Swimming pool poems


Hold on to the edge and breathe
I’m in the air gasping
and I feel the press of the water –
it has weight, depth, mass –
on my lungs
two small sacs
and they strain

The panic starts in my chest
and even though my brain
is telling me: you’re on
top of the water and you’re
breathing in and out
I can feel
huge crashing dumping waves
diving too deep and drowning in
the dark as my body is
the ghastliness of the last
bubble escaping and all around
is water


when I was a child
the pulse of the Kreepy Krauly
conjured the Jaws music in
my head so easily so often
I would scramble out and away

but always go back

now it’s a leopard seal
I turned a page of National Geographic
and it stared directly into my eyes
predatory and beautiful and enormous
In the deep end
I can see it in my peripheral vision
and I anticipate its sudden attack

With thrashing arms I touch
the side, turn and count
another length


I’ve swum in dark pools
of uncertain provenance
I’ve stripped off and jumped
into flowing spaces between rocks
it’s better not to know
what lies beneath
not to put down feet
stay horizontal
keep torso, head, arms, legs
in a plane
and pay no attention to the
thin black snake zigzagging alongside


I stand on the edge and commit to the cold water
10 lengths breaststroke
10 of crawl and backstroke with flippers
1 way up, the other down
(depending on the angle of the sun)

Having fought through the fatigue
of the first 10
and completed the second
I’m now inside this
thing, committed and feeling strong

So the third 10 I can play with
2 breaststroke
4 crawl and backstroke
2 doggy paddle
2 breaststroke

These are the combinations that keep me (sane)
then sometimes, flippers off, I just
lie on my back
and drift


The struggle to achieve
Increasing lengths has
Taught me measure and pace
Beginnings are hard and
must be endured
until ease comes
conviction and course set
locked into the project
the ritual
I’ve never been good
at repetition
I bore easily
I stand on the edge and commit to the cold possibility
I get in alone and start
I’m plagued with my own performance
its lack of style and rhythm
its quirkiness
I never feel formally trained
prepared or sanctified
nevertheless I strike out
until I find my way
until my body feels sleek
and at home
(which it does, in water, quickly)


Is this the southern-most pool in Africa?
this slimy-floored square of
cordoned-off shallowness
in the shadow of the
lighthouse L’Agulhas?

Screaming kids
hug the stairs
mothers in head scarves
close, but not in the water

We strip off
and stride out to the far
edge where the waves crash
and the wall is really sharp
(and the mothers watch
us, now)

We’ve read the signs
most southern this
most southern that
we did the photograph at
the cairn: Gemma on the Indian Ocean side, me
with my feet Atlantic side

But nobody claims nothing for this pool


This place
This pool
This, now
I like it best when
it’s mine

When the wind whips
the water chills
and the sun is sharp
and the birds wheel
sparrows and starlings

I lie back and look up
A hemisphere of water below
A hemisphere of sky above
and me, between.


This place.
This pool.
Measured in imperial times
in yards
I never know how far I swim
but once a girl from
the underwater club
paced it out and announced:
30 metres!
It has just six lanes
it’s awkward
too long (not long enough)
too narrow
no fanciness
just concrete bleachers
in wide steps
which are delicious
and bake the body
when the chill of
the lengths has gone bone deep.


Another place.
Another pool
vies for my affections
this one I cannot call mine
because I never have it alone
it’s the city’s
and all its residents pour in
impossibly tanned middle-aged men in speedos
wobbly, lumpy Cape Flats grannies with all the kids
visiting Germans
The hemispheres here
are not above and below
but side to side
and observed with head poking out
and swivelling
Rock and ocean
Ocean and rock
And me


I find others like myself
just the other night
after a workshop
at a communal table
a human rights activist
who plans to swim to
Robben Island
an academic who
plans to do half Iron Man
We talk
(and the table falls silent)
caught in the details
of breathing against waves
and wind; wetsuits and currents
we swop information
about sea swimming
river swimming
the pool between the rock and the sea
in their city
they both have a gym
with a very large heated pool
I have a cold narrow old university pool
and it’s April.
I’m talking swimming;
But I’m not swimming.
For me it’s over.
For now.
But near, so near
it surfaces often.


Thoughts come
(thoughts after thoughts
driving thoughts
thoughts with freight and intentions)
glinting like fish
they flash
they silver as they slither
through my brain
and they lodge as
lightning: sharp, clear
narrow: pointing, arrows
They live in the water
I have to go fishing
I have to put myself
in their domain
their medium
it’s full immersion baptism
For them to find their
way into my head

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