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Nightswimmer Poems by Todd Mercer

Hazard Warning, Ludington

Beach closed, high surf warning. Turbid storm waves
churn out there six or seven feet. Unsafe, they say,
but now’s ideal for me. I leave the car keys and clothes
under scrub trees beachside, plunge in, listening
to Lake Michigan singing its continuous theme.
Every lake’s alive. Is this still a near-secret?
I swim concave swells, more up than out,
dive below troughs, trusting timing
to fetch a breath, and the next one.
The will-to-be within the water
pushes back against my body.
We settle on an equilibrium—
half exhaustion, half engagement.
That’s the signal to head land-side,
catch my breath up, start the Chevrolet.
If I lost the keys, I’d start it using lake-power,
energy that’s palpable, available to any swimmer
who sneaks in when hazard bulletins caution
Danger, Warning, Risk of Drowning.
No pressure, my fellow storm-riders.
Don’t break the law to be an outlaw.
Don’t scare skittish civilians
unless you need to, like I do.


Some Assembly Required
[Nightswimmer Series]

Here he’s undercover in the day job as a parts inspector.
Humdrum shifts, then leave the burden there at punch-out,
forget the Sisyphusian task ‘til mañana, and on over.
Fresh start—Monday. He small-chats
with workmates on breaks, but they don’t know
he swims as life-wish maintenance.
Semi-drown at midnight, home for ten winks
before the shift starts. “What’s new, man?”
they ask when he skids in ragged. He won’t say
I rode a rip tide from Glen Arbor to Point Betsie Light.
He deflects with, “Nothing you’d call interesting.
Nightswimmer measures arbitrary dimensions
endlessly, reaching Zen mind where the clock whirls
‘til the foreman calls for lunch. And an identical run
until the shift’s finished. Then he’s out into daylight,
manufacturing rituals from materials on hand.
He’s fabricating his own lane then staying in it.


Nightswimmer’s Vacationland Meditation

No one blinks to see shoppers wearing bathing suits
in businesses of recreation country, vacationland. I drip
steady as a coffeemaker through the Eastport Market’s aisles.
A guy outside pumps gas into a boat called “Funny Business,”
as a barbecue-er tops off his propane grill tank.
Food and/or bodies of water, the main pivots
of this UpNorth micro-culture. I drip slower
by the time I hit the checkout with my fish and berries,
late supper supplies along with something sudsy
for the rinse cycle. For the spin.

This time I burned through my strength
at work. Too wiped out for an ambitious tangent
to the tip of Old Mission. I’ll try another evening.
For once I stayed shallower. Sidestroke switched with crawl
over a weirdly flat surface. Someone onshore called
their people to dinner. Soft sounds carry effortlessly
in these conditions. Easier than I travel. I remind myself—
you don’t always have to fight for your life.


Nightswimmer & Doppelganger, Manitou Passage

Nightswimmer three miles from shore,
roughly midnight in the Manitou Channel,
expects to reach land safely. Or dialectically
believes he’ll float away, his body beaching
between here and Manistee. He can’t anticipate
the hand that slaps his shoulder,
a stray stranger intersecting,
maybe the only other mortality-tempter out here,
acting in reaction to a fissioning ideal. Nightswimmer
and his amphibious double break progress to tread water.
He wonders, simultaneous inventors? The other, depleted
from time in the drink, resumes his route
toward the South island. A self-powered Manitou-rist.
Nightswimmer completes the passage, paddles in,
speculating that word of his hobby spread,
created a copy-cat, an anonymous antithesis
acting in reaction to unique motivations.
I didn’t dream you, he says to no one, to himself.
This is no synapsis movie. He’s conscious,
not fading under waves he didn’t see coming.
Mirror figure, mystery brother of another mother,
son of our father, Poseidon. A twin
in the push to love this life.


Nightswimmer Landlocked

When you’re finally not young, meaning old,
and you learned that fact as preface to the warnings
of friends. When you’ve promised not to swim at night,
alone. After the Coast Guard’s whirlybird
plucked a local bonehead from his probable death
every Gomer with a TV and an opinion
likes to share advice. Strangers shake fingers
if they see me ankle-wading in the gloaming hour.
I don’t mean to scare my nice neighbors
or make the news twice for the same
apparent mistake. So I’m not young.
Okay. Now what? Do the busybodies know
what to replace night swims with?
Since we all have to go,
I’d hoped to leave from the water.
No though. Earth is more accepted,
that’s what we’re put under.
It’s the old custom. If I grab a shovel
as a tool to work out life with,
no one panics. If I learn
to dig square corners
they won’t call out the armada.
When you’re new at being old,
and trying on the role.

TODD MERCER won the Dyer-Ives Kent County Prize for Poetry (2016), the National Writers Series Poetry Prize (2016) and the Grand Rapids Festival Flash Fiction Award (2015). His digital chapbook, Life-wish Maintenance, appeared at Right Hand Pointing. Mercer’s recent poetry and fiction appear in Dunes Review, Eunoia Review, The Lake, Literary Orphans, One Sentence Poems and Sonic Boom.

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