‘Swimming Lessons’ – a poem by Ariana Benson

 

Poetry And, the much-loved public events series at King’s chaired by Professor of Poetry Ruth Padel, is teaming up with the Obsidian Foundation – a new foundation for Black poets – for a free online event on 13th May, presented by Obsidian’s founder Nick Makoha and featuring Ariana Benson, Zakia Carpenter-Hall, and Saddiq Dzukogi. Event details, including how to get your free ticket, can be found here.

 
Below, Wild Court features a poem by Ariana , ‘Swimming Lessons’, which previously appeared in Lunch Ticket
 


 
 

    Swimming Lessons

 

i.

You turn the creaky faucet, cautious
feet planted as though they grew
from cracks in the white porcelain
tub. You sit, bathed in steam, scrubbing
your skin of any traces of outside.
Beads of sweat drip from the edges
of a black mass fenced in by taut
rubber, tucked away beneath a plastic
cap. You wish you could slip under,
wet your hair. You wonder what
the world looks like through eyes
blurred by water. But your mother
taught you to bathe, not to swim.
 
 
ii.

You feel yourself start to sink.
The whites of your eyes skim

the surface, pink with chemical
sting. You ponder the strange pain

of being able to see, yet unable
to breathe. A rare agony known

by those who plunge into the open
arms of an aqua pool, or slipped

into the cool relief of a bath
they didn't know was their last

for the foreseeable future. Men
who climbed out of water never

to feel clean again. You wrench
yourself from the clutches of the seagreen

behemoth and perch a safe
distance away, avoiding the gaze

of the guard looking down on you
from his white throne in the sky.

The irony drips from your wild hair
to your glistening skin. Chlorine

makes lava of invisible tears. You
bring the towel to your face, cursing

the day your mother thought it wise
that you try to learn how to swim.
 
 
iii.

You cross your heart, but don't hope
to die as you utter the Savior's name
and kneel head-first into suffocation –

a temporary suffering necessary for
the salvation of a mortal soul, naïve
and knowing nothing of earthly hell.

Forcing air from your nose to avoid the sting
of resurfacing, you silently thank the Lord
that your mother made you learn how to swim.
 
 
iv.

The waves call to you as sirens hail
unsuspecting prey. White-foamed caps
bely a danger that lurks just beyond
the depth at which your breast grazes

the briny surface. Mollusks, bottom-
feeders burrow into the shale – a ragged
assortment of fragmented shells, stones,
broken glass, dust of ancestors' bones.

Where others see an endless playground
you see only a mass grave. Your friends
dive deep into the surf, floating like fish
unencumbered by the memory of their brothers

dangling on hooks before their damp eyes.
Like strange fruit dangles from vines, like men
from trees. But you just wade, even though
your mother made you learn how to swim.
 
 
v.

It's just a bath, a pool, a basin,
an ocean. But your DNA
reminds you of a time when
a person would enter the water
and only a body would emerge.

Black and blue have never
mixed well against a white
background, much less on
a wet canvas. And when you
are hit with this reality,

there is nothing you can do
except dig your heels into
the weighty sand as though
your mother never taught you
how to swim.

 
 

Ariana Benson

About Ariana Benson

Ariana Benson won the 2019 Academy of American Poets’/Edith A. Hambie Poetry Prize, and is doing an MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway.