I Remember Learning How to Dive’ by Ada Wofford, review by Emma Lee

‘I Remember Learning How to Dive’ Ada Wofford

Alien Buddha Press

ISBN 9798681715955

‘I Remember Learning How to Dive’ is a series of narrative poems laid out as diary entries. The entries are not chronological, rather, they flick back and forth as if someone is flipping through a journal trying to piece together a half-remembered event and hoping the journal entries will fill out what’s forgotten. Each is titled with a date and time. Early entries start with an image of a lake, ‘September 14, 2007 6:45am’ where there are waves

‘that are not waves

not truly

they are ripples

set in motion far away

the geese enjoy them’

The poem suggests that the observed event will have ripples, i.e. consequences, felt long after the event is over. These consequences are gentle, they don’t toss or upend the recipient and, as they get further away from the centre, their impact diminishes. Outsiders, such as the geese, might enjoy the show but they have no emotional investment in the central drama. The narrator seems reluctant to move on, ‘September 14, 2007 7:04am’ a wind

‘tufts her hair

     Red ruby hair

         Dyed the color it was when

     she was young

     When she was eager and strong

When she stood at the lake

     Out on the dock

Where the high board used to stand

           Where the divers would climb

the ladder and dive

     Before people left and the geese

felt good making home

Before it went from a lake you swim in

                         to a lake you stare at

      Before now’

The passing of time is revealed in the dyed hair. Red is a colour of passion, of rebellion, of warning. Does she continue to dye it because she wants to maintain the persona she had when younger, not yet ready to relinquish youth or because it’s a reminder of happier times? ‘Before it went from a lake you swim in/ to a lake you stare at’ implies whatever happened cannot be reversed and was life-changing. The diver no longer feels the urge to dive. Others seem to feel the same way, leaving the lake so the geese have moved in. The narrator is revealed to be Flora, visiting her sister Judy, in ‘September 14, 2007, 2:36pm’

‘There’s bags under her eyes

     cloudgray eyes

            jowls forming in her cheeks

     Her slouching posture

It’s the first time I’ve had a good 

look at her in years

     wonder how long my sister has

looked so old’

It’s not just age that has caused Judy’s older appearance. Sleepless nights have added their toll. ‘Her slouching posture’ implies someone who’s had bigger concerns than appearance and creates a sense of defeat. A series of poems return to August so readers learn in ‘August 15, 2007 3:15pm’ John had a stroke. In ‘August 15, 2007 7:38pm’ ‘She left the hospital without/saying goodbye to her husband’ A darker picture emerges. There is tension between the sisters. Flora accuses her sister of forgetting in ‘September 8, 2007 2:24pm’

Being sent to rehab twice.

    Cracking your head open in front

of your son

             too drunk to walk.

How can you forget?

      Throwing yourself into the ocean

      that night.

            Remember the fighting?’

Flora goes on to ask ‘How can you use all this pain as an/excuse?’ as if Judy has been playing the martyr, blinkered to the problems others have had to face and overcome, unable to acknowledge the pain she herself has caused. Judy doesn’t have an answer. Flora jumps forward to ‘September 9 2007 12:08am’ and memory, ‘I remember learning how to dive’, 

‘I would close my eyes and I would jump.

    Fall through the nothing

        and cut through the water

        razor clean,

               barely making a

                                splash.

And then I’d open my eyes and all that

nothingness would disappear’

Judy’s melodramas have taken attention away from her sister. Flora has grown in her sister’s shadow, learning to put her own needs aside. More memories surface in ‘September 14, 2007 3:14am’, ‘Using your son’s suicide as an excuse/for everything’ […] ‘You tried to slit your wrists for us./This is what you want, right?/You asked like a confused child’ The threat of suicide without intent to see it through is manipulative. Its purpose is to draw attention and sympathy where perhaps it is not deserved. Her histrionics become a refrain, in ‘August 20, 2007 2:19am. September 4, 2007 11:15am. September 7, 2007 6:32am. September 12, 2007 4:27pm. September 14, 2007 5:18am.’ 

‘Why should I spend my life

Caring for a man

I no longer love’

The multiple diary entries suggest this is a frequently returned to refrain. Caring is hard work and leaves little time for the carer, but here Judy appears selfish and unprepared to care for a man she was in love with. Had roles been reversed, a man placed in a position where he had to care for his lover, Judy’s outburst might seem more acceptable. But Judy is a woman, a person society expects to care and love and be selfless even though she doesn’t seem capable of this.

Flora muses in the small hours, in ‘September 14, 2007 5:52am’

‘It’s like those planes

you read about,

those ones that just

disappear.

And you think

what happened

to those planes

you know

they don’t just

disappear.’

Flora seems to be doubting her memories. Perhaps Judy has exaggerated and lied to get what she wants so often, Flora isn’t sure what she’s remembered and what Judy has given her as memories. Or perhaps the problem is that Judy’s melodramas put her at the centre so that others bury their wants and needs to cater to Judy. But instead of fading away, the wants and needs remain, ready to resurface.

‘I Remember Learning How to Dive’ is an exploration of memory, of caring and family duties and responsibilities, particularly for those cast in the role of carer. Judy is a martyred carer, resentful and self-centred. Flora, picking up the pieces, has edged around Judy’s lake, however, in avoiding disturbing the lake’s surface, Flora neglects her own needs. Her needs sink, waiting for Flora to dive in and retrieve them. The non-chronological order mimics the way memory works: things rise to the surface and trigger connections to other memories, gradually creating a narrative. The reader becomes detective: picking up clues. While the narrative is not complex it is intriguing and thought-provoking, holding up a mirror to how families relate and (dis)connect.

Emma Lee