Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Swimming to New Zealand,” by Diana Goetsch

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This poem has resonance for me on many levels, but I’ll start with the most obvious: What a wonderful love poem! The longing communicated across great expanses of distance and time is just tremendous. I love the idea that when the speaker is experiencing sunset (“when your sun sinks”), her lover is experiencing dawn (“dressing in the morning”), and how dawn and sunset are expressed not visually but aurally as “turning up the volume in your city” and through action, “drawing blinds, removing her make-up.” Notice how inventive language can refresh any experience—here, sunrise—so familiar as to have become a trope. We are used to seeing sunrises and sunsets described in terms of their colors, but these lines fire sense receptors other than those for sight, and that personified image of “dawn reaching back around” made me recall Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn,” mentioned several times in The Odyssey. It’s a great example of a technique I offer my students in a class I call “Rehabbing the Maligned Cliché.” Clichés are like memes, things that when they first appeared felt so right, so aptly stated that they percolated almost spontaneously through the culture. Yes, they grow tired from repetition and overuse, sometimes to the point where we don’t hear them anymore. But remember, they only became cliché because they were, in the first instance, exceptionally powerful constructs. One way to recover that power is what Goetsch does here: allude to the cliché without actually restating it. Perhaps this is a stretch, but I absolutely thought about Homer when I read that line—specifically, how my friends and I rolled our eyes in freshman English every time we read again about “dawn’s rosy fingers”—and it made me pause to consider the image in a way I did not then. And as with any classical allusion, thinking about Homer while reading “Swimming to New Zealand” enlarged the experience of the poem for me, reminding me of lapses of time greater than across datelines—and that some things, like love, are both ancient and new.

Readers of this column know I am partial to sonnets, and so this is another reason today’s poem resonates with me. The sonnet has been a classic vehicle for love poems since Petrarch, but this one offers a modern twist. Unmetered and unrhymed, it’s what some might call an “American sonnet,” with 14 lines and voltas where we expect to see them in the 9th and 14th lines. Line 8 concludes the New York speaker’s reverie on what her beloved is doing in New Zealand and turns to a fanciful literary supposition (“If I were Gatsby”), and the last two lines make a turn into the poem’s fullest, frankest expression of the speaker’s feelings, transcending the specifics of this particular crush to reflect on the universal optimism and urgency of love.

The poem exhibits ring construction with an important thematic motif—swimming—introduced in the title and second line and revisited in the very last line, one strategy that makes the poem coherent, of-a-piece. Another strategy is the way every image seeds the next, so that “swim the ocean” sets up that funny line about the ocean being the “only obstacle” to love and the speaker’s quotidian exercise swim, all of which lead up to the cove for the Gatsby-sized mansion the speaker imagines building for her beloved. What an extravagant gesture! Who wouldn’t respond to that, who would not be “lure[d] in?” Sign me up, please, for a spot on that cove.

The poem is packed with wonderful language and images. My favorite line is “meantime pitying everyone outside of love.” Anyone who’s been infatuated can identify with that tender and funny line. It feels universally true, like one of those things you wish you’d thought to say or write yourself, right? The images are all quite active—we see the speaker and her beloved engaged in routine morning activities, experience the speaker’s city waking up, and then we see the speaker swimming literally for exercise and figuratively from New York to New Zealand.

The ending is perfect, resolving the poem’s issues and tensions enough to leave us feeling satisfied, but not so much that the resolution seems trite, pat, or romanticized. To me, “nothing’s impossible, / except life without her, and so you swim” feels inevitable at the same time it opens things up, a goal many poets strive for when creating the endings to their poems. That quality of inevitability does not happen by itself; writers labor to achieve it and to make it appear as effortless as it does here. But it also opens a world of possibilities that leave us musing long after we’ve read the poem. “[A]nd so you swim” triggers an image of the speaker literally breast-stroking her way halfway across the world, reminding us of the tradition of extravagant feats designed to show a knight’s love in the Courtly Love tradition, or the tradition of hyperbolic overstatement in centuries of love poems. But it is also a metaphor for slogging through tedious, everyday obstacles, for muscling our way through whatever medium separates us from our desire.

Rereading these comments, I noticed my use of rather more instances of the word “feel” than good writing practice might dictate, but it occurs to me it is because this poem does just that: makes us feel things. I’ve been trying to come up with a definition for good poetry for a long time, and this may be as good as any: “Swimming to New Zealand” makes me feel something—the toothache longing and firefly effervescence of new love—and for me, that makes it a wonderfully successful poem.

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  • Sharon Wood Wortman January 15, 2018 at 2:50 am

    Thank you, but I prefer to be a reader at the moment, another way of saying a close listener.

    Reply