When I was young, I swam competitively, but gave it up after spinal surgery at age 12. A long time out of the water would have meant a long time clawing my way back to form, and I really wasn’t passionate enough about it. What I was ambivalent about, of course, was the training, not the water (or even the competition, to be honest). The water was always a magical and transformative place, a place within this world that somehow also transcended it. Swimming, I could leave my mundane and awkward embodiment behind, and completely enter into my body and its potential.
Last year, I went for a “Salamander” with artists and activists Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus, in Berkeley California. I wholeheartedly recommend you reading Petra’s book “The Scar of Visibility“, the book they wrote together “Cripple Poetics: A Love Story“, as well as taking what opportunity you can to see their performances and videos (maybe start here, with Neil’s brilliant “Disabled Country“). Anyway, the Salamander. They describe it best on the site dedicated to documenting some of the outcomes of this project.
Salamander is a community performance project. We use underwater photography, dry performance workshops, creative writing, clay work and video to go under, to find our disabled beauty emerging from the deep, the wild aesthetic of water, deforming ourselves through sleek unhinged control.
Since May 2013, disabled people and their allies from around the world have climbed into pools and oceans with us, and we float together, enjoying complicated freedom, companionship and adventure. And we give ourselves to the pressures the waters exert on us.
There is little instruction in Salamander swims: the water is the director, the choreographer, as we twist freely in gravity, trusting each other, exploring the integrity of our bodies. We also chat while we are in the water, and explore the easy flow of communication in the fluid medium of supportive water. The emphasis is on play and process.
Here’s the poem I wrote soon after the swim (with a little re-writing, as I can’t help myself…!).
with Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus
Squint into this, I would have
said to myself, knowing the key
ingredients and their venom.
A public swimming pool.
A camera. This body. I don’t need
to spell it out. Prose says it’s all there,
always fizzing in the marrow.
The enjambment between us proves
everything blue, all water. This
is a series of dances
we invent as we go, each
the length of a full breath.
One body passes over me, another
winds around my torso, sinuous,
amphibious, tender, muscular,
substantial. Deep animal
play, human mind turned
against itself and for the new human,
submerged in the way we move
together fluidly, or bump
against bone with apologies and
laughter, then dive down again
into the depths where thresholds
blur and the future
opens like lungs…
Clouds move in as I climb out
and become singular again,
rubbing the towel against my body,
but leaving a few drops behind.
I know two things –
it’s too cold to stay here all day
and the world is thirsty for water.
Life keeps hurtling forward. Memories can feel distant. But though we leave the water, we carry it always inside us. I want to remember this.