On Swimming – Remembering Adam Zagajewski and A “Swimming” Poem by Maxine Kumin!

R.I.P Adam Zagajewski – 1945 – 2021

On Swimming

The rivers of this country are sweet
as a troubador’s song,
the heavy sun wanders westward
on yellow circus wagons.
Little village churches
hold a fabric of silence so fine
and old that even a breath
could tear it.
I love to swim in the sea, which keeps
talking to itself
in the monotone of a vagabond
who no longer recalls
exactly how long he’s been on the road.
Swimming is like prayer:
palms join and part,
join and part,
almost without end.

Adam Zagajewski (1945-2021) from Mysticism for Beginners, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997

After sending off my tribute to Adam Zagajewski last night after hearing he had died earlier in the day I remembered he had been on my mind last week after a friend had said she had read a great poem about swimming but couldn’t remember the author. It turns out the poem my friend was thnking about was “Morning Swimby American poet Maxine Kumin (1925-2014). (I have included it below.) In a strange way the two poems do talk to each other. Swimming as a prayerful or spiritual exercise.

It was only this morning that I made the time to find Adam Zagajewski’s poem above – On Swimming. This series of gentle declarative grammatical sentences slowed down by their line breaks. The pace feels almost hypnotic to me until the last sentence. And such sweetness and sunlight in this poem yet also a sense of vulnerability and fragility. The image of a vagabond (so unexpected) and a fragile fabric of silence around old churches. So fragile even a breath could tear it.


Such a trademark of Zagajewski to see the wonders in this world but also its shadows and fragility. And a fragrance also of something spiritual. A sense of the divine, of God, at the corners. Here, in this poem with the utterly unexpected image of swimming like praying!Almost jarring this emphatic declaration: swimming is like praying. Opens this poem even more. Makes it even bigger than rivers and oceans! And the intellectual infusion, this thoughtful consideration of prayer not being static. A coming together of palms and and a separation. A sense that prayer life is not always consistent! But so necessary as we swin in this extraordinary experience called life!

Here, now the Kumin poem. With thanks to my friend Donna! How this poem, too, creates a prayerful image as the speaker sings her hymn. The intimacy of the speaker being a well that feeds the lake as it supports her and encompasses her. The idea of our participation in creation! In the same way Zagajewski creates his image of prayer embodied in a swimmer. Water, this thing that holds us up but can also drown us. This yes and no life is!

Morning Swim

Into my empty head there come
a cotton beach, a dock wherefrom

I set out, oily and nude
through mist, in chilly solitude.

There was no line, no roof or floor
to tell the water from the air.

Night fog thick as terry cloth
closed me in its fuzzy growth.

I hung my bathrobe on two pegs.
I took the lake between my legs.

Invaded and invader, I
went overhand on that flat sky.

Fish twitched beneath me, quick and tame.
In their green zone they sang my name

and in the rhythm of the swim
I hummed a two-four-time slow hymn.

I hummed “Abide With Me.” The beat
rose in the fine thrash of my feet,

rose in the bubbles I put out
slantwise, trailing through my mouth.

My bones drank water; water fell
through all my doors. I was the well

that fed the lake that met my sea
in which I sang “Abide With Me.”

Maxine Kumin from Selected Poems 1960-1990, Norton, 1998

4 Comments

  1. Donna Friesen
    Posted March 22, 2021 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    So lovely to hear these two poems together Richard. Really love this post.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted April 1, 2021 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Arleen!

  3. Allan Briesmaster
    Posted March 22, 2021 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Such a beautiful pairing of poems, with insightful reflections on both. Thank you, Richard.

  4. Marilyn Potter
    Posted March 30, 2021 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Thx Richard, for AZ’s swimming poem. I love his work & was at the griffin dinner honoring him. He is exactly my age & died a day before my own 75th birthday. If you remember me from HHock I too am a swimmer… in cold lakes & oceans.
    best wishes & hope you are well.
    ps. we are losing so many of our great poets.. esp too our Patrick!

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