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  • Writer's pictureValerie Brooke, MD

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.

Sestina’s Cleanse

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

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