Friday poem (Sunday): The Nude Swim

14 03 2010

Odd how people become friends.

The first cause is proximity: We’re seated next to each other in a first grade class, have lockers across the hall in high school, settle in the same dorms, go out drinking after the first grad seminar.

And work. We meet at work.

But I didn’t become friends with everyone from school or in college or grad school, didn’t want to hang out with everyone I ever met at the paper or food service or the restaurant or co-op or bookstore. Only some people were interested in me; I was only interested in some of them.

I have good friends in New York, which is one of reasons I like New York.  That I lacked such friends was among the reasons I couldn’t take Boston, that I left good friends was among the reasons I so fiercely miss(ed) Montreal.

And among my friends, here, is Cte. She is a singular personality, who draws clear lines around people: in or out. I’m glad I’m in, because she’s smart and witty and always willing to argue (and as little likely to concede as I am), and who holds on to those inside as strongly as she pushes off those on the outs.

Need I say that she rejects sentimentality and that her heart, while large, does not easily warm? Or that she fends off any kind of direct affection—she will let you buy her a drink—especially the physical kind?

In that, she reminds me of me, or at least, how I used to be. I’m less likely to sprout spikes at the intrusion of a hand on my shoulder, but there was a time when I would literally spin away from any human contact.

No, I was never physically or sexually abused: this was not PTSD. Nope, it was something much simpler, a way to control what I couldn’t understand, and thus couldn’t let any one else access.

I was afraid all the time. Afraid of myself, my volatility, my desire and contempt for comfort, afraid of what others could do to and for me. I was drowning and refusing to be saved, hating myself for wanting to be saved.

I took it out on my body. I didn’t hate my body, but it was just one more thing I didn’t understand. I wanted to live in my head—my mind, I thought, was strong—because everything else about me was beyond me, and because beyond me, weak. I thought if I could just deny enough of myself, I could eventually bring it under control.

The key was control. I couldn’t control my emotions, so I sought to deny them. And because those emotions could be sparked—I still don’t understand why this happens—by the touch of another, I sought to deny myself all touch.

No one who knows me today would call me touchy-feely, but I am much more free with a hug, a kiss, an arm around the shoulder. To be honest, at some point I had to force myself not to flinch, because such obvious unease only drew attention to that unease, and question-mark looks I’d rather not answer; the point, still, was (and occasionally is) to manage myself, to manage how others see me.

Yet I have also become more comfortable with touch. I am conscious of it, always, and far more at ease giving than receiving, but it is a relief, truly, when with people I know and trust, when with my friends, to not have to police every goddamned move.

So I wonder about Cte. I don’t know enough about her—surprise! she’s not one to go on about her life before, well, now—to know why she behaves this way, or that it is in any way a problem for her. She could simply believe that, for her, such physical interactions are unnecessary. She might get enough from the people around her just by having us be around her.

I admire her strength. And I hope that’s what it is.

This is all a very long intro to a not terribly long poem.

Anne Sexton was, famously, the best friend of Maxine Kumin, but it is not for the theme of friendship that I chose her tonight. No, it is for her extravagance, her unwillingness to shut herself off from herself.

(Given her emotional instability and suicide, perhaps it could be argued that a bit more willingness to turn away would have kept her alive. Or perhaps it would have led her to kill herself much sooner than she did. I don’t know, and it doesn’t much matter now anyway.)

Sexton wrote songs to her breasts and her uterus and about masturbation, so if I really wanted to push myself beyond my own boundaries—if I am less stiff than I used to be, I am still easily mortified by myself—I’d print one of those.

But this is the one that moved me, a poem about nakedness and ease, about the unexpected ways others may see us, and about the unexpected ways such sight can still us.

The Nude Swim

On the southwest side of Capri
we found a little unknown grotto
where no people were and we
entered it completely
and let our bodies lose all
their loneliness.

All the fish in us
had escaped for a minute.
The real fish did not mind.
We did not disturb their personal life.
We calmly trailed over them
and under them, shedding
air bubbles, little white
balloons that drifted up
into the sun by the boat
where the Italian boatman slept
with his hat over his face.

Water so clear you could
read a book through it.
Water so buoyant you could
float on your elbow.
I lay on it as on a divan.
I lay on it just like
Matisse’s Red Odalisque.
Water was my strange flower.
One must picture a woman
without a toga or a scarf
on a couch as deep as a tomb.

The walls of that grotto
were everycolor blue and
you said, “Look! Your eyes
are skycolor. Look! Your eyes
are skycolor.” And my eyes
shut down as if they were
suddenly ashamed.

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