Learning to Swim

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.


Copyright © 2017 by Elizabeth Bradfield. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 12, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“I’ve been thinking a lot about how to express gratitude and still hold awareness of privilege in all its complexity. I am fortunate to have a love of and comfort in swimming and the sea thanks to my mom’s efforts and the resources of the community where I grew up. Later, in the difficult years before I came out as queer, water was a necessary and life-saving escape. My adult awareness also holds a radically different association—the history of the Middle Passage of the slave trade. While reading Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria and Bob Hicok’s poems (including the one of this title), this poem found its voice.”
—Elizabeth Bradfield