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It’s scary to think about what your body is going to look like in forty years

By Lucia Perillo

At the swimming pool, I am an honorary old person—I get to swim with the senior citizens, who play volleyball in the shallow end and use the deep end for water exercise. Only a few people do the exercises, and they move over to let me swim, and I also try to do some of the exercises, though when I go underwater to check out what my legs are doing, I find they’re merely dangling like the cartoon swimmerets of a brine shrimp.
What does this have to do with poetry? The other day…

the teacher Ellen, a local artist, told our group of four women, much to my dismay: “Lucia is a poet.” This always embarrasses me, for reasons that would require another entry, and to justify myself, to prove myself more than a slacker, I said: “Ellen, I’m also a blogger now!”
Old people are not supposed to understand computers, but the women asked: who are you blogging for? And I said, oh the foundation that’s associated with Poetry magazine…figuring no one would know or care about Poetry. But people, whom I often take a dim view of, being slightly agoraphobic, always surprise me. Adrian (she’s holding the ball in this picture, another local artist) said, “I subscribe to Poetry.” She got the free issues they were offering during poetry month and made her book group read them. Though they groaned at first, the group was taken by Forrest Gander’s translation (from Spanish) of Coral Bracho’s poem ““Firefly Under the Tongue” (this was last year), a poem Adrian read to me over the phone and which I’d describe as sensual and densely metaphoric.
My point is, a poet thinks what she does has not many reverberations in the larger world, and yet here in the swimming pool the water rippled with something that happened (contrary to Auden) as a result of it. I always think of poetry as being akin to building ships in bottles, an archaic art in which an eccentric subculture participates. But now several members of the Adrian’s group, made up of female professionals aged late-thirties to mid-sixties, regularly bring poems in.
Though at first I felt estranged from (let’s face it: scared of) my swimming partners, I’ve come to treasure being part of the group and making friends across a wide swath of life. The lifeguards sometimes play big band music, which annoys me because most of these people came of age with the early Beatles and Stones.
What I like best is the chance to see bodies. The girls on the synchronized swimming team are in the locker room when we leave, and though they are beautiful their bodies are not as compelling as old bodies, on which you can read the story of childbirth and illness and simply age, which lends interesting variegations and falling-(or-not-)ness to the flesh.
It seems to me that “old person” is the ultimate Other. Old person=not me.

Comments (4)

  • On July 18, 2008 at 5:00 pm unreliable narrator wrote:

    Lovely post, Lucia. I’m always so pathetically heartened to hear any recounting of poem-sharing as a natural human behavior, just easy and organic. Which sounds like I’m talking about swiss chard; but I mean organic in the straightforward, non-fancy sense of: “Hey, I liked this; you wanna read it too?” An unforced/unenforced/unreinforced giving, requiring no government agency or non-profit program to sponsor it (though the free copies of Poetry obviously made this particular moment possible). And I agree that, often, discovering our fellow humans to be simply normal is such a bizarre relief.
    That your friend’s group clustered around that particular poem would, I think, delight Mr. Gander as well, whose translation work is deeply populist while his own writing has been accused of that pesky hermeticism (though I do not find it so).
    In my former hometown, there’s a marvelous Japanese spa where the women’s tub used to cost only $6 on Thursday evenings. And I would go to soak my bones in the hothotHOT water, and revel in the many sizes and proportions of so many variously shaped bodies—bodies with caesarian scars, tattoos, piercings, mastectomies, assorted ravages of injury and consumption and genetics and time. They were all so beautiful and I invariably left feeling better about inevitably growing older.
    Perhaps as independent bookstores continue to fold (such as Olsson’s in DC—a real tragedy) we could replace them with poetry-swapping bathhouses? Kay Ryan, are you listening?

  • On July 19, 2008 at 10:03 am Emily Warn wrote:

    Thanks for this lovely post! With no success, I’ve been searching for an equally lovely poem I vaguely remember about swimming. Searching our archive, though, turned up these reasons other than agoraphobia to avoid swimming:
    Thomas Lux writes about a place where every evening tarantulas fall into pools:
    Jack Spicer explains why it’s difficult to get out once you get in:
    Mark Bibbins invites a lover to go swimming by the electrical plant:
    And of course, the children’s poet Kenn Nesbitt reminds us why many people avoid public swimming pools:
    Of course your swimming pals are way beyond Nesbitt’s poetry as entertainment if they’re interested in Forrest G.’s translation of Coral Bracho’s poem “Firefly Under the Tongue .”

  • On July 21, 2008 at 12:58 pm Lucia wrote:

    I was surprised the group gravitated to “Fireflies”, which, after several readings (thanks to the miracles of technology) I still find difficult–and this is the one Bracho chooses for the title of her selected.
    Poets are guilty of paradoxical impulses–the desire to have a readership and a slight distate for a popular readership–hence the charges of accessibility levelled at…well, not Gander or Bracho. I’ve heard writers express disdain for reading groups, and I wonder if this has anything to do that they’re generally women’s enclaves.
    And, Un. Narrator, I haven’t forgotton about Duncan/Levertov. Her posthumous New Directions Selected poems contains surprisingly little of the war poetry (though I don’t know if the book had any editorial input from Levertov.) I also remembered that her famous Organic Form essay was derived from Duncan, who’d delineated, in an essay, seven categories of form. But I don’t know the chronology of their schism–when the essays were written in relation to when they parted ways.

  • On August 22, 2008 at 11:58 am Adrian wrote:

    Hi Lucia,
    I finally found this blog…..and was most interested to read of bodies (which is what I paint, mostly) and while I am not scholarly in my appreciation of poetry, I enjoyed reading the discussion of Levertov (long a favorite of mine) vs Duncan….a poet I have enjoyed reading, as well…See you at the pool……

Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, July 18th, 2008 by Lucia Perillo.