Mary Oliver, 1935-2019

17 01 2019

The Swimming Lesson

Feeling the ice kick, the endless waves
Reaching around my life, I moved my arms
And coughed, and in the end saw land.

Somebody, I suppose,
Remembering the medieval maxim,
Had tossed me in,
Had wanted me to learn to swim,

Not knowing that none of us, who ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all
About swimming, but only
How to put off, one by one,
Dreams and pity, love and grace,—
How to survive in any place.

~~~

Funny, a few nights ago I awoke from a dead sleep accompanied by the memory of almost drowning.

Was I 8, 9, 10? Old enough to go in the water of Lake Ellen by myself, young enough to have been scared that the big kids on the raft who were rocking it would overturn it and I would be trapped, underneath.

I didn’t understand physics, then, the great unlikeliness that a half-dozen skinny teenagers could overcome the stolid buoyancy of the barrels beneath the turf-topped raft. I knew only I could not be trapped, and so I jumped.

I should have been fine. I knew how to swim, and the water wasn’t quite over my head, but instead of floating and kicking I panicked, bobbing up and down, up and down, up and down.

I saw the shore, the lifeguard looking away.

And then someone grabbed me, an older kid—Dawn, I think it was—and dragged me to the shallows, making sure I was okay.

The beach was full, but no one noticed that I was drowning, and then was saved. It was just her, and me, grateful and ashamed.

~~~

There are better-known Oliver poems, and better Oliver poems, but this one caught my memory.


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2 responses

18 01 2019
dmf

I had a very similar experience when young and swimming at a state park when I got a terrible cramp and sunk down, luckily some older kids noticed and got me to the shore my poor mom seeing them drag me onto the beach.
this host is not a favorite but not many chances to hear from M.O.

6 02 2019
absurdbeats

Yeah, I should love that show, but I do not.

Oh, and glad you were saved! Now that puts me in mind of Maxine Kumin’s “The Longing To Be Saved”. . . .

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