Oxygen, “Periodic Table of Poetry” poem by Chicago poet Janet Kuypers


by Janet Kuypers

from the “ Periodic Table of Poetry” series

In the South Pacific Ocean
I held my breath, plunged in
and swam deeper into the water
to get closer to the schools
of White Tipped Sharks
huddled at the bottom of the ocean.
With my flippers,
I pushed myself
deeper into the water.
The now useless snorkel
was my only reminder of air
as I kept going,
with only my mask for navigation.
Though the moving sand
did not entirely obstruct the water,
the sun grew less intense
the farther I traveled.

Just remember to not
get too close to the sharks,
I had to keep reminding myself.

I almost froze
when I spotted the Stingray.
They work so hard
to avoid being seen,
so they can surprise they prey
and have their next meal.
I spotted it,
but it made me stop.
It surprised me
that I had come this far,
and nothing but a little water
separated me from animals
that could seal my fate.

I stared for a while,
then realized
that I needed to get some air,
so I turned toward the light.

I had been underwater so long
that the oxygen was pulled
from my muscles,
and I didn’t have
the energy to kick.

I panicked.

When you become acutely aware
of your desperate need for air,
your body plays tricks on you.
I forgot about looking back
at the sharks and Stingray below,
I even forgot about the Sea Lions
and Lion Seals above.
I’ll deal with whatever’s on the surface
once I get there.

Now, get yourself to kick.
Think. You can do it. Push.
I managed to kick my legs once
and started to move my way
through the water.
I hoped momentum
could keep me going,
but nothing was fast enough
any longer.

You can do this,
I thought.
Push again.

I pushed, I moved,
but the surface
still seemed miles away.
Now I know there’s twice
as much hydrogen around me
as oxygen,
but oxygen is so much bigger
than hydrogen…
Oxygen is the most abundant
chemical element by mass
in our biosphere,
in our air, sea and land.
But I can’t get to
the oxygen in this water.

I can’t let this be
the death of me.

My chest started to tighten.
My chest started burning,
like someone lit a match
and the last oxygen in my body
was setting my lungs on fire.

I clenched my teeth tighter
around that snorkel mouthpiece.
I know I couldn’t breathe yet,
but I couldn’t let this piece go free
and possibly move my mask
while I was trying to
save myself.

Come on, I thought.
Your legs are strong.
You can do this.
So I pushed again
until I could see
a few people
trying to swim toward me.
I tried to keep moving
until someone threw their arm
around my waist.
I hoped they would be able
to breathe for the both of us
until we broke the surface.


I remember feeling
wet sand being pushed against my skin
as they dragged me out of the water
until they let me lay on my side
so I could cough.
I had no water in me,
but I had to do
anything I could
to give myself oxygen again.

Once I was able to breathe
comfortably again,
I tried to think of my breathing.
I know I can’t get oxygen toxicity
by breathing too deeply…
Take a deep breath.
Get the oxygen to my blood.
Your toes are tingling.
Inhale deeply. Now imagine
your oxygenated blood
rushing to your feet.
The oxygen’s to your brain now.
Keep thinking, mentally pushing
the oxygen throughout your body.


When I got back inside that evening,
they had started a fire
in the fireplace for me.
And I thought, how fitting.
I was stuck in the water,
with all that hydrogen and oxygen,
until I could have some oxygen
to breathe again.
We are over half water as it is,
meaning the majority
of our mass is oxygen.
And there I was,
now at a roaring fireplace,
with oxygen fueling the fire.
It’s funny,
how on this one day
a basic element like oxygen
could help me go
when I’ve never been before,
could warm me up
at the end of the day,
and could show me in it’s absence
how crucial is was
everywhere in my life.