Swimming Alone

Claudia Emerson

                     — for Ann Dickinson Beal

A half mile

             down the dirt road

                            to the house it passes

where an old woman lived

             until she died there,

                          the rooms still

comfortable in their cool

              emptiness; then, a half mile

                           farther past her, the farm pond

we find as empty. The widow

             was the one who told us

                                     not to be afraid

             to do it, to swim

                            there alone. She said

                                        she had long ago

formed the habit

             of this water’s solitude,

                           the habit of this

afternoon, all the late

             afternoons conspiring

                           to one: not exactly

swimming, the way

              we suspend

                           ourselves in water,

two old friends

              who would say

                           we are living alone,

divorced and listless in it,

              in letting ourselves drift

                           on what little current

survives the damming,

              the push and pull

                           of the small creek

that feeds this, makes it.

              The water’s

                           temperature is of nothing,

of the womb.

              We love it that

                           we can’t feel it

as anything apart

              from us. We never

                           fail to speak of it. And

never fail to fall quiet

              enough for the beaver,

                           near-blind, to swim

so close to us

              we can feel its wake,

                           hear the fat slap of the tail.

There is the smell

              of a hot inner tube

                           where dragonflies find us,

the blue of a widow

              skimmer net-veined

                           that lights on my island-

hand, its body

             broken into syllables.

             Algae blooms unbroken,

a green roil,

              thunder moseying

                           around the hem

of the water, and I

              have become unafraid

                           even of lightning strikes.

So when, now, this

              afternoon years impossibly

                           past, I learn she is dying,

there is selfish comfort

              in knowing she is

                           doing this thing

before me, the way

              she is in the middle

                           of the pond before I

can get there, not facing the dock,

              not waiting for me,

                           but away, considering

the other bank, a turtle

              dozing on a log,

                           the catfish visible

beneath the log, a snake’s

              head threading the air

                           above its body.

She is unafraid as I

              would have been afraid if I had

                            arrived before her, too timid

to leave the heat-

              splintered dock. If she is able

                           to imagine a place,

I imagine this is hers.

              And this poem is

                           not between us, not

              yet imagined, the living

                          we have yet to do

                                        there in its place. And

the swallows have yet

              to give up the sky

                            to the bats,

and the bullfrogs

              have yet to begin

                           what passes for song,

for descant, and the shy green

              herons have yet

                           to return to their nests.

We have to wait

              for the new moon to rise,

                          red and thin as a bass’s

                                        gill, clean and bloodless,

through which we have

              to learn

                            to breathe again.

about the author