“Swimming” by Erik Carlsen

When you tell stories about your father

Hopping trains, you leave out any mention

Of the snake with ball bearings in its mouth,

Or the bird made out of cherry blossoms

Tossing it’s head like it is seizing

From going days without booze in the hotel.


You don’t talk about finding the floor wet before

You have even had the chance to unpack.

You distinguish the scent as sweat,

As his. You feel him everywhere, your father,

Generous with how he annotated his volumes

About the civil war and all the theories

About Kennedy and his head, breaking apart like a bad pie,

Like a crow pecking at it while it’s on the windowsill,

Harpooning a loaf of bread, drawing the scene up on the easel

With those same convenient colors, as he remembered

Seeing it on the news when he was a boy washing dishes

At the diner.


You worry about giving your mother a compliment she could never forget,

Nothing about how she sews or cleans. She knows,

But about how you don’t wake up the same in the morning

Without her voice, aging like she did, aging like she did every morning,

Gravel falling into her throat from nowhere like

A shovelful of rocks into the pond.


She sifts flower with her silver rings on leaving little shards

Like grape seeds in the dough. Dropping the eggshells on the floor

For the dog to gnaw on. He is startled by horses, their beauty,

How they take so much to maintain, and he takes nothing,

Faking a limp then stopping when your father corners him

With the gun. You and the dog respond to threats the same.


When your mother was pregnant with you, she thought she was pregnant

With a hedgerow full of birds. Your father took her hands in his

And reassured that it was a panicking cluster of onions and hair,

A tumbleweed and a potholder, never a child.


Your father taught you to swim in the bathtub.

You flooded the bathroom and he yelled faster, faster

While you smacked the water with an open hand,

A hand still is a fist to you, your hand was born a fist,

A spade to dig with later, find the potatoes and be as rough

As you want with them, not like tomatoes that grow

In the hot part of the garden, watered by your father with the hose

He sprays you with while you stroke, your stomach flat on the deck,

And he screams faster, faster, taking off his shirt to join you

So you could finally see the hundred places where he was pierced.


Erik Carlsen is a Tacoma native and graduate of Pacific Lutheran University.