In August 1984 I finished last in the ten-meter platform at the United States Diving Championship in Santa Clara, California. Greg Louganis, fresh from winning two gold medals at the Olympics that summer, finished first. Determined to return to nationals the following year and—figuring I couldn’t do worse—move up the leader board, I went to Nashville for the summer of 1985 to train full time.
It might have been my father who put the idea into my head when I was seven years old—and he’d already persuaded my older brothers, so I suppose I just wanted to go with them—but for whatever reason I went to my first diving practice in Houston at the community pool near our house on Loch Lomond. The coach was Bill O’Hearn who was glad to have a little dweeb join his small summer team because in diving the earlier you start and the longer you stick with it the better shot you have to become competitive. In the fall we joined Nancy Duty’s competitive team that trained at the Olympic-sized pool at the old Shamrock Hotel. Nancy was a South Texas girl from Brownsville. She had an angular face and a stocky, athletic body, and she dyed her hair a blood-orange red. In 1952 she missed qualifying for the Olympics by less than a point. The sting never healed. Nancy had trained at the Shamrock Hotel, too, and once she started coaching there she developed two future Olympians and a lots of national finalists. I would train with her until I left for college.
The grounds around the Shamrock’s pool were lavishly landscaped and one of the unique features of the ten-meter platform was its open spiral staircase. The pool was so big you could water ski in it, at least that’s what people said. Some time later Nancy took a job managing the pool at the Jewish Community Center, and most of her divers moved over there with her. It was a good move for me. The new outdoor pool was a short walk from my house along the banks of the Braes Bayou. The JCC’s outdoor pool was a shade-free, Z-shaped deal with the diving well comprising one of the dog-legs. Most days during the school year I trained in the small indoor pool at the JCC in the afternoons, and then twice a day outdoors again in Houston’s blistering summers. During a typical week I might practice a thousand dives all totaled, even if in the competition I was training for I’d perform just eleven dives. That severe ratio between practice and performance—like drafts and publication really—is weighted toward the former.
During the summers of my sophomore and junior years in high school I went to Florida to train with Olympic coach Dick Kimball. Morning workouts with Kimball began at 7am and lasted until 11am. We’d practice trampoline, run two or three miles, do some strength training and dry-board exercises, plus practice our basic springboard dives and entries in the pool. This was followed by a two-hour afternoon workout of our more difficult somersaulting dives, and for those of who competed on the ten-meter platform, another workout in the evening three times a week. On Saturday mornings we’d have an inter-squad meet. By the time I arrived at Boston University on a diving scholarship in the fall of 1982, I’d been diving on and off for eleven years. And James Schuyler says, here is
Diving into blue October, dour November, and deadly dull December which now
And then with a surprised blank look produces from its hand the ace of trumps
Or sets within the ice white hairline of a new moon the gibbous rest
In Nashville I followed a similar routine as we had in Florida—morning practices, afternoon practices, platform in the evenings. My college coach, Jamie Greacen, had been an All-American diver at Harvard. From Connecticut and in his mid-twenties then, he looked a lot like James Merrill—thin, tucked-in, ruddy, almost subdued. He was a geologist by training and was getting his masters in coastal erosion. His expression was reticent, and I suppose he was uncomfortable spending his initial years after graduating Harvard coaching college diving. Not that he appeared unhappy but often I thought he believed he was confused by his own life and was just going along until he found more clarity.
As determined as I was to return to nationals, all that hot Tennessee summer I had a vague shadow inside me. I was aware of something resisting me. Some of it was the intensity of training and the sense I might have reached a fatal plateau. But some of it was a long-distance relationship with a girlfriend back in Boston I was trying to keep up by writing letters everyday. Writing letters like that involves unbelieving that physical proximity matters. At night after practice was over, I’d start a letter in the little room I’d rented. I’d write by hand with a soft blue pen and a legal pad of yellow paper. I’d seal the envelope and walk to the mailbox on the corner and return to the house. Sometimes all of that left me breathless and I’d have trouble even talking. None of my teammates or my coach knew for sure what was wrong with me, and after I denied my brooding meant anything, they simply stopped asking.
But I could feel something new and even natural happening to me as I wrote those letters and kept trying to make adjustments to feel that feeling again—the feeling of what, I wasn’t sure. But I could feel my rib cage soften when I was writing and my heart would beat in a kind of rhythm you might hear in Antonin Dvorak’s music. It was like something from “From the New World”—violins chopping and then the horns triumphantly on the march. Then the sensation would flag and my breaths would slow, and my body would take on a primitive fragility. It was like there was some breezy, folk, melodic rhythm inside me. I was deeply into classical music that summer, and so writing daily like that, feeling my ribs and heart, must have been a garish, but tangible feeling of power. As if writing were a palpable weight.
Then I began to write the daily letters with more secrecy. They were too erotic to speak of, the physical act of writing of them I mean. When I inserted myself into the process of writing it was like I was a cat crawling into the sentences and paragraphs. A similar sensation was happening to me when I was diving, too. When I’d be underwater after a dive, I could feel the air in my lungs build pressure, just as at night in my rented room I could feel the words in me build pressure. Kicking underneath the water in the deep end of the pool after a dive and before I’d swim back up to the surface, I felt as if I were haunting a maze of night and dreams. Underwater is as close as I’ve been to feeling what the unconscious might be like with its awful instinct and silence. Underwater you have no age. You feel weightless. “Skythrown under water” is how Muriel Rukeyser puts it. It’s like the thought, or the thought prior to, an utterance or an avowal, a surrender, and then deliverance.
In the air, too, diving is a sport of continual adjustments. You practice your moves and flips and twists, and you sharpen your kinetic prowess and your acrobatic finesse. And yet bounding off the three-meter diving board or leaping from the ten-meter platform is like entering the foreign language of the air. You learn its accents, you figure out its currency, you develop the cadences of a native, but you are always a foreigner. Much as you develop routines and skills to master its idioms, you never succeed at feeling at home there, never feel like you do when you are standing back on the ground where you belong. When you’re a diver, you’re only a tourist of the air. Then, after you’ve plunged into the water and held your breath underneath the surface, you’d swim back up and quickly climb out of the water for the safety of the ground and the hot pool deck. W. S. Merwin captures some of this exoticism in his poem, “Shore Birds.” He’s not writing about divers. But the traces of memory he alludes to are a lot like the shapes you make in your mind as a diver:
While I think of them they are growing rare
after the distances they have followed
all the way to the end for the first time
tracing a memory they did not have
until they set out to remember it
at an hour when all at once it was late
and newly silent and the white had turned
white around them then they rose in their choir
on a single note each of them alone
between the pull of the moon and the hummed
undertone of the earth below them
the glass curtains kept falling around them
as they flew in search of their place before
they were anywhere and storms winnowed them
they flew among the places with towers
and passed the tower lights where some vanished
with their long legs for wading in shadow
others were caught and stayed in the countries
of the nets and in the lands of lime twigs
some fastened and after the countries of
guns at first light fewer of them than I
remember would be here to recognize
the light of late summer when they found it
playing with darkness along the wet sand
One of the best poems I know about diving, “The Cave,” is by Michael Collier, who writes wonderfully about his sister, Jeannie, who was a 1964 Olympian:
I think of Plato and the limited technology
of his cave, the primitive projection
incapable of fast forward or reverse,
stop action or slo mo and the instant replay
that would have allowed him to verify,
once and for all, Justice or the Good,
such as the way my family did, hour upon hour,
in the dark, watching films of my sister
diving, going over her failures and successes
like a school of philosophers, arguing
fiercely, pulling her up from the depths
of the blue water, feet first, her splash
blooming around her hips, then dying out
into a calm flat sheet as her fingertips appeared.
Sometimes we kept her suspended in her mimesis
of gainer and twist until the projector’s lamp
burned blue with smoke and the smell of acetate
filled the room. Always from the shabby armchairs
of our dialectic we corrected the imperfect
attitude of her toes, the tuck of her chin,
took her back to the awkward approach or weak
hurdle and everywhere restored the half-promise
of her form, so that each abstract gesture
performed in an instant of falling revealed
that fond liaison of time and movement,
the moment held in the air, the illusion
of something whole, something true.
And though what we saw on the screen would never
change, never submit to our arguments, we believed
we might see it more clearly and understand
that what we judged was a result of poor light
or the apparent size of things or the change
an element evokes, such as when we allowed her
to reenter the water and all at once her body
skewed with refraction, an effect we could not save
her from, though we hauled her up again and again.
Like the figure in this Michael Collier poem, I too had learned that every dive I did, whether in practice or in competition, was a new beginning. Standing stoically on the diving board—before take-off, arms dropped at my side, and picturing the moves of the dive in my brain—it was if I were simultaneously filled with the knowledge of everything I had learned in practice and also completely ignorant of what the future of the dive would actually bring.
Nothing so resembles the practice of adjustments, of risking and accepting failure, of pleading with yourself for redemption, like diving does as writing a poem. The one time I remember upsetting Jamie was during a dual meet one season in upstate New York against Syracuse. I was competing on the three meter board. Right before one of my dives, as I had done before every dive of my life in every competition I’d been in, even in little inter-squad meets, I stopped next to my coach on the way to the diving board for some last-second guidance. Jamie must have sensed I wasn’t listening as he gave me instructions about my head position or take off strategy or whatever it was. “Did you get that?” I hadn’t and more or less said so when, while watching the previous diver set the board’s fulcrum into place above the natatorium, I said, I’m just going to figure it out in the air. That was arrogant of me then. But the attitude of keeping some room in my imagination—in my heart, my mind—for the unimaginable would go a long way for me as a writer. I didn’t know it at the time but diving, and even the indeterminacy of the letter writing, was teaching me that every time I start a new poem I’m having to learn to write poetry all over again. I’m having to figure it out in the air.
“From the Earth to the Stars” is the sixth in a sequence of portraits to be published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my beginnings as a writer.