National Poetry Month 2015, Week Four: Isobel Dixon’s “She Comes Swimming”
April 24, 2015
As some of you know, my new role in my day job at EY involves helping globalize prepaid smart metering programs for municipal utilities in emerging markets.
It’s a project that started in South Africa, and I think it’s pretty cool to be exporting an innovation from the African continent rather than imposing it from outside.
Traveling to South Africa, I’ve begun to explore the literature and art of the country over the last 20 years since the end of apartheid.
Thinking about poets whose work I could share, I thought about the work of Isobel Dixon. I know Isobel chiefly through social media — I believe it was Jo Bell or the Scottish Poetry Library who first introduced me to her work.
Dixon lives in London, but was born in Umtata, South Africa, and grew up in the semi-desert region known as the Karoo. She studied in the South African winelands country of Stellenbosch (where I was with my wife Samantha in January) and in Edinburgh.
In 2000, Dixon won the Sanlam Literary Award for her then unpublished collection of poetry Weather Eye, which was subsequently published by Carapace Poets (2001). She is also the author two collections, The Tempest Prognosticator and A Fold in the Map, both published by Salt in the UK. You can read more of her work at isobeldixon.com
I love the rhythms and musicality of Isobel Dixon’s poem, “She Comes Swimming,” and the mix of history and mythology that unfolds as we read. Of the poem Dixon wrote in an email to me,
“This is a poem very close to my heart, about my beloved country, South Africa. I wrote it in my first years abroad, feeling very keenly what it means to live far from the motherland, to yearn for it – and yet to fear that time away will change you, or change others’ perceptions of you, so that you might be perceived as an outsider, in spite of all you feel and are.”
Dixon “won a scholarship to do postgraduate study in my father’s native Scotland, the realisation of a dream, but at a time when I’d rather have stayed in South Africa – the momentous year of the first democratic elections.”
Another aspect of the poem that I particularly admire is what Dixon explains as “This sense of rueful distance, of vivid longing, and an awareness of the complex histories and hybrid mythologies of my faraway homeland, all fed into a poem about my imagined journey southwards, swimming back in time and language too.”
Dixon also told me that the poem has a central place in her Salt collection, A Fold in the Map, a collection that looks at the traveler’s state of “in-betweenness,” caught between lives and countries.
“The poem flowed onto the page in something of a hypnotic state,” Dixon wrote. “One of those poems you look at the day after and think, ‘Where did that come from, and how?’ Wherever it summoned itself from, I’m glad it did.” We are too.
Here is Isobel Dixon’s poem, SHE COMES SWIMMING
She comes swimming to you, following
da Gama’s wake. The twisting Nile
won’t take her halfway far enough.
No, don’t imagine sirens – mermaid
beauty is too delicate and quick.
Nor does she have that radiance,
Botticelli’s Venus glow. No golden
goddess, she’s a southern
selkie-sister, dusky otter-girl
who breasts the cold Benguela, rides
the rough Atlantic swell, its chilly
tides, for leagues and leagues.
Her pelt is salty, soaked. Worn out,
she floats, a dark Ophelia, thinking
what it feels like just to sink
caressed by seaweed, nibbled by
a school of jewel-plated fish.
But with her chin tipped skyward
she can’t miss the Southern Cross
which now looks newly down on her,
a buttress for the roof of her familiar
hemisphere. She’s nearly there.
With wrinkled fingertips, she strokes
her rosary of ivory, bone and horn
and some black seed or stone
she can’t recall the name of,
only knows its rubbed-down feel.
And then she thanks her stars,
the ones she’s always known,
and flips herself, to find her rhythm
and her course again. On, southwards,
yes, much further south than this.
This time she’ll pay attention
to the names – not just the English,
Portuguese and Dutch, the splicings
and accretions of the years. She’ll search
for first names in that Urworld, find
her heart-land’s mother tongue.
Perhaps there’s no such language,
only touch – but that’s at least a dialect
still spoken there. She knows when she
arrives she’ll have to learn again,
so much forgotten, lost. And when
they put her to the test she fears
she’ll be found wanting, out of step.
But now what she must do is swim,
stay focused on each stroke,
until she feels the landshelf
far beneath her rise, a gentle slope
up to the rock, the Cape,
the Fairest Cape. Her Mother City
and its mountain, waiting, wrapped
in veils of cloud and smoke.
Then she must concentrate, dodge
nets and wrack, a plastic bag afloat –
a flaccid, shrunk albino ray –
until she’s close enough to touch
down on the seabed, stumble
to the beach – the glistening sand
as great a treasure as her Milky Way –
fall on her knees and plant a kiss
and her old string of beads,
her own explorer’s cross
into the cruel, fruitful earth at last.
She’s at your feet. Her heart
is beating fast. Her limbs are weak.
Make her look up. Tell her she’s home.
Don’t send her on her way again.
© 2001, Isobel Dixon
Used by permission of the author.