“Do people, anymore, even say helmsman?” (Carl Phillips)


The other day I was carrying a basket of laundry out to hang on the line when I saw a tiny Pacific tree frog on the low cedar table on the patio. It was about an inch long. On its foreleg, a shimmering stroke of bronze. It stopped me. I called John. All morning I’d been listening to the news and reading reports of protests in American cities. I didn’t know what to do with my anxiety and sadness. We stood by the table and looked closely at the frog. It must be one of this year’s, I said, though I hadn’t seen spawn in the usual places—the big Chinese pot in the garden where a few clumps of yellow flag irises provide shade or the old bathtub pool by the compost boxes. Maybe I just wasn’t looking carefully enough.

Sometimes the days accumulate in the old way, where the roses remind me of every year I’ve delighted in them, the lizards in the rocks by the back stairs, the Swainson’s thrushes just beyond my bedroom window at dawn. And sometimes, at least lately, they pass. I want them to pass, be gone. I want my old life back, the one in which I anticipated guests for dinner, traveled to see my dear family or watched at the blue window over my kitchen sink for the sight of them arriving. Arrivals, departures. There are none of those.

Some nights I wake and wonder where I am. I wake from dreams so terrible that I’m afraid to go back to sleep. And yet I’m lucky. I have space, enough to eat, things to do, a book I’m writing, a garden to tend, a wonderful person to talk to about everything under the sun and rain. But I still wonder where I am those nights I wake from dreams of fire and violence. Where I am in history. Where we all are, and what we will make of this moment.

Even though the lake hasn’t really warmed up, we’ve been swimming again. We go down after breakfast when there are tracks in the sand and the water is green with sunlight. I swim out past the rope articulating the safe area because I want to be out of bounds. I want the water deep and rippled by wind. Yesterday there were 3 female mergansers on a log, muttering. Sometimes we hear loons. On early summer mornings, a kingfisher works the shore, though I haven’t seen it yet this year. When I swim on my back, looking up at the sky, I am back in the life I’ve always loved. After the swim there will be hot coffee on the deck and talk of poetry or whether to build a greenhouse or not. But it doesn’t last. Not these days, and why should it? When I dream of fire, I know where it comes from, the streets dark with smoke and the sound of rubber bullets. A leader turning tanks on his own people, surrounded by a grim bunch of men (mostly) afraid to challenge him. Where will it go? Where will it end? We’ve heard this story before.

                            But what hasn’t been damaged? History
here means a history of storms rushing the trees
for so long, their bowed shapes seem a kind of star—
worth trusting, I mean, as in how the helmsman,
steering home, knows what star to lean on. Do
people, anymore, even say helmsman? Everything
in waves, or at least wave-like, as when another’s
suffering, being greater, displaces our own, or
I understand it should, which is meant to be
different, I’m sure of it, from that pleasure
Lucretius speaks of, in witnessing from land
a ship foundering at sea, though more and more
it all seems related.
–Carl Phillips, from “Swimming”
When I am swimming, the water ruffled by wind, no one else on the shore but my husband wrapped in a towel, it could be any summer, any lake, any morning. Do people, anymore, even say helmsman?

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