The Swimmer’s Moment

For everyone

The swimmer’s moment at the whirlpool comes,

But many at that moment will not say

‘This is the whirlpool, then.’

By their refusal they are saved

From the black pit, and also from contesting

The deadly rapids, and emerging in

The mysterious, and more ample, further waters.

And so their bland-blank faces turn and turn

Pale and forever on the rim of suction

They will not recognize.

Of those who dare the knowledge

Many are whirled into the ominous centre

That, gaping vertical, seals up

For them an eternal boon of privacy,

So that we turn away from their defeat

With a despair, not for their deaths, but for

Ourselves, who cannot penetrate their secret

Nor even guess at the anonymous breadth

Where one or two have won:

(The silver reaches of the estuary).

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  1. What is the decision that the swimmers usually make when faced with an unexpected whirlpool? What happens to the swimmers who decide not to acknowledge the whirlpool? What are the directions their lives and self-awareness go in?
  2. What does the whirlpool described in “The Swimmer's Moment” represent to you? What might the silver reaches of the estuary be?
  3. The poem starts with "For everyone," which seems to indicate that "The Swimmer's Moment" is one that is inescapable for all people; however, Avison then writes of "they" and "we." What is she implying by the despair "we" feel about most people's decision when faced with the symbolic whirlpool?
  4. How do the physical details of a whirlpool and the sensations a swimmer might feel contribute to the symbolism and feeling of the poem? How do you feel when you read the descriptions of the swimmers' experiences in this poem? Which of the poet's words contribute to that feeling you're having?
  5. If you were reciting this poem, how would you convey its tone? Where might you pause for emphasis and space as you read?
  6. Have you, or someone close to you, recently experienced a personal challenge? Think of a physical barrier that appears in nature, other than a whirlpool, that might make an effective metaphor for that challenge. Make a list of all the details you can think of about that natural barrier. Now, using that list as a metaphorical diving-off point, write a poem about how you, or the person you are thinking of, dealt with their personal challenge.

Useful link

"The being of what is governing the expression": Margaret Avison, in conversation with three high school students, answers their questions and reads “The Swimmer's Moment” (at the 19:51 mark!):

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Bibliographical info

Reprinted from Always Now (in three volumes) by Margaret Avison by permission of the Porcupine’s Quill. Copyright © The Estate of Margaret Avison (2003).

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