“Dalton’s Law” by Helena Bell

Helena Bell


In diving Thumbs-up does not mean okay.
Surface, it signals. Abort. Get me out. Here
Shore lies 40 miles to our left and my students hope
I will remember which loose conglomeration of coral

and sea cucumber leads to the anchor line.
They’ve no taste for free descents: the quick drop
through sand tigers and jellyfish eggs, the U-boat
black and sudden in the sand. Up, they signal. This

has come all too soon
like I have given them a butter knife
and milk jug handle, commanded, Tracheotomy.
You have 30 seconds. My father offered once to teach me

the slice through skin, the wound open
and puckering like an oyster shell. Be prepared,
he says. I confess worry for my students. They will forget
their training, plummet to the bottom with an empty cylinder,

grab a shark’s tale. I confess disdain
for the familiarity of their trust. My mother
learned to swim in the air: in the seconds between
her father’s toss and the pool’s slap. My own father bade

I fall backwards from the roofs of cars
and into his arms. Now we follow each other
into caves where Surface is 3000 feet out; I can only swim 63
on one breath. I measured. One must know when to follow, to argue,

to abandon. I am only half joking when I say,
You never have to out swim a shark, just your buddy.
The boys are fearless but make more mistakes, while a girl
never enters the water until she’s sure she’ll come out. Everyone

is older than I. How do you teach a man
who has just now learned his mother has died
that the total pressure exerted by a mixture of gases
is equal to the sum of the pressures that would be exerted

by each of those gases if it alone were present
and occupied the volume. I strive for distance:
let them think me heartless in all black, a color
they avoid with their blue fins and yellow masks.

I suggest pink. No one steals pink.
I am the wall between them and the ocean floor.
The unlit passage. Fresh water quiet. In the pool
I turn off their cylinders at 6 feet so they may feel a last breath

ragged in a thin hose. It is never sudden,
but creeping. A light blinking out. The anesthetized patient
counting backwards from 100. Trust is a dead log at the entrance
of Devil’s Eye, bodies in black wet-suits strung like lanterns lighting the way home.

from Rattle #30, Winter 2008


Helena Bell: “I write poetry because I hope it makes me sound more interesting than I am. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s working.” (website)

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