My life as a landlubber

This entry is part 15 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m still reading Paul Zweig, and trying to get back into the spirit of writing poems in response. The following prose piece was sparked by the fourth poem in the second section of Zweig’s Selected and Last Poems, entitled “The Archaeology.” I’ve been in a bit of a confessional mood lately…

My first God was a lake in Maine with a soft mud bottom & plenty of leeches. I am too young to swim, but I love watching my mother, so slow on land, slice efficiently through the small waves while seeming merely to recline on her right side. The lake is large & not to be trifled with. In the winter, it turns to stone, my first desert: a white lid for the dreamless eyes of fish.

I am four and a half. My mother is hugely pregnant, & my older brother & I decide to play a practical joke: I hide myself in the deep grass on the back slope above the pond, while Steve bangs in through the kitchen door: “David’s drowning!” Mom rushes past me, frantic, calling my name. I leap to my feet: “Here I am!” She’s furious.

Later, I sit inside staring numbly out at the grass, wanting to be missed again like that, wishing I could still be hidden there, curled up like a comma in that green sea as the wind moves through.

Oceans with stone beaches, thundering surf. In an old black-and-white photo, we wander at low tide past the iconic cliffs at the Bay of Fundy. Fifteen years later, in Taiwan, Steve & I find ourselves on another beach dotted with stout, wave-gouged menhirs. He swims out to a small island, then hollers back: “Come see the geysers! Hurry, it’s spectacular!”

A typhoon is swirling somewhere off to the east, raising mountainous waves. Somehow I fight my way out, & it’s worth the effort: smoothly sculpted sandstone as if from the desert southwest, undermined by the sea & pocked with hollows just the right size to lie down in, imagining I’m St. Brendan innocently beached on a whale’s barnacled back. Its blowhole shoots spray high into the air with every wave, each time giving rise to the same rainbow.

After a while I hear faint voices from the shore: “Come back! Come back!” I try to obey, but the current is too strong & pulls me sideways, out to sea. My strength quickly dissipates; I go under once, twice, my brother reaches me just before I go down the dreaded third time. “Stop swimming,” he says, “& stand up in the water – there’s a shelf of rock we can rest on.” I quell my panic & feel for the rock with my feet, my chin just barely above the troughs. For the first time, I learn to space my breaths. “Here’s what we’ll do,” he shouts in my ear. “Put an arm around my neck, but don’t strangle me. If I paddle & we both kick, we can get to shore.” It works.

Back in the car, we marinate quietly in our separate swamps of self-disgust: “I would’ve died without his help.” “I almost killed him.”

Then, I was too skinny to be buoyant; now, I’m unsinkable. Adrift in my skin boat – hide stretched taut across the ribs, the sea on the wrong side – I float through my days.

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