Swim Lesson No. 3
Syracuse, New York
I can’t find my bearings in this landlocked country,
riverless and briny. Not waterless exactly but curveless
and motionless, a chlorophyll kingdom. A viney
deciduousness where impermanence, and takenness & ringing
exceptionalism entwine with lanky ash and barren strawberry.
Can’t sort out which way’s West or stop shivering at a scar
barely healed by a sultry summer and ten feet of snow. You can’t
but wonder who hunkered down here first. And me, only three days
in residence to fret the future of the Republic. A fine place to fret it is.
An Onondaga grandmother says: you have holes in your socks, too.
While others swear this land was once South of the Equator.
Pickling beneath a saline sea. But for certain the population peaked
in 1963. Long after the salt boom of Mr. Madison’s War & Mr. Lincoln’s
bow. I’m prickly and new-bruised, left with a late night swim
for consolation– a glittery motel pool sporting a curve to hide
a short room & a spill of glamour over pocked and oyster-color tiles.
Clammy and acidic but never so deep I can’t reach bottom. A blessing
wrapped in a cheap cedar sauna for sweating out a fevered case
of homesickness and a dark moon. I can’t tilt the mirrors of middle-age—
my hair heavy as a pelt and reeking of skittery indiscretion. Syracuse
peaked in a year I never knew and cannot recall when the spiraled
what do you remembers begin, the year that marked the line between
before and after. A year that started in Times Square but ended
in Dallas. A year that chucked the founding back—hard–and
patted out the nation’s future in paper mache. Too late for me to be anything
but a dog-paddler and a wannabe. At last count, there were 145,170 souls,
395 years after the French showed up & 50 years after the President-
to-be came to town & crowed that Ted Williams had retired at 42.
And here I am, older than them both. As old now as that that president
ever was to be—
reeking of chlorine and moldy cedar planks. Dripping restlessness
on cracked oyster tiles in an old brown lace suit, A sharp dark bruise
rising on the curve of a saggy haunch. A purple & bloodless new moon.
– Wendy Willis
Wendy Willis splits her time between her roles as mother, poet, and advocate for democracy. She is the Executive Director of the Policy Consensus Initiative, a national non-profit organization devoted to improving democratic governance. In addition to publishing poetry and essays in a variety of national and regional journals and serving as an adjunct fellow in poetry at the Attic Institute, Willis has served as a federal public defender and as the law clerk to Chief Justice Wallace P. Carson, Jr. of the Oregon Supreme Court. She graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown Law Center and holds a B.A. from Willamette University. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, his son and her two young daughters.