How to Float by John Wall Barger

How to Float

My mother writes me details of
her holiday in Goa. A man is snoring
in the next hut. A big rock in the sea
is covered with crabs. I can just see her
at an internet cafe typing emails,
air thick with incense and Germans
smeared with coconut sunscreen.

People used to ask if we were sister
and brother. No more. She’s
frailer, child-like. Nervous.
Mothers are strange. Primal force
ramming against the ego.
How do they find peace?
She writes, I just sink to the bottom!

How do you float? She’s so thin.
Does she have the body fat?
Was she buoyant before me?
Before my father? What invisible
anvil does she hold? Any little thing
can wreck you. Maybe her dad
winced at a drawing of hers. Perhaps,

in the water, we must become
someone lighter. A lady who skips work
to smoke clove cigars and play
the marimba. I mean, why don’t we
drown every time we see a photo
of an elephant, face hacked off
by poachers? I picture my mother

wading to the dark edge of the sand
where fear begins. She should float.
Look at her. Porous as balsa.
Guileless as an apple. I write her,
“Just fill your lungs, have fun!”
I wish I’d said, “Please avoid
the ocean! It’s fucking terrifying.”


John Wall Barger’s fifth book of poems, Resurrection Fail, comes out with Spuyten Duyvil Press in fall 2021. He is a contract editor for Frontenac House, and teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.