Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Poem: Thomas Lisenbee


. . . my dearest faith has been that this
is but a trial. I shall be changed.
~ Stanley Kunitz

It was, as I remember, three of us—
three sapling boys between childhood
and coming on to be men—riding our bikes
to Farlington Lake that day: Richard Baldwin,
someone else and myself. I don’t know
who thought first of swimming the quarter mile
from the tower to the dock then back again
but it couldn’t have been me,
I would never have considered it.
They were strong swimmers. I was not;
although we had taken swimming lessons
together and it was a deepening mystery
why their muscles developed while mine
had not, because during our games of tag
at the town pool I was perpetually doomed
to be “It,” or why they used the fifteen-foot
diving board as a good-natured redoubt
to make sport of taunting me because they
knew how hard I had to screw my nerve
to chase them there then jump off.

Richard was the first to walk the pipe
to the tower, then the other kid, then myself.
They dove straight away and struck for the dock.
I started strong—their enthusiasm pulled me along.
Perhaps this was my day, I thought, then my
arms began getting tired. There was no
lifeguard keeping watch, no nearby fisherman
in a boat, this was some serious business. So
I abandoned the Australian Crawl for less
exhausting strokes, sometimes even floating
and when I dared to check, there was
no longer any advantage to turning back.

They welcomed my arrival like seals
on a rock, clapping and waiting for me
to touch the dock, ready to dive,
ready to arc, because, such was this game
that I was “It” again and exhausted or not,
fool or not, I had no choice, our bikes
were near the tower, I flopped into their wake.

I would like to say they cheered me as heroic, but they did not.
I would like to say that day I proved myself as one of them, but I had not.
I would like to say that day a grubby worm morphed into a butterfly, but it did not.

There were to be more years of feeling myself lower caste, of thinking
a ship had sailed and I’d been left behind, of playing right field,
of being too small too shy to dare a kiss or ask for a date.

But we did grow up. All of us. Some bloom late.

Our senior year I was co-captain of the track team
and Richard Baldwin and I were one half
of a 4x440 relay team that set the league record.
Richard died last year. Oh, he was a clever boy.
He became a doctor. And how can I speak of the
other kid when I can’t remember his face or
his name, only the nut-brown sparkling sun-dripping
sheen of him and the turban he made of his t-shirt;
because I remember our swim at Farlington Lake
the way a befuddled convict broods an unjust trial.
I risked my life not because I was brave and strong but because
I feared the shame of not-swimming more, because I was
just like them, just like us all—playing tag with death, celebrating life.

~ Thomas Lisenbee retired in 2001 from a forty-two year career as a symphonic musician in New York City to devote himself to writing. His poetry has appeared on-line at and, in print in Chronogram, Connections, and the Literary Gazette of the River Reporter. He has published one chapbook, Dogwalking (Wild Pines Press).

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