“Swimming Lesson” by Charles Harper Webb

Charles Harper Webb


We want to give our son the power
to flutter-kick across death’s bright
blue surface, dive down deep
to where the treasure lies, and swim it up.
We want him to love pool parties—

to guard the lines of half-dressed girls—
to backstroke, butterfly, and walk
on water for their awe-struck eyes.
We want a swimmer’s body for him:
slow pulse and strong heart.

Yet in the pool, our laughing boy
becomes a screaming fiend.
He screams louder when teenaged
Lorelei drags him toward the deep.
“Mommy! Daddy! No!” he shrieks.

Our waving only makes things worse.
He thrashes, flails. “Help me!”
he wails, seeing us wring hands
we don’t bring to his aid. “We love you,”
we swear each night before bed,

and soothe night-fears with “Honey,
you’re safe here.” But now, like dying
gods, all we can do is watch
his faith in us fight to the surface once,
twice, three times, then disappear.

from Rattle #30, Winter 2008


Charles Harper Webb: “Though the first part is about my son, the poem arrived after I watched a girl in my son’s swimming class react to the lesson as if it were her own execution. Clearly, she thought it was.” (web)

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