Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | December 4, 2016

Avoiding the Sentimental

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.

lions-park-poolThe 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.

blue-teddy-bear-flowers-18072850Lions 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.

 

girl-swimming

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,

diving(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)


Responses

  1. Ah, Kate, this blog and the poem bring memories rushing back, though I grew on the banks of and daily swimming in the murky, contaminated Allegheny River. My friends, my sister and I would slather on baby oil and scorch our skin, intermittently diving into the cold, dark water. Thanks for sparking those memories!

    • Susan — I always thought river and lake swimming sounded so much more exciting and romantic than a pool! But in hindsight, the pool was probably safer. And I’m sure we both gained the same benefits regardless.

  2. Always enjoy your writings, and it did spark memories of McKinley Park pool for me.

    • I have wonderful memories of McKinley too, Jo! Seems we always went at least once when we were back for the 4th of July.

  3. Summer was officially here when Lions Park Pool and Dairy Queen opened. We would ride our bikes to the pool a couple afternoons each week. Thanks for the find memories Kate.

  4. We pretty much lived at the pool – to think now that our parents let us get on bikes and pedal our way to Lions Park pool each and every day with ZERO parental supervision! And no bike helmets. The rule at our house was it had to be 72 degrees or higher or it was considered too cold to swim. Remember when you could call a number on the phone and get the up to the minute weather report? And believe me, there were days when we argued that 71 and sunny was just fine to us! I think I was in 2nd or 3rd grade when it opened. We were gone each day in the summer hanging out at the pool from 1-5 pm. As we got older, it was our social hub for sure – we were allowed to go back for the evening swim from 7-9, but the dishes had to be washed first! My sister and I became quite efficient at dishwashing:) Swim lessons (never made it past Dolphins), teen swim night when they would blast the music over the tinny speakers and us older kids could swim from 9-10 p.m. For teen swim they even allowed double bounces on the high dive – anyone else remember that? Thanks again, Kate, for swirling up these memories – especially on a chilly day with snow on the ground.

  5. Oh gosh, Kathy — how could I forget the Teen Swim?? It was so exciting to be there in the dark without all the toddlers and moms around — lol. I remember the lifeguards showing off for us at the end of the night, with daring piggy-back leaps off the high dive and yes, 2 diving at once. All against the rules at any pool now, I’m sure! We definitely had incredible freedoms as kids back then. Every day, 1-5, gone with our bikes and towels and a quarter for a treat afterward. And how everyone was so trusting — putting our belongings in little open baskets instead of lockers, and getting a pin with a number on it to claim it later from the shelf.


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