301 Moved Permanently

301 Moved Permanently


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Behind the Poem: “When You Learn to Swim” by Souvankham Thammavongsa

In his review, Globe and Mail Books Editor Jared Bland called the poems in Souvankham Thammavongsa’s new book, Light, “by turns ethereal, beguiling and riveting in their dramatic exploration of the book’s thematic terrain,” and noted that, “[t]his new collection confirms Thammavongsa’s place as one of the most interesting younger poets at work in the country.”

In this piece, she tells the story behind one of the poems from Light.

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A few years ago, I took a class, swimming lessons for adults. We shared the pool with another class for children. They ranged in age, maybe four to six years old. They were really tiny, the shallow end of the pool came up to their chins or around their ears. They took to their lessons really well, with enthusiasm and each week, each would grow with confidence. The adults, the class I was in, had a hard time learning, believing that they could float at all. By the fourth week, some were just beginning to put their whole face in the water. It wasn’t that they were scared of the water or experienced some trauma that made swimming difficult. It was that none of us trusted what we were told about ourselves and the water, that we would float, if we let go.

The children needed to be told this once and they plunged forward, floating. The adults hesitated, tried a few times, and just as their feet would begin to drift to the surface aligning with their head, they would heavy themselves again and go back to standing in the water. When you’ve spent almost 30 years in the world this way, getting around this way, you just don’t understand that your body can behave differently in a different environment. Even with life-jackets on, some wouldn’t trust the device to bring them to the surface. They dived in awkward positions, out of fear and doubt, and would sink and then struggle for some time underwater before reaching the surface. The more you doubted, the more fear you had, the more you sank.

I needed to take swimming lessons because I wanted to know what to do if I fell into the water. I wasn’t looking to be the next Michael Phelps, just how to get back to shore if I fell off a boat. What to do, not to panic. To have the resources to say to myself, “You know what to do.” While I was taking these swimming lessons, I wrote this poem about what would happen when I learned to swim. I thought about what I knew of myself and my place in the world, what I was doing in it, and all the fears and the ways I knew a body could move.

I knew the pool was ten feet deep but the water, whatever it was made of, kept you from hitting bottom. And you had to trust that when you jumped into it. That there was some law in place about matter and in that moment, the moment you trusted it to be there when you dove into it, would remain there and it would work. And the thing about swimming is that it requires you to trust and have faith in that law. To believe it to not be true meant you would never swim. And life requires that you trust what you know and that while not all things are this way, some things are always true and unchanging. Then, I sat down and wrote this poem for my friends in the swimming lesson class but by the time it was finished the classes were over and we were all gone, all of us still not knowing how to swim like the children did. Or to trust the water that way.

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WHEN YOU LEARN TO SWIM

It will be different here. You can take a leap

off this ledge ten feet and never touch

ground. You can hover in what

could be air, lean back further and further

and something that feels like faith

will lift, will hold you up. But it isn’t faith,

it’s some kind of physics, law, a rule of matter

put in place, set in place

as old and as constant as that sun:

that unsettled speck, that shadowless thing,

that thing to have.

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Souvankham Thammavongsa has written three poetry books, the most recent of which is Light.

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