Thinking About Shelley
Arm over arm I swam out into the rain,
across from the cedars and the rickety conveyor.
I had the quarry all to myself again,
even the path down to the muddy bank.
Every poet in the world was dead but mt.
Yeats was dead, Victor Hugo was dead,
Cavity was dead—with every kick I shot
a jet of water into the air—you could see
me coming a mile away, my shoulders rolling
the way my father’s did. I started moving
out into the open between the two ill islands,
thinking about Shelley and his milky body.
No one had been here before—I was the first
poet to swim in this water—I would be the
mystery, I would be the source
for all the others to come. The rivers of China
were full of poets, the lakes of Finland, the ponds
of southern France, but no one in Pennsylvania
had swum like this across an empty quarry.
I remember at the end I turned on my back
to give my neck a rest; I remember floating
into the weeds and letting my shoulders touch
the greasy stones; I remember lying
on the coarse sand and reaching up for air.
This happened in June before the berries were out,
before the loosestrife covered the hills, before
the local sinners took off their clothes and waded
like huge birds in the cold water.
It was the first warm day and I was
laboring in this small sea.
I remember how I hoped my luck would last;
I remember the terror of the middle
and how I suddenly relaxed after passing the islands;
I remember it was because of Shelley
that I changed my innocent swim
into such a struggle,
that it was because of Shelley
I dragged my body up, tired and alive,
to the small landing under the flowering highway,
full of silence now and clarity.
From the publisher’s Web site:
Gerald Stern is the author of the National Book Award-winning This Time, the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize-winning Early Selected Poems, and other books. He has also been awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the National Jewish Book Award, and the Wallace Stevens Award, among many other honors. He lives in Lambertville, New Jersey.