On Poetry: A wish for New Year: Less fear, more safety

I think no one feels safe these days. Even if we’re among the minority blessed with health and financial security, there is the larger world: precarious, dangerous, well, just plain terrifying.

As we enter this new year, I am attracted to this poem about safety by Claudia Emerson. I got to know her a little, before she died of cancer in 2014. She was poet laureate of Virginia, and she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.

I love to swim. In the winter, I swim laps at the Y, so this poem was right down my alley, or lane, rather. It surprised me, which is what I want a poem to do. There have been times that I’ve been the only one swimming, with the lifeguard sitting there trying to stay alert.

I notice that the poet has used couplets, with one line indented. I’m swimming laps with her, back and forth, the pause at the turn to the next line. There are those taut confines, as she puts it, of the “brightly buoyed” lanes. That seems the perfect way to describe what it’s like, with goggles on, especially, to be held between the floating lane markers and look down into the blue brightness of the water.

The surprise comes when the lifeguard, who’s supposed to be doing her job, nods off. But the speaker says, “I’ve never felt so safe in my life.” I get this. She’s held between the lines, she’s making flawless, practiced turns, swimming slowly. And if the person guarding her is bored, she must be safe. Nothing to worry about here. Just back and forth.

I thought about this in a larger context. What makes us feel safe? Certainly order does. Orderly behavior and clearly marked lanes. And the model from up on the lifeguard stand: the person whose job is to watch out for us is not afraid. So all must be okay. Of course there might be a legitimate reason to be watchful, or even to be afraid; but in this poem, there’s a moment of feeling utterly safe.

My New Year’s wish is for less fear in the world, less reason to be afraid. I notice that when we feel safe, we behave a lot better.

The poet Claudia Emerson was poetry editor for the Greensboro Review and a contributing editor for Shenandoah. She taught at Washington and Lee University, Randolph-Macon Women’s College, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Fleda Brown of Traverse City is professor emerita, University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. For more of her work, and to see her website, go to www.fledabrown.com.


She perches high on the stand, gleaming whistle

dangling, on her suit a dutiful,

faded red cross. Mine her only life

to guard, she does for a while watch

the middle-aged woman who has nothing better

to do than swim laps in the Y’s indoor pool

on a late Friday afternoon. I am slow,

though, boring, length after predictable

length of breaststroke or the duller lap

of elementary backstroke perfectly

executed within the taut confines

of the brightly buoyed lane. So she abandons me

to study split-ends, hangnail, wristwatch,

until—the body of the whistle cupped

loosely in her palm—her head nods toward

shallow dreams. I’ve never felt so safe in my life,

making flawless, practiced turns, pushing, invisible

to reenter my own wake, reverse it.

— Claudia Emerson (from Secure the Shadow, Louisiana State University Press, 2012.)

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