Not waving, but drowning

by Stevie Smith
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

I first read this poem in my early teens. It stayed with me. I have thought of it at various times in my life, like when I was struggling with depression after the birth of my son. Author Stevie Smith also struggled with depression and I’ve always appreciated the way the poem captures our difficulty with really seeing depression, really understanding it in ourselves and others.

Last week, the poem came roaring to life for me, this time with a feeling I hadn’t quite experienced with it before. In the wake of an election that put a racist, sexist, xenophobe in the White House, I look at this poem with anger. Not at Stevie herself, but at the bystanders in the poem. They are lighthearted about this person’s death. They shrug their shoulders. “Poor chap,” they pity the drowned person, saddened but unburdened by his death. “He always loved larking.” Our exasperation over Trump turning out to be exactly who we thought he would be and *gasp* people voted for him. “What now?” returns the response, “we’ll just have to wait and see.” As the waters rise to noses and seeps in to lungs.

And people of color, immigrants, LGTBQ+ people, others who are marginalized by deep-seated structural inequalities and prejudices are saying, “We’ve been telling you for years that we’re drowning!”

“The waters have always been unsafe for us. We’ve been fighting the current and we are always pulled back in.”

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

And we, the privileged, stand on the shores and watch the waving, the splashing, the dying and say “How quaint! Those people must really not mind the water too much or they would have swum out by now.” Somehow ignoring the boat we use to get in and out of the water.

The current pulls, the waters take over the tops of heads, arms tire. Hope vanishes as the waters take over.

Do you feel the despair? Are you angry yet? Don’t lose that. Not for a second.

I know you’re tired. I know you’re no good to anyone if you don’t take care of yourself. But while you’re on the shore, they’re still in the water. Suit up and get in the water. Get off the shore and start swimming towards the drowning. Better yet, take a boat and an anger founded in the love Ruby Sales describes.

In her important article, “Dear White People: What Are You Willing to Sacrifice for a Worried Muslim Woman Like Me?,” Zaineb Mohammed asks “when these white allies who are outraged and appalled and disgusted realize that a Trump presidency will not significantly impact their day-to-day lives, are they going to abandon us?”

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
hey said.

“When your life is not on the line, and when what’s required is sacrificing so many of the comforts you are accustomed to, what will you give up for the rest of us? I am asking myself this too. If I am being honest, the answer so far is very little, if anything at all. Protesting is important and donations are important and volunteering is important. But when you know that you can leave the protest whenever you want to return to a safe home and a warm bed and a hot shower, that is privilege, not sacrifice.What will you sacrifice? What will you give up? I hope the answer is a lot. Because we will need it.”

I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

If you didn’t catch the links to ways you can help, check out this Boston Globe article, and the amazing website Holy Fuck The Election.

Wave photo by Marc Samson, CC BY 2.0


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