What We Know of Death by Drowning

By Nick Lantz Nick Lantz
1. Josef Mengele Drowns While Swimming at a Beach in Brazil, 1979
 
His name then: Wolfgang Gerhard.
How easy, slipping on another man’s
        skin. Another country, too,
 
its sun’s heat and light
as insistent as a pair
of forceps.
 
His pants, left crumpled
on the beach, forged papers
and a few hard candies in the pocket.
 
Where the water
        was shallow, he could look
        down and see
 
his shadow passing over
the pale sand, a wobbly twin,
 
        matching him
stroke for stroke for stroke.
 
 
2. Li Po Drowns Trying to Embrace the Reflection of the Moon in the Yangtze, 762
 
The moon is no drinker of wine, so I must
compensate. Surely you’ve heard
 
the crows and nightingales
egging me on? The day has dispersed
from the courtyards like a gang
        of sparrows, and nothing
 
is left of the world that is not
pecked-over, hard and dark
        as the dream of an apple seed.
 
The young men laugh
at an old man drinking
alone, but here
 
are my companions:
        my shadow, as loyal
        and thin as a starved dog,
 
and the moon, his whole face
        wrinkling with laughter.
 
 
3. Bob, the Circus Seal, Drowns Himself in His Tank in Galveston, 1911
 
By then his teeth had rotted out,
        and he often turned to his owner
with his mouth open as if about
 
to speak, a ruined smell
jetting from inside.
 
He had already attempted it,
 
        three days before,
but his owner dove in and pulled him up
onto the slimy planks. His circus show days
 
were long gone. Sure, some afternoons
a kid might walk by
        and see the scabby painting
 
on the side of the building: the hoop,
the pedestal, the ghost
of a man in a top hat,
 
the striped ball now like a clot
of pus streaked
with blood, hovering
 
over the sleek, dark head.
 
 
4. Natalie Wood Drowns under Mysterious Circumstances near Santa Catalina Island, 1981
 
Let me tell you: death
        is a long silk glove
dropped to the floor.
 
It doesn’t remember the heft
of the arm, the fingers
        dancing.
 
That limb is gone, and nothing
will hold its shape again.
 
You twirl your pastel skirt. You watch
two cars
race toward the cliff,
        and there is nothing
 
you can do. So many lives
        you’ve entered
like a room: swooned,
 
held the prop pistol
to your own face, sang
for the back row.
        But was it your voice?
 
What was that name
you were born into?
        Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko?
What happened to her?
 
        Was she the one
taken, her family butchered, living
another life
among the enemy people?
 
Was it the morning?
when she stopped scanning
the horizon for rescuers
        that she turned into you?
 
 
5. Hippasus of Metapontum Is Drowned at Sea for the Heresy of Discovering Irrational Numbers, ca. 500 BCE
 
His fellow Pythagoreans had already built
a shrine to his memory
        and placed it where
 
he passed by every day, but he did not take
        the hint. It was on the ship
that they seized him.
 
God was an integer, firm
as an unripe apricot.
        But weren’t there streets
        in the city that wound forever
into the minute darkness?
 
Weren’t there dreams where he met
himself again and again,
without ever seeming to wake?
 
The sea is incommensurable.
        Each lungful of air
        kept dividing itself, even as the boat
 
became a decimal point on the far horizon.
 
 
6. Bennie Wint, 20 Years after Faking His Drowning Death, is Discovered Alive, 2009
 
In the first years after I disappeared, I read
every report of drowning: children,
 
mostly boys,
mostly in their bathtubs,
mostly accidents.
 
Old men whose lungs filled with fluid
        while they sat in their armchairs.
 
Fishermen. Swimmers. Immigrants
crowded onto rafts. Some men,
        their throats seize up,
        and they die without
 
ever swallowing a drop,
as if they never left the shore.
 
        Some nights I dreamed
what never happened: I held my drowning
 
in my palm like a giant pearl.
Some days, standing behind
the cash register of my new life,
 
I felt my lungs flatten out like a pair
of discarded socks. Did I ever think
 
of the woman I left on the shore
        as I kicked out
past the last of the breakers?
 
I won’t say.
Here it was: I might have drowned
trying to pretend to. I had to swim
so far out, then mark
 
a different beach
and swim back
 
a different man, without knowing
if his strength was enough
        to carry me to shore.

Nick Lantz, “What We Know of Death By Drowning” from We Don’t Know We Don’t Know. Copyright © 2010 by Nick Lantz. Reprinted by permission of Graywolf Press, www.graywolfpress.org

Source: We Don't Know We Don't Know (Graywolf Press, 2010)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Nick Lantz

Subjects Living, Death, Life Choices, Nature, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Arts & Sciences, Poetry & Poets, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Popular Culture

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Biography

Nick Lantz was raised in California and earned his BA in Religious Studies from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon and an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005.
 
He is the author of We Don’t Know We Don’t Know (2010), which won the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Bakeless Prize. Taking its title from a Donald Rumsfeld sound-bite, Lantz described his book to the Washington Post as “partly…salvaging poetry . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Death, Life Choices, Nature, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Arts & Sciences, Poetry & Poets, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Popular Culture

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.