Swing Low

…the tale of how we suffer
…triumph is never new
it always must be heard 
…it’s the only light we got in all this darkness

    –-James Baldwin, Sonny’s Blues

out where hunger lives 
in lines that jump other lines, 
that swing over the edges 
of the scale

at the risk of ruin
Baldwin’s life-saving lines
bear witness that one can leave the shore
swim in the deep water 

He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing 
—he had been there, and he knew

language touches other language

what I know of drowning 
I learned in my mother’s womb
in the haze of cigarette smoke
in the indifference of fathers
in the coldness of the classroom
in the IV drip and radiation table
the indignity of hospital gowns
in the necessity and impossibility of being a jew1The title of John Améry’s  collection of essays where he takes on Sartre’s declaration that “man is nothing other than what he makes of himself.” Améry’s text was published in the wake of his own experiences as an active member of the resistance,  having been imprisoned and tortured in Auschwitz.

what I know of deep water
I learned from poetry 
where wind moves slowly 
where you know that it is not 
reason that makes us happy
or unhappy 

the bird sings
and music swings 

but music can be played while bodies
pile into the belly of ships
left to cook in their own shit
while the captain on deck
sings the deep red hues
of a sunset cut across the white feathers
of a gull he thinks
the birds’ fire fangled feathers dangle down2from Wallace Stevens’ “Of Mere Being” he
watches the ropes that tie wrist to wrist 
recall the braids from his lover’s hair
without a thought of the deep groan 
below of the womb carrying 
its stillborns
its unborns
its undrowned

to think 
of Melville composing letters to Hawthorne 
who he felt understood his loneliness,  
his chariot out of the depths
as he worked the whiteness of the whale  
from the belly of song 

the appalling whiteness of being
the relentless witness of being




    with whales  



                if we would only listen

Baldwin’s notes escape

from below the decks

from the ocean’s floor

from the shame of it all

                if we would only listen 

not many people do 

hear it, he says—that terrible triumph

as it hits the air

calling us from deep water

    with love

with love 


how        there     can    still    be     love


This poem was originally inspired by Metta Sama’s poem “& on the fifth day God created” from her collection Swing at Your Own Risk (Kelsey Street Press).  Reading that poem I heard James Baldwin’s voice ringing out through Sonny’s Blues and was confronted with my own history, forced into the suffering and complicity of my ancestry. I was sent spiraling back into how I was shaped by the whiteness of the whale, sobered by Sama’s observation that the white body can squat “in the belly of hell safe & sound/from all sorrow except of his own I reckon.” I’ve learned to live with the traumas as “just the way things are”—the history of my ancestors murdered, humiliated, beaten, raped in pogroms. Between the lines is the story of my grandfather stowing away on a ship to escape the Cossacks and conscription, his brothers perishing in the first world war. The bright swastikas painted on the doors of my elementary school, the overwhelming and deafening reality of the Shoah, deep in my DNA. The knowing, as a Jew, you are the reviled through centuries, any success only further evidence of your corrupt, deceptive nature. I cannot see a boxcar without linking it to Auschwitz. Confronted with Metta Sama’s poem and in the face of what she terms the continued slaughter /manic genocide of “brown people/seeking justice forsaking God to return to the goodness/of Genesis” I have to marvel that “there can still be love/goodness.” Among other things, what I take away from Sama’s poem is that the ability to luxuriate in a private life, contemplate the whale from a distance, is its own kind of violence.  

About the Author

Andrea Strudensky teaches literature and writing at Dawson College in Montreal, Quebec.

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