Welcome to this month’s “A Favorite Poem” issue. This month’s poem is from Elizabeth Bradfield, an American poet known for her works on nature (particularly the sea) and interweaving it with LGBTQ+ rights, as you’ll see in her poem, “Learning to Swim.”
Learning to Swim (by Elizabeth Bradfield)
after Bob Hicok & Aracelis Girmay
Now forty-five, having outlasted some of
myself, I must reflect: what if I hadn’t been held
by my mom in the YWCA basement
pool, her white hands slick under
my almost-toddler armpits, her thumbs
and fingers firm around my ribs (which
is to say lungs), held gently as a liverwurst
sandwich and pulled, kindly, under?
What if I hadn’t been taught to trust
water might safely erase me those years
I longed to erase or at least abandon care of
my disoriented, disdained body? I might have
drowned instead of just ebbed, never slid
from given embankments into this other
Drift and abundance in what
she offered. The wider, indifferent ocean
of trade and dark passage not yet
mine to reckon. And so now, sharp tang
of other waters known, I am afloat, skin-
chilled, core-warm, aware of what lurks
and grateful to trust and delight
in our improbable buoyancy.
At first, “Learning to Swim” didn’t register to me as being a poem about queerness–however, it wasn’t until I read Bradfield’s description of how she came to write it that I went back and looked for the nuances in the lines, which then became clearer. With passages like “What if I hadn’t been taught to trust/water might safely erase me those years/I longed to erase,” it’s both obvious and obscured that the speaker had spent a long time struggling to come to terms with herself, adding that “I might have/drowned instead of just ebbed, never slid/from given embankments into this other/course,” with “this other course” referring to her sexuality.
This deep introspection left a profound, almost painfully-relatable feeling in me, as I reflected on my own experiences of coming out when I was younger, using writing and sports (particularly running) to come to terms with it. It is none other that Bradfield’s motif of water is a powerful device used to represent not only sexuality, but also how the ebb and flow of the waves show just how the speaker came to realize the change from uncertainty to acceptance. I especially love how Bradfield calls water “a necessary and life-saving escape” for her when writing the poem, for it served as a comfortable, encouraging space to contemplate her budding feelings outside of the heteronormative role.
Other things to consider about “Learning to Swim” is that Bradfield also wanted to address the themes of the mother-daughter bond, as depicted in the first two stanzas, along with references to the Middle Passage slave trade in the penultimate one. Although I do acknowledge both aspects, I found the two themes to be not as inherent as the one about sexuality–perhaps I could piece together the link between the mother-daughter bond with queerness as a sign of growing up and learning to become confident in oneself, but the Middle Passage reference confounded me, even if it was Bradfield’s intent to include it. If anyone has some thoughts on this, I would be interested in reading it.
In any case, “Learning to Swim” is a beautifully-written poem that I believe can resonate with plenty of people, not just in the LGBTQ+ community, but also with those learning to find their identities–socially and introspectively–in life.
Enjoy your day, everyone!
— The Finicky Cynic
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