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.

Billy Collins pays tribute to his favorite 17 year old high school girl

Poem in Your Pocket

Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day. I heard Billy Collins, who has twice been chosen as the United States Poet Laureate, read this on a National Public Radio program and it stuck with me.

To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl 

Billy Collins

Do you realize that if you had started

building the Parthenon on the day you were born

you would be all done in only two more years?

Of course, you would have needed lots of help,

so never mind, you’re fine just as you are.

You are loved for simply being yourself.

But did you know at your age Judy Garland

was pulling down $150,000 a picture,

Joan of Arc was leading the French army to victory,

and Blaise Pascal had cleaned up his room?

No, wait, I mean he had invented the calculator.

Of course, there will be time for all that later in your life

after you come out of your room

and begin to blossom, at least pick up all your socks.

For some reason, I keep remembering that Lady Jane Grey

was Queen of England when she was only fifteen

but then she was beheaded, so never mind her as a role model.

A few centuries later, when he was your age,

Franz Schubert was doing the dishes for his family,

but that did not keep him from composing two symphonies,

four operas, and two complete Masses, as a youngster.

But of course that was in Austria at the height

of romantic lyricism, not here in the suburbs of Cleveland.

Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15

or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?

We think you are special by just being you,

playing with your food and staring into space.

By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes,

but that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.

It is a two poem kind of day

Rural and Progressive’s National Poetry Month tribute continues today with two poems shared by attorney, software guru, artist, dog owner, and horse rider Kathleen O’Neal of Macon. Kathleen wrote, “Mary Oliver’s poetry gives me hope, which is the point of all good poetry, at least in my world. Mary Oliver shares my affinity for being outside; you can tell that from her imagery.”

The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Mary Oliver

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

Wild Geese
Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Kindness

April is National Poetry Month. Rural and Progressive is posting favorite poems shared by writers and poets. Today’s was contributed by writer and artist Patti Digh.

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

it is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

-Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995

Patti b&w
I studied English and Art History in graduate school, specifically the interplay between art (spatial, instantaneous form) and literature (linear, temporal form). So I thought to share a series of poems written about one painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” to show how spatial forms are translated differently by various writers into written form.
And then I realized I was letting my head lead. I decided to let my heart lead instead, and chose this poem about kindness.

I have known for some time what I want on my tombstone: “She was kind and generous.” This poem about kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye was the first poem I ever read by her. My friend, Catherine Faherty, pointed me to it years ago and it resonated deeply with me. Naomi is a songwriter as well as a poet, Catherine told me.

When Catherine’s friend, Mary Ann, was dying of cancer just a year after Mary Ann’s 20-year-old daughter, Meta, had died in a car wreck, Catherine called Naomi Shihab Nye. She told her that when Meta was a baby, Mary Ann had sung songs by Naomi to her. She asked if Naomi would sing some of those songs to Mary Ann on the phone as she prepared to die and be with her daughter again.

And so, the poet sang to a dying woman she had never met.

The size of the cloth of sorrow is so huge, and only kindness makes any sense anymore.

—-
Patti Digh is the author of “Life is a Verb” and “The Geography of Loss,” along with 5 other books. She lives near Asheville NC with her family.

 

Got poetry?

Poem in Your PocketTwo years ago my friend (and poet) Dennis Kirschbaum opened my eyes to Poem in Your Pocket Day (His piece “The Useless Machine” is brilliant). Dennis was kind enough to give me a poem about coffee to have that day, which I have kept with me since then (I confess to making a note once on the back of the folded paper).

This year I invited friends who know and love poetry to share a favorite poem with me in anticipation of Poem in Your Pocket Day. I’ll be posting their choices here.

I’m beginning with Dennis and a poem he wrote.

Blessing for Coffee
Dennis M Kirschbaum

Make the sun shine on leaves and let their roots
drink rain. Strengthen arms and backs to pick

the cherries and wash away flesh to reveal seeds.
Steady ships on the inscrutable sea carrying them

green and raw in burlap to arrive in New York,
L.A. and where the Mississippi empties.

Give wisdom to the roaster bringing heat,
revealing character neither pallid grass nor

so burnt that the surface bleeds pungent oil.
Guide the barista’s tattooed hands as he grinds

fourteen perfect grams into the yawning mouth
of his portafilter and fits it to the group head,

an offering of gifts at the stainless altar. Hold fast
the laws of physics, scramble electrons, build heat,

pressure, force steam through puck into ceramic.
Grant through fortune and the labor of my hands,

spare custom to bestow for this crema capped,
dark measure. Now, while this brain is becalmed

in haze, help me recall the miracles that delivered this
to my lips and let me be worthy of it as it fills me.

Dennis Kirschbaum
Dennis Kirschbaum

Dennis M. Kirschbaum grew up in Baltimore. He has a B.A. in English from Guilford College and an M.A. in Jewish Philosophy from Baltimore Hebrew University. He is an Associate Vice President at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and an Adirondack 46er, having climbed to the summit of the highest mountains in New York State.  His chapbook, Clattering East is available from Finishing Line Press and on Amazon. He lives and writes in Washington Grove, Md.

addition: Dennis is also featured at Author Amok today.

 

 

Poem in Your Pocket

Today is National Poem in Your Pocket Day, which is part of the month-long celebration of poetry this month.

I had a few ideas on the poem I would carry today, but after Monday’s heartbreaking tragedy in Boston, I returned, as I have many times, to John Lennon’s Imagine.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

Got a poem on ya?

As part of National Poetry Month, today is Poem in Your Pocket Day. I like poetry but am guilty of not paying a lot of attention to it. I have had several “driveway moments” waiting for the poem on Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac” and yet it never occurs to me to look for poetry as some of my friends do.

I asked my old friend Dennis Kirschbaum, who staffed The Metaphor Hotline at Guilford, for a poem about coffee (which Dennis loves at least as much as a good metaphor). He didn’t send me one of his own poems, but what he did send is very good, almost as good as his own work.


In Praise of Joe
by Marcy Piercy

I love you hot
I love you iced and in a pinch
I will even consume you tepid.

Dark brown as wet bark of an apple tree,
dark as the waters flowing out of a spooky swamp
rich with tannin and smelling of thick life—

but you have your own scent that even
rising as steam kicks my brain into gear.
I drink you rancid out of vending machines,

I drink you at coffee bars for $6 a hit,
I drink you dribbling down my chin from a thermos
in cars, in stadiums, on the moonwashed beach.

Mornings you go off in my mouth like an electric
siren, radiating to my fingertips and toes.
You rattle my spine and buzz in my brain.

Whether latte, cappuccino, black or Greek
you keep me cooking, you keep me on line.
Without you, I would never get out of bed

but spend my life pressing the snooze
button. I would creep through wan days
in the form of a large shiny slug.

You waken in me the gift of speech when I
am dumb as a rock buried in damp earth.
It is you who make me human every dawn.
All my books are written with your ink.