Swimming and poetry
As I swam my slow laps in the pool at the gym, my body remembered a time almost twenty years ago when I moved my limbs through the water in a different pool, in a different state, for a different purpose. It was 1990 and I was healing from painful shin splits during my cross-country running season at Bentley University. The pool was my way of keeping up my cardiovascular fitness while not pounding my legs on the harsh pavement. There’s a meditative flow that can occur when swimming laps, a shift that occurs when I stop fighting the water, and just relax into the next breath, the next stroke. This effortless flow doesn’t happen very often, especially now when I am trying to improve my technique so that I can become a faster triathlete. The last time I really felt that flow was way back at Bentley, when I actually was able to write a poem in my mind while swimming. I was taking a beginning poetry class that semester, in which we studied poets and practiced writing different forms of poetry. We were tasked that week to write something called a sestina, a poem that has six stanzas of six lines each, all stanzas having one of the six words at the line ends, in six different sequences that followed a distinct pattern, followed by a closing three lines using all six words. Sound confusing?
I remember wondering, as I was swimming my laps, how I was going to write this impossible sestina. How to pick six words, and then, how to craft words into a poem that required so much structure. Then, as I moved my body through the pool, I started to think about water. How I began life in water in my mother’s womb, how I was bathed as a child in a sink or tub, how I played in a small hard plastic pool in the summertime, how I ran through our garden sprinklers, how I learned to swim in the big pool with lessons. And so, my sestina was born.
Before birth, the first nine months of time,
you exist in your parent’s mind as a current
of thought, you live and breathe in water
as a remnant of ancient reptile and fish.
You cannot yet see, but only feel the blue
surrounding you in liquid dripping wet.
Your primal memory recalls warm, wet
baths and maternal love telling you it’s time
for bed. You splash around in your blue
tub nevertheless, making a whirlpool current
around and around, a storm even a fish
couldn’t escape. Your obsession with water
calms the fire inside, a heavy and holy water
carrying you along. So you grow up in wet
summers with a plastic pool decorated with fish,
you live in the present, realizing the best time
is now, and everything happening current-
ly is the source of all the yellow and blue
in your life. You watch with fascination blue
spurts from the garden’s sprinkler, water
quenching green thirsts in a current
highway in the dirt. Up close you see wet
tears on leaves, dripping away time,
and you long to breathe once again like fish.
You begin swimming lessons as mama’s little fish
progressing up the ladder like the hues of blue
in a dying sky. You watch the clock of time
race beside your body, using the water
and laps to prove yourself. You chase wet
goals and feel the residue of the current
left behind. You become awed by the current
of rapids, searching for signs of life, a fish
squirming and struggling upstream over wet
rocks and falls, longing to discover the blue
answer, the ocean rippling thoughts over water,
and suddenly you understand that time
is only a small current in the deep blue
flood of life, fish live and die in water,
and your eyes wet, telling yourself it’s time.
- Valerie Brooke