death, I read the news: 
they’ve arrested a man for flying 
too high in his lawn chair contraption kept 
aloft by a hundred and fifty balloons. 
The man trailed his feet in the clouds before 
he somersaulted to the ground. 
There’s a certain euphoria, they say, 
before you die. It’s the high that you get 
when the helium hits, or maybe it’s just 
the lack of air. He was handcuffed 
and unharmed, and all the balloons got away.

Copyright © 2018 by Erika Luckert. This poem was first printed in Measure, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2018). Used with the permission of the author.