My seasonal poetry trigger is out of whack. Last fall, I felt the urge to write about winter. Now it’s begun to snow, and I’m stuck thinking about summer. But in both cases, the idea for a poem was sparked by a random memory, and when the Muse comes knocking, you let her in.
The other day I heard “Happy Together,” the old pop tune by the Turtles, and was instantly transported to the concrete deck of Lions Park Pool, where I spent a good chunk of my childhood summers.
I realized that this happens several times a year, the jogging of memory to The Pool. I think this is because of its smorgasbord of sensory images, which have lodged, as an intense unit, in a back corner of my brain. So it was pretty clear this was a seminal experience that I needed to work out in a poem.
The problem is that trying to craft a childhood memory poem is like walking a taut wire across a yawning gulch of sentimentality. One tiny slip, and the poem is lost to the goo amidst glittering raindrops and over-loved Teddy bears missing an eye. Plus basically every greeting card ever printed.
Lions Park Pool is my epitomal growing-up place — that place each of us has in our past where we faced fears and overcame them and where we developed our core sense of self. But Lions Park Pool was also full of flower-covered towels and bathing suits, splashes and screams, pop tunes, Dreamsicles and Sno-cones, bright sunshine, and a sea of goose-bumpy bodies with raging hormones. Cliches all.
How can any writer evoke the intensity of such a key experience, yet still manage to keep the poem fresh, surprising, and honest? Well, it’s just plain hard. But it’s important to attempt it; these poems and essays are the ones that help us understand who we are and what it means to be human. (Plus readers tend to really like them.)
Honesty doesn’t have to be depressing. But happy places don’t have to sparkle, either. We have to dig down to get at truths — even simple ones. We need to choose the most significant details for the purpose of the poem, not just settle for the easy image because it’s fun.
This poem about Lions Park Pool took me days to write and probably fails in both regards — in its attempt to avoid sentimentality and to capture the essence of a girl’s first steps into adulthood. But hopefully it will invite similar memories for a few readers and provide some insights into their earlier versions of themselves. On a more personal level, it might evoke a fun connection for my friends who grew up with me in Elk Grove Village and remember the pool before it was transformed into the Rainbow Falls Water Park. (Ack.)
Lions Park Pool
My mind returns again to the pool,
that steadfast slab of aquamarine
filled each year for the village kids
who descended on bikes to bare their limbs
in a frenzy of seasonal freedom.
Sensory overload is what we craved—
(is this why I remember it so well?)
—twinned smells of chlorine and coconut,
the din of splash, shriek and whistle,
that blissful rush of cool on skin
newly crisped by the exulting sun.
One best friend was all you needed.
Layered between blue water and sky
afloat on our backs, or eeling through forests
of glowing legs, our eyes open and stinging—
we swam and dived till we pruned,
then scurried over concrete to flimsy towels
laid out along the chain-link fence.
Lying on our bellies, chins on arms,
we’d gaze at the bronze Adonises
in the lifeguard chairs with idolatry
pure and unashamed. Our legs,
(so small and unshaven) splayed behind us
like knob-kneed foals’, could jump up
on a whim to climb to the high dive and soar—
then touch bottom and catapult back into air.
Our nascent bodies, arms wide to life,
hang burnished in that moment—
where buoy ropes and Top-40 beats
reassure us—yes. This happiness is all
we’ll ever need to claim or to believe in.
(Swim drawings: Annette O’Toole, Pinterest)