Imagine, for instance, that you are on the diving board. No, wait. Before you get there, you’ve got to climb the ladder that leads to the high dive. Imagine that and remember how hard you gripped the rail so that your knuckles jutted from your hand like four mounds along a ridge, the way you recited don’t look down while sure that all other eyes were looking up. Don’t start there either. Back up. Picture yourself minutes before, gathered with towel-wrapped teens at the concession stand, the waft of Coppertone a bouquet in the air around well-oiled, toned bodies, one of which holds in hand the squeeze bottle with the girl logo, the girl and the dog, the dog pulling at her swimsuit exposing pale-bottomed skin which somehow is supposed to appear innocent enough to sell high volumes of sunscreen and warning only Don’t Be a Paleface. The one with the bottle, let’s call her Gwen, has fashioned her towel as a skirt; her brown hair is sleek, lightly wrung and flung, with beads of water dripping from the ends and onto her bare shoulders, which catches your attention not unlike the way you snap to when she takes her seat in front of you in third-period English, the way she swivels into the chair with the left-handed arm desk, opens her copy of A Separate Peace to page fourteen (where Phineas says, What I like best about this tree … is that it’s such a cinch!) and turns around to catch you in mid-stare as she asks, And what do you think about boys who climb out on limbs over deep water? Imagine Gwen setting down her Coppertone and cup of coke, grabbing the edges of your towel as if they were the lapels of a coat hiding the pale skin of your torso, as she inquires, Do you dive? Start there.
You might. But don’t linger long, because you are in danger in this story playfully begun. Not yet, but in time to come, you will hurt. You will need to make a decision. There is something you must know if you are to survive. So I ask you now to imagine a night in the future when a feral wind will blow in your face as you make your way onto the bridge. Let’s say it is the bridge that crosses the Gorge on US 64, three spans of steel and 800 feet down into a darkness that mirrors back shame, shame that you might feel when recalling what happened months or years before, what must have been a mistake such as a young man makes when out on a limb or in war or when things get too confused so that you can no longer tell whether the loud noises are bursting all around you or in your mind and somewhere a baby is crying and the cries belong to you, and here’s a call box on the bridge that has a sign proclaiming There is hope, but all you can hear is the voice you heard earlier that night, Gwen’s voice on the phone saying you need to come home, every syllable lodging in your mind as an echo of her question, now made yours: Do you dive?
You can imagine dying, but never your death. Say that death is calm, but forfeits all. Try that. Now imagine there is an entirely separate kind of peace that rests beyond pictures of ladders and bridges, safe from the mind’s machinations. Imagine this peace that bides with bodies, voices, with one face facing another. Imagine that it is just as she says: you need to come home; that what you seek waits like the pool of clear water you saw from the high board when your toes curled around the edge, your eyes looked down, and you leapt. It starts there after all. In this pool the arms of the drowning may thrash about, reaching for rescue or, on a different day, splash with jets of rare joy. Know this: It is no dream, no figment of the imagination, this pool. Say it is home. Dive into that.
Karl Plank is the author of A Field, Part Arable (Lithic) and BOSS: Rewriting Rilke (RedBird Chapbooks) as well as the forthcoming work of criticism, The Fact of the Cage: Reading and Redemption in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (Routledge, 2021). His writing has appeared in publications such as Beloit Poetry Journal, Zone 3, Tiferet, and has been featured on Poetry Daily. A past winner of the Thomas Carter Prize (Shenandoah) and a Pushcart nominee, he is the J.W. Cannon Professor of Religious Studies at Davidson College.