Swimming Alone

Claudia Emerson

for Ann Dickinson Beal

A half mile          down the dirt road                    to the house it passeswhere an old woman lived          until she died there,                    the rooms stillcomfortable in their cool          emptiness; then, a half mile                    farther past her, the farm pondwe find as empty. The widow          was the one who told us                    not to be afraid          to do it, to swim                    there alone. She said                              she had long agoformed the habit          of this water’s solitude,                    the habit of this                              afternoon, all the lateafternoons conspiring          to one: not exactly                    swimming, the waywe suspend          ourselves in water,                    two old friendswho would say          we are living alone,                    divorced and listless in it,in letting ourselves drift          on what little current                    survives the damming,the push and pull          of the small creek                    that feeds this, makes it.The water’s          temperature is of nothing,                    of the womb.We love it that          we can’t feel it                    as anything as apartfrom us. We never          fail to speak of it. And                    never fail to fall quietenough for the beaver,          near-blind, to swim                    so close to uswe can feel its wake,          hear the fat slap of the tail.                    There is the smellof a hot innertube          where dragonflies find us,                    the blue of a widow skimmer          net-veined that lights                    on my island-hand,                              its body brokeninto syllables.          Algae blooms unbroken,                    a green roil,thunder moseying          around the hem of the water,                    and I have become unafraideven of lightning strikes.          So when, now, this                    afternoon years impossibly          past, I learn she is dying,                    there is selfish comfort                              in knowing she is doing thisthing before me, the way          she is in the middle                    of the pond before Ican get there, not facing the dock,          not waiting for me,                    but away, consideringthe other bank, a turtle          dozing on a log,                    the catfish visiblebeneath the log, a snake’s          head threading the air                    above its body.She is unafraid as I          would have been afraid if I had                    arrived before her, too timidto leave the heat-          splintered dock. If she is able                    to imagine a place,I imagine this is hers.          And this poem is                    not between us, not          yet imagined, the living                    we have yet to do                              there in its place. Andthe swallows have yet          to give up the sky                    to the bats,and the bullfrogs          have yet to begin                    what passes for song,for descant, and the shy green          herons have yet                    to return to their nests.We have to wait          for the new moon to rise,                    red and thin as a bass’s                              gill, clean and bloodless,through which we have          to learn                    to breathe again.

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Claudia  Emerson

Claudia Emerson published six poetry collections with LSU Press, including Late Wife, Secure the Shadow, The Opposite House, and Impossible Bottle. Before her death in 2014, she was professor of English and a member of the creative writing faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Emerson served as poet laureate of Virginia and won numerous awards for teaching and writing, including the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. (Author photo by Kent Ippolito)

“Claudia Emerson’s carefully made, thoughtful, and unsparing last poems have a kind of wildness in them, a feeling of being released, a fatefulness that unspools in ways that are both surprising and inevitable. This book is her final and finest achievement.”
—Edward Hirsch

“Emerson never tried to overwhelm the reader with a lot of curtain chewing and scene stealing. She was a solitary, an off-in-the-corner type, a classic observer—as observant as a sniper. . . . In her last months, Emerson added much to an art that was delicate but indomitable.”
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