Notes on Swimming 100 Miles

National Poetry Month continues on Rural and Progressive with this poem written by Janice Lynch Schuster. Janice is an advocate for aging populations. She writes and speaks about aging in addition to being a poet.

Her poem “64 Caprices for Long-Distance Swimmer” was both a personal and academic challenge. She said this about the poem:

“I wrote “Sixty-Four Caprices for a Long-Distance Swimmer” in 1982, when I was 20, as an alternative to a research paper for a psychology class. I have always loved to write (still do), but in those years, chafed at the rigors of academic writing. So I negotiated a deal with my professor, who agreed that I could write a narrative poem instead. This long poem was it.

Now that I am 51, I have a hard time remembering that girl, although when I re-read the poem, I can admire her determination to see and explore the world around her–above ground, or underwater. That aspect of my writing life has changed little.

Writing the poem gave me a way to make sense of things I was experiencing at the time. Knowing that I had to complete it by a deadline forced me to focus my thoughts through the monotony of a mile-long swim in a chilly pool.

In the 30 years since I wrote it, the poem has taken its own journey, and has been anthologized in several journals and English textbooks.

Last year, when Diana Nyad finished her epic swim from Cuba to Florida, I googled the poem, thinking that she might like to see it. (How she would do so, I still do not know, but I thought I would try to find a version to email.)

I found an electronic version, courtesy of a Yale professor who was using it in a class on sports and literature. Thrilled, I emailed him.

He was apologetic and contrite–he had meant for the poem to be behind a firewall, and was sorry for having violated my copyright. Such issues had not even occurred to me. I was happy to see that my 20-year old poet’s mind was still communicating with other young people. It gave me a sense of still being immersed in a time and place I had loved, a small college that nurtured me.

It is that potential for language to connect–with others and with myself–that still drives my writing, from tweets to textbooks. But poetry, in all its forms and voices, is the one I still hear most clearly.”

This poem is lengthy, but well worth your time.

Sixty-four Caprices for a Long-distance Swimmer: Notes on Swimming 100 Miles

Janet M. Lynch

Source: Beloit Poetry Journal 37(1):32-37 (Fall, 1986)

1. A friend asks why I swim. Why not a movie? A drink?
Dinner? I answer that I swim for strength, for a rippling
tricep and a dimple in my thigh. I hide the lie with a
stroke: I swim for the silence of water.
2. An older woman stopped swimming and watched me.
What a graceful stroke! What she loved, of course, was
the mirrored beauty of her youth-the forgotten pleasure
of her toughened skin.
3. The water undulates like a womb I do not remember.
My fingers poke through for life. The air is unfamiliar.
4. I tell a friend that life is water. With a pretended fluidity
his heart mimics the ocean-but he cannot swim. He
answers that a cell full of water explodes.
5. Seventy-year old women stand naked in the locker room.
Some use walkers, others have artificial hips, scarred legs
and missing breasts; still, they love this morning swim
with the distant sun rising.
6. In these women, I witness how I too will age. I avert my
eyes, move to far lanes and other shadows.
7. I swim past men to prove my strength–after years of
“throwing like a girl”; I lap them twice.
8. To gauge myself, I watch other women. Old women,
pregnant women, girls without breasts who marvel at
mine. The younger ones point at me, not believing that
this is what their bodies will become.
9. The older women reflect the course my body must follow.
My eyes wrinkle in patterns that mimic theirs. Breasts
pull through water to escape the yank of gravity.
10. I tap slower swimmers’ feet to pass them. Their skin
startles me, as though I’ve come upon schools of spot
running south for winter.
11. Swimming is one of the rare things I do alone. Of necessity,
lap after lap, I build faith in solitude.
12. Here there is no hand to hold, no ball to return, no score
to keep.
13. Swimming gives me patience to write.
14. Cells transport oxygen in a precise biochemical reaction,
evolved through an expanse of time, imagined only by
God, at night, while He dreamed. I test the reliability of
flesh-all but breathing water.
15. I dream of water. I thrash pillows. Mistaking my struggle
for a nightmare, a man grabs me to his side.
16. I dream of fire. I dream of fire and combustion. The things
water does not heal.
17. How do we breathe underwater?A moment without air is
magic. Through goggles, I watch the bubbles insist on
my life.
18. Fifty others swim in the pool. Water molecules vibrate
with our personalities. I swallow each person’s breath,
yet remain alone.
19. My men have gone for water. Their faces reflect the sorrow
of departure. They have gone for deeper water and places
where I drown.
20. I once swam competitively, pushing constantly against
the limits of my body: one second faster, five-tenths for
the blue ribbon, one one-hundredth for the record.
21. This – is – the – point – where I always – want to
stop. Turn – legs – ache – lungs heave – arms weary
– the distance – is forever – force the push – break
water.
22. Every morning, two crows perch near the pool’s glass
doors and peck madly at their reflections. When no one
watches, I jump out of the pool and run, arms raised and
mouth squawking, to chase them away.
23. Then all three of us jump-the crows with fright to the
sky-and me, chilled, to the diving well.
24. Every other breath my face sculpts a water mask.
25. Today the pool is too hot to even sweat. Heat curls from
skin like humidity over asphalt.
26. Blood throbs, echoing the physics of water and sound.
It sets up a rhythm between myselfand other swimmers.
27. The echo of someone swimming butterfly is a song playing
in your head all day.
28. All of it is the dull pound ofa heart, blood returning to its
origin is exciting as water tumbling in spring.
29. At a certain angle, the hand slices sheets of water. This
requires a force the body is unaware of, even as pounds
of water move away like the curtain rising over the first
act.
30. What does it mean to drown in a dream? Is there the hope
of bellying-up like a fish? Are we forced to forget breathing?
31. Some days there is no difference between sleep and
dreams, between swimming and drowning, water and air.
32. What is unnatural is untrue.
33. My father tried to teach me to play chess. A reluctant
student, one night I sleepwalked to the living room,
arranged the chess board, and fell-hands first-on the
queen.
34. There are Sixty-four squares on a chess board! Swimming
sixty-four lengths assumes the logic of a mile.
35. There is a theory that women who try desperately to lose
weight also try to diminish their presence on earth.
36. After a winter of depression, inches of sadness float across
the pool.
37. Sometimes, breathing, the heaviness of my own life
amazes me. Sucking on air, I consume the world.
38. My best friend moves haphazardly at my side, misunderstanding
when I don’t pause to answer his smile.
39. He is my friend and I tell him everything-or everything
I know-or everything I learn when swimming.
40. Breaststroke beads the surface like mercury on skin. I’m
a skeet barely touching water, needing it only to serve
my own motion.
41. I try to describe my father, but he eludes me, fast as a rock
skipping the ocean. I try to describe my mother, but she
is too much myself-familiar as oxygen gurgling about
my waist.
42. I learned to walk because my sister was born and I knew
that I would never be carried again.
43. I learned to swim because my father threw me in the
deep end and shouted “Swim!”
44. I sweat in the water and my face is cooled, ice cooled on
ice.
45. As children, my sisters and I linked arms with my father
and ran into the Atlantic, afraid only of letting go and
coming up in some other ocean.
46. A man paralyzed from the waist down swims slowly, his
legs quivering with the dream of motion. In a dream that
my strength reaches him through water, I swim faster,
give up another length.
47. At dawn the moon fits the socket of the sky like a great
white bulb.
48. I am the cog of a wheel. I turn and separate men; they
never meet and nothing is ever whole.
49. I love him as though all the time in the world were contained
in the four walls of our room or the four chambers
of my heart.
50. An old woman wears pantyhose under her bathing suit,
keeping warm beneath a layer of material thinner than
flesh.
51. I walked into fifteen-foot waves, tropics, mid-March. The
crystalline water shattered over my head.
52. The lover who became a lover when the old lover was
not a lover has taken a lover.
53. The word has no meaning.
54. A scar defines a woman’s abdomen-a red mark of all
that has been and all that must follow.
55. I escape gravity in water, the way others fly in dreams to
escape danger.
56. I watch my sisters and brother closely. How is it that my
blood is their blood, my face is their face, but my touch
is not theirs?
57. Today I am red and the bullish world tramples me.
58. In one dream, my first boyfriend drowns in the Chesapeake
Bay and I retrieve his body with a crab trap. The
stench of that first loss-how it permeated so many
years!
59. All of it slips off, like silk in passion.
60. My goggles are amber. The grass is lime green ice cream.
The sky is deep gray. The water is a crystal chandelier.
61. When I swim I am the totality of water. I am hydrogen
and oxygen. I am pure strength and energy.
62. An old girlfriend marries and dreams of babies red as
geraniums. I swim from commitment and dream of
hope, golden as fall.
63. I’ve been here before and am anxious to leave. I am
young enough to have learned that all things are composed
of change.
64. I shed water’s silk cocoon for the certain embrace of air;
my body emerges from the pool, form from cut crystal.

About Katherine Helms Cummings

During the day I am a social and environmental activist whose professional work has been in the nonprofit world for the last 12 years. Most nights and weekends I am an artisan making accessories with upcycled cashmere and woven textiles. My handmade items are available at The Sassy Gal http://thesassygal.org
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