Poem of the Week | February 13, 2017

This week, we are excited to present a new poem by Chelsea Rathburn. Rathburn is the author of A Raft of Grief (Autumn House 2013) and The Shifting Line (U. of Evansville 2005). Her poems have appeared in such journals as Poetry, The Atlantic, New England Review, Ploughshares, 32 Poems, and The Southern Review. A 2009 NEA poetry fellow, she lives in the mountains of north Georgia, where she directs the creative writing program at Young Harris College. Her website is www.chelsearathburn.com.
Author’s note:

In December 2015, I flew to France alone to study Eugene Delacroix’s sketches of the murderous mother Medea. I’d begun a sequence of poems about his painting Médée Furieuse for my manuscript-in-progress, Still Life with Mother and Knife, which explores maternal ambivalence, love, and fear. For two days, I stood in front of the towering canvas and sat before stacks of preparatory sketches in the department of drawings at Lille’s Palais des Beaux Arts. It was my first time away from my daughter for anything more than a night since her birth, and I felt both guilty and exhilarated (and a little foolish – who flies across the world in pursuit of poems she may not ever write?). Since Delacroix’s sketches are not on public display, the act of holding the drawings to the light, studying their crosshatching, wondering what each sketch taught the artist, was a surprisingly intimate one, and seeing the painter’s emerging vision and many revisions reminded me of the poet’s process, replete with false starts and errant lines we hope to shape into something meaningful.

A few months later, when my daughter was learning to swim, I was struck by the way her struggles against me in the water resembled Medea’s boys in some of the early sketches. It’s those struggles – hers and mine – that I hope to capture in the poem.


The Swimmer

—After a sketch for Delacroix’s Médée Furieuse

In the drawings, it takes a while for Delacroix
to settle on the children’s resignation
as their mother marches them through a grotto


to their deaths. On canvas, their bodies will be limp,
even their squirms submissive, but in the center
of one sketch the larger child—he must be five


or six, not much older than my daughter—
has thrown an arm over Medea’s shoulder,
as though he’d fight her off, or plead for love.


I think of that gesture, how fierce and futile,
as I stand shoulder-deep in pool water
days before my daughter learns to swim.


Her formal lessons forgotten, she grips my shoulder
the way the sketched boy clutches the mother
who holds the knife: as if I want to drown her


so she has to kill me first. She’s thrashing wild
against the cage of my arms, holding on
as she pushes away, whimpering, now screaming.


The boy’s arm is slender and straining, muscled
as a swimmer’s, and I can’t decide if my daughter’s
right not to trust me, I who once cast her


from my body, who threaten and cajole,
who would in fact dunk her before she’s ready.
Soon she’ll learn to trust her body’s buoyancy


and slide beneath the surface, unafraid,
but now she claws at me, pushing me under,
as though my arms weren’t keeping her afloat.