The Poem of Force

p
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e
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between the impulse and the act, the tiny interval that is reflection
– Simone Weil, “War and Iliad, or the Poem of Force”

What is that man doing?
He has been crouched in that corner for an eternity,
eight minutes, likely an hour, his gray face expressionless and
shimmering from the shallow pool water, the silver rim
of his glasses another prick of light
quilting the ripples rowdy children
make as they thrash and play.


I’m teaching my son how to swim today.
From the pool edge, he charges
at me. Why, I ask,
does the swim coach call it “charge”
and not “levitate” or “bloom”?
Again and again, I catch his attack; he laughs.


And there’s that man
gazing into the space
between us, a window
onto somewhere else, not here
in the practice pool,
where children learn to tread,
to freestyle, butterfly, plunge,
and count their breaths.
Can you touch the floor?
asks my son, and down he goes
before I can say No:
without my goggles,
it hurts
my eyes to see underwater, the chlorine stings,
the crowd of bodies, undulating
like sudden smoke. I love to swim
because I love the warp and woof
of a good breaststroke, kicking the water
till it’s waves, waving
hello, farewell,
my child’s bursting the surface like fish
panicking oxygen. Even inside, the air


is sticky with summer sweat, the thrill
of not drowning, almost drowning,
not today, when the stillness
of that man in the pool corner
grows louder, he’s here, still here, now
a ubiquity like war. Is it strange
to think of war? Strange to say it hurts


me to see him there, or say I’m hurting him,
as if we were brothers
in the same distress, as the commotion
of children swallows all silence, their light
tossed up, tossed out, the weird elation
of their bodies raging. The violence


my mind inflicts
kills him again
and again for vexing what’s merely
municipal, this center
of recreation that’s neither mine nor his
alone.
  We’re all pretending


the pool’s our ocean . . .


how does a body take the undertow


what is under my toe, mama


who’s to say stillness isn’t a sound


it may not be true


to look is not to act


who’s to say


to float and drift to love the water’s cold brutality and be a heat writhing through


I’m afraid


I’m not afraid of anything . . . I stared


at the Pacific – and all the children


looked at each other with a wild surmise –


Silent, upon a peak in . . .

Jennifer Chang's second book of poems, Some Say the Lark, won the 2018 William Carlos Williams Award.

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