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, North American 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 The Golden 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 Little Creatures, 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.