I’m currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s flood of a novel, New York 2140, at the edges of the work day. Sea levels have risen fifty feet but stubborn New Yorkers are trying to redefine their big moldy apple as SuperVenice, navigating the street-canals via vaporettos and hydrofoils. When you read a long book slowly, it seeps into your consciousness, so my metaphors have become watery. Not that I’m composing lots of new stuff–it’s mostly revisions, submissions, and correspondence this month, as well as a few blogs and reviews, squeezed in between meetings and other end-of-year chores–but every hour I’ve stolen for poetry has oozed with damp.
I’m especially preoccupied by the book’s dominant setting and metaphor, the intertidal zone. This whole month has been liminal. I’m in between the intensities of the teaching year and the writing summer, not quite free of one nor immersed in the other. I’m also waiting on the outcomes of queries, but trying to use suspenseful hours usefully–to not act like I’m waiting. Sometimes I’m optimistic and grateful, but often I’m down and worried. Rough seas this year, on a national and personal scale.
So, first, let me stress gratitude, which lately I’ve beaming out at the editors, agents, and other literary people who remind me that even when I feel stranded on a deserted isle, some of my bottled messages reach people.
I just brushed up an essay called “Women Stay Put” for Crab Orchard Review, a piece about Claudia Emerson’s first book and her years adjuncting at W&L. It also concerns friendship, ambition, the toxic mess of university teaching hierarchies, and other topics I find REALLY hard. Thank you, Jon Tribble, for liking it enough to grant it space in the final print issue!
I’m looking forward to picking up my daughter from Wesleyan this weekend. It’s a long, hard drive, but we get quick visits with family on the way, and Madeleine is brilliant and hilarious company. We get home Sunday and I head right back to CT Tuesday morning, by plane, for Poetry by the Sea, where I’ll listen to poems and participate in panels alongside the shoreline, sharing lunch and dinner and conversation with literary friends. Bound to be lovely.
I’m going to skip the part where I tell you what I’m not grateful for, unless you take me out for a beverage and an earful, but I can redefine even that mildewy mess á la SuperVenice by observing: maybe the self-enriching tyrant will actually get impeached. And summer’s nearly here. I’ll get to work, at least part of the time, on what I personally find good and important. What’s tough about my workplace will recede to the background. And then in September I get to teach again, and my small classes are full of gifted students to whom I can offer real help, for a respectable salary. I appreciate this luck even at the lowest tide.
There’s a minor character in Robinson’s novel, a government finance guy, who describes his meditation practice: he lies down on the roof of his building and lists all the crap he cannot fix or change, and somehow feels relieved by the exercise. I’ve been trying an inland Virginia version: I cannot make the president obey the law. I cannot make colleagues treat me, or each other, with kindness and respect. I cannot make the world perfectly safe for my children, or other people’s children. I cannot force myself to go back to sleep at 2 a.m. or be productive or cheerful all the time. My metabolism will never obey me, nor will my cats.
I can practice compassion and diligence, but it’s really practice–trying, with no guaranteed results, ever. Thrum, swish, say the tides of my body. Even when you feel stuck, life is never static.
My British immigrant mother didn’t oversee our swimming lessons. Having grown up poor, visiting the kind of beaches where you’d make a fire and boil tea to warm up, she was scared of the water. Instead, it’s one of the very few things I remember doing with my father, who swam daily at the Y. He was a decent teacher–he gave us all driving lessons, too–but if you got too good at something he’d put you in your place (teaching me chess then giving me a salutary trouncing because you wouldn’t want a five-year-old to get cocky, for instance). You hear my ambivalence, I’m sure. All of my father’s gifts came at a price, like wishes on the monkey’s paw in that famous old short story.
Reading Leona Sevick‘s terrific new book, Lion Brothers, brought those memories back vividly: standing in the chilly chlorine-blue water in my yellow one-piece, practicing breathing between strokes. Her poem “It’s No Wonder We Never Learned to Swim,” below, places her immigrant mother at a literal fence, watching her children work with teen swimming instructors. The scene suggests, however, more serious boundaries between a woman who grew up in South Korea and her American daughter, who would prefer to put those unnerving differences away. The past is dangerous and frightening to the speaker, her mother’s hands both “lovely” and “gruesome monkey paws.” When the mother enters the poem midway through, even the lines get shorter, enacting ambivalence about her power. I admire this book’s intelligent darkness, its focus on the cracks and rifts between people trying to love each other unreservedly. I know the word “unflinching” is a blurb cliche, but it does come to mind.
About this poem, Leona writes: My mother moved to America in 1970 from her home in South Korea, a stranger to this land and to its language. No matter how much she wanted to blend into the culture of our small town, she never managed to. Everything separated her from our neighbors: her accent, the food she ate, her unusual beauty. She worked seventy hour weeks to make everything available to her American children–baseball, dance classes, swimming lessons. Still, she always remained on the perimeter; her anxiety for our success, for the kind of happiness that eluded her, written in plain language on her lovely face. She never imagined that her anxiety created impossible expectations for her children. She never guessed that it’s what drives us, even now.
It’s No Wonder We Never Learned to Swim, by Leona Sevick
It was hard to focus with her standing there,
the other mothers off smoking Benson & Hedges.
No wonder our thin arms and legs could never do
what those tanned teenagers wanted them to do.
Breaststroke, butterfly, backstroke, the crawl
eluded us, our faces cocked toward the boundary
where our mother stood unmoving.
Her long, lovely fingers locked around
the chained link, her white palms dry and stiff
as gruesome monkey paws.
Lord knows she had reasons enough:
a drowned-at-seventeen brother, for one.
But faced with that choking blue,
we wished she’d kept them to herself.
Leona Sevick is the winner of the 2017 Press 53 Poetry Award for her first full-length book of poems, Lion Brothers. Her poems appear in The Journal, Barrow Street, NorthAmerican Review, The Florida Review, Poet Lore, and other magazines. Her work also appears in the anthologies All We Can Hold: Poems of Motherhood (Sage Hill, 2016), Circe’s Lament: Anthology of Wild Women Poetry (Accents, 2016), and TheGolden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks (Arkansas, 2017). Sevick is the 2012 first place winner of the Split This Rock poetry contest, judged by Naomi Shihab Nye. Her chapbook, Damaged LittleCreatures, was published in 2015 by FutureCycle Press. Sevick earned a doctorate in English language and literature at the University of Maryland in 2002. She is provost at Bridgewater College in Virginia.