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Volume 12 • Number 1 • Spring - Summer 2020

John Palen

Learning to Float

For Dale Trinka, YMCA

Boys twice my age tossed me into the deep end.
I was five. The sunlit chop flashed blue and gold
as I sank, gulped water, struggled up and sank again.

Somehow I reached the gutter, pulled myself up
into their laughter. I wondered why nobody cared.
Deep in my brain, the little amygdala wondered, too.

In my early middle age someone taught me to float:
Lie back, he said. Relax, keep your butt up.
No matter how deep the water is, you’ll be okay.

And I became a fanatic, a born-again swimmer,
learning all the strokes, doing laps every day,
even holidays if I could find an open pool,

until I kicked that, too, and finally floated free.

John Palen has had a dual life as a poet and journalist. He worked as a reporter and newspaper editor, earned an American Studies doctorate at Michigan State University, and taught journalism at Central Michigan University. His poetry has been published in literary magazines since 1969, and he has twice been a Pushcart nominee. Mayapple Press brought out his latest book, "Distant Music," in 2017. New work is forthcoming at Willawaw Journal and Haunted Waters Press. Palen lives in retirement on the Grand Prairie of Illinois and blogs at
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