Questions of Sustainability, Potable Water, and Swimmer Poetics



Poetry is a strange art form in that it is always demanded to “do” something. When a friend gets married, people demand a poem; when disaster strikes, we need a poem. In the age of the Anthropocene, a world rife with human demands upon the earth that are not sustainable, can poetry help us understand? What do we do with this disrupted world, what do we do with poetry? Can we regain a sense of stability—has such harmony ever existed? In his essay “After Sustainability,” Steve Mentz reminds us that literature has always been interested with the liminality between stability and disruption, often using the ocean as an image of such. Mentz critiques ecocriticism for often ignoring the “oceanic world” that literature, however, has “long peered into.” He argues for an invention of literary ecologies that focus on the sea; after all, three-fourths of the earth’s surface is covered by it. I’m interested in the ways the ocean is represented in contemporary poetry. In his essay, Mentz gives Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as an example of what he calls “swimmer poetics,” but I would like to turn to a contemporary poem by Melinda Palacio: “Mermaid, Don’t Drink the Water.”

“All that ocean,” Palacio’s poem begins. A caesura separates the first half of this sentence from the second: “don’t drink the water.” So many different bodies of water have been rendered dangerous and/or unusable: “oceans gush oil, Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico.” Palacio names specific incidents of danger: “Orleans Parish, St. Bernard and Jefferson warn against / brain eating amoeba in New Orleans tap water.” Despite these allusions to particular, contemporary-for-the-time incidents, I find it interested that the grandmother of the poem is the one urging our mermaid not to drink the water, suggesting a lack of access to clean water has been an issue for generations.

As Palacio writes, “[t]he world has never been safe.” Rather than choosing to completely avoid contact with the dangerous-to-humans water, our speaker morphs into a mermaid, swimming “on a dare.” The physical metamorphosis of the “bronze girl” who “doesn’t care if her mother warned of water pollution” into an imagined creature suggests a greater ability to survive in an increasingly unbelievable world. Humans cannot survive in water, as we know and Palacio reminds us, and yet Mentz urges us to turn to the oceans to find “an already present partly explored environment for post sustainability thinking.” The dry land of the world will not become safer; should we (or even can we) turn to the ocean, a “clearly unsustainable” landscape?

Mentz describes swimming in literature as a way to “capture the twinned joy and danger of a disorderly, threatening world.” To enter the surf is to invite disorientation by putting the body at risk. What about for a mermaid? Does sprouting a tail and gills offer a way to survive an unsustainable environment? Theoretically, yes, if the water is safe. If we consider pollution as an added danger to the water, what can we make of the idea that a swimmer’s “vulnerability and effort provide a model for how to live” in today’s world? Palacio draws our attention to this issue, as well as to the irony of being in a developed nation yet lacking access to drinking water. Of course, similar social justice issues have recently appeared in the news, namely Flint, Michigan. As Palacio shows us, such issues are invisible, ongoing, and everywhere. The ocean is less inviting than ever, but it is what we’ll have to turn to, in an era of rising sea levels.

If even a mermaid can’t survive—that is, even in an imagined world, there is danger—then how do we look forward? How do we adapt?

Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at