Poem of the Week | November 23, 2020

Jessica Lee’s poems have been published or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, and Prairie Schooner, among other journals. She is an MFA candidate at Vanderbilt University and a Poetry Editor for Nashville Review. Find her online at readjessicalee.com.


Swimming Lessons

My grandmother taught me
how to pull my suit straps down
to avoid the ghosts
of tan lines on my shoulders.
To angle the bottle
of tanning oil so it wouldn’t
pour out all at once, all over.
She took three fresh towels
from the never-ending basket—
one for her chair,
two to pat herself dry.
A lady doesn’t run,
she walks, she said
by grabbing my arm
with her manicured hand
when I sped toward the water,
my sandals slapping loud
against cement.
In the pool, she cranked
her neck at an impossible angle,
swimming sidestroke
to keep her hair
from getting wet. Her permed,
platinum locks skimming
the surface, her head
never going fully under.


Author’s Note

My grandmother really did help me learn to swim and I intended to write about those lessons. But as I started thinking about the afternoons we spent together at the pool, the memories that surfaced had less to do with swimming and everything to do with beauty standards and gender. From her perspective, teaching me how to be “a lady” may have seemed more important than whether or not I could move my body safely through water.