Pause for a Poem: Nymph


You taught me swimming all those summers.

Began by letting me slide

off your back

into the murk.


to clutch at my small shoulders

as you plucked me

clinging and spluttering

my sudden list of injuries.


“Don’t be a crybaby.

I didn’t let you drown.”


That’s how I learned to kick.


I called to you as the summers passed

over our wet skin.

Feet toughened by the stones

ran splashing

to perfect my mermaid dives

so you would praise.

You never made it easy.

The ankles had to stay together in the tail.

Body arched stiff

as a shark.

Head disappeared, learned

to navigate in green.


In our lake you could never see the bottom.


Landing was a trick

when the waves were high.

We swam when no one else would

into the breakers

and came out glistening.


It was as if you knew the metaphor already

though you were not much one

for poetry.

You knew what I would need to forgive

even when I was small enough

to ride on your back

and slip

rubbery white

beneath the surface.

You taught me to swim through all conditions.


When it’s June I brave the cold great lake.

When the waves roll high

above my head,

dive straight.

Let them hurl me back to shore.

Fall hard and time

the standing up right.


Laugh with water like a lover.


You knew I’d need that mermaid skin,

the tough hide of the nymph.

All those summers,

your last summers,

you made sure we swam each day

and at times when others wouldn’t.



at ten on a January night

I push on with wet hair

past the frozen city windows,

return from the pool alone.

I know your gift.

Feel the lengths I’ve traveled

since you first let me go.

From my poetry collection, In Green (Guernica, 2002)

Nymph” © Robin Blackburn McBride

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