Learning to Swim – by Shahé Mankerian


At the deep end, Father calls in Armenian,
“Don’t stop. Paddle your feet.” Indifferent

Arab women recline on soft poolside chairs.
Giant umbrellas like chadors provide shade.

I could see pale, pearly toes exposed.
They seem annoyed by Father’s directives:

“Don’t stare. They think we are infidels.”
In fear, I paddle faster because I know

about the carnage of hostages that covered
the shorelines of Beirut. These sad women

with scarves serve militiamen with scars.
Gurgling hookahs release smoke signals.

Closed, contaminated beaches force us to pay
for private pools so that we swim with the rich.


By the filter, a drowning bee floats upside-down.
Thirty-three years later, we’re in the same pool.

This time, I’m at the deep end with my daughter.
At two, she holds my neck tightly. The lopsided

diving board provides shade. The cantankerous
sun looks cancerous today. We are surrounded

by fences and faces of women without chadors.
I recognize the eyes, the toes (now painted red).

The black smoke on the horizon has cleared.
Militiamen have become fishermen. Tired,

my daughter loosens her grip. I lose my patience.
“You must learn to swim before you let go.”

Poet Shahé Mankerian is the principal of St. Gregory Hovsepian School in Pasadena and the co-director of the L.A. Writing Project. He is the recipient of the Los Angeles Music Center’s BRAVO Award. In 2018, Sum literary journal nominated Mankerian’s poem “In Twos” for the Pushcart Prize. Recently, two online publications, Border Crossing and Cahoodaloodaling, have nominated Mankerian’s poems for the 2018 Best of the Net. Visible Poetry Project animated Shahé’s poem, “The Last Mosque,” and premiered it at the 2018 New York City Poetry Festival. Shahé received the 2017 Editors’ Prize from MARY: A Journal of New Writing.