A Love that Hesitates, A Love that Swims Too Far Out

ADA M. PATTERSON

💕

The fact that it is difficult for me to love this place, makes me know this love matters. Mine is a love that struggles to be loving. It takes work, and can’t be given to me in the way some people here have it out of ignorance and ease or from a kind of defaulting. I need to love this place with intention or not at all. 

My love needs to swim in deep waters. My love needs the risk of sharks. It needs to be too far out. It needs to risk a drowning. 

My love needs to risk a different kind of return to the shoreline. It needs deep breaths, muscle cramp and saltwater. It needs all the gills it can find. It needs buoyant lungs and gas bladders. It needs sharks that swim too close for comfort. 

Because it could never fly to begin with, my love needs to suck salt, sink deep and swim in afterlives. My love needs afterloves.   

🦈

After you were spotted too far in to the seas of neighbouring islands, we were warned to “avoid swimming alone or in deep waters.”[1]

I make a practice of swimming at least thirty paces out into the water. I need to do this. I need to swim too far out to take a moment off-island. I need to do this to know that I am choosing to be here, on-island. I do this because I am trying to learn how to love this place. A difficult love of half-drownings and the intimacies of sharks. I do this because this place has hurt me. I do this because this place has hurt others, like me, worse. I do this because a shark has yet to hurt me. 

     Most shark attacks are caused by a case of mistaken identity[2]

Or so the paper tells me. 

They call you “man-eater,” though you have never been too fond of this flesh. And for all the ways we’ve polluted your home, “garbage-eater” is what they say, since you can no longer discern what feeds you. 

Wayward tiger shark, the pain of being mistaken for something else tends to go both ways. There’s a myth you have poor vision, but I know this isn’t true. I have poor vision until things move a little closer. So please, come closer, so that I might see you a little clearer. From what I’ve read, you can see deeper underwater, on the reef and in the dark. You can sense so much breathing hidden in the salt of things. By the ticklish ridge of your lateral line, you know a vibration when you feel one. 

Perhaps you sensed more than we could see. Or perhaps we couldn’t sense enough to sustain your life with truth.   

If she could have, Michelle Cliff would’ve written this in fire:

     To be colonized is to be rendered insensible. To have those 
     parts necessary to sustain life numbed.[3]

I need your help so that I might sense more than my eyes can tell me. Ease my vision, wandering shark, because right now my eyes are saying that the damage you have done is irreparable

What could you sense nestled in the vibrations? What did you want to say with the talking of your teeth? Show me all the old blood that makes you move so dangerously. Help me read your water and show me where the harm swims. 

Two irreparable things: chewed-off legs and a boiling planet.

I don’t want to unsee you for the mistakes you make in turbulence. I hope we can nurture a little hesitation, so that we might sense a life in you. So that you might live a life longer than your teeth. Than the harm. Than our fear. A life that outlives the aching of a world. 

What brought you too far in, curious shark? What brings us too far out?

     Some of us are being drowned and it seems our main hope 
     of rescue rests in stilted words offered from the 
     comfort of the sea shore.[4]

It’s written in the paper. It’s written in the water. And the water never lies. 

Why do I confide in sharks? 

Because to breathe in water is to breathe in truth.

Your lateral line knows me intimately, in my resonance, in my depths. From the cut of your gills to the base of your tail, you can feel all that troubles me in tremors. My kind of trouble is offbeat and atonal. If it were a steel pan it would sound like rust. A repercussion salted out of tune. I’ve heard about whale-songs, but I’m told you sharks don’t have the guts for singing. You move to the time of ghosts and maybe what I’m feeling in you, in me, in us, is a grief that has no songs. 

Three ungrievable things: dead sharks, drowned queers, and an emptied boiling planet.

Are there really no songs for us? Are sharks really born without music? Must this grief go unheard, unsung and floundering? 

No, I refuse to believe you have no shark-song. I can hear it in the waves. Are you telling me that irreparable things make no sound? No. She screamed, didn’t she? You played her with your teeth and she screamed. You thrashed right through the surface and the water broke out in song. No, I do not love what you did, but you did what you had to—to be heard. You are not capable of harmonies; you were not made that way. So, you decided on a dissonance so discomforting it could no longer be ignored. I can hear you percussing in the water, re-percussing in our papers. They sound you out: irreparable. You are heard. As above, so below: irreparable. Chewed-off legs and a boiling planet: irreparable. You are trying to make songs in the only ways you know how. In this call-and-response when the stakes are so high, violence is also an answer.  

I can hear you on the water, desperate shark. The sounds you make when all you can hope to do is teeth a little life from all these irreparable circumstances. How must it feel to breathe in hot water? To grieve in hot water, when your insides are steeped in the boiling world you live in. 

I am here to hear you. I can feel your shark-song. From the cut of my gills to the base of your tail, let this lateral line persist between us.  

Do you think they can hear it too, grieving shark?

The sound of fire being written underwater.

You died the other day, Captain Watson. Will your anchor drift or firm remain? Last admiral of the Landship, an island is grieving you, inheritor of fleets that made waves without ever touching water. A lamentation on your death: 

     We owe it to Admiral Watson to create a legacy for him.[5]

Your wake is today. And I am here for the pageantry. I am here for the Tuk band that engines in mourning. I am here for the bass that beats out a life. I am here for the penny whistle that canaries your passing, your body carried high in the hallow of the drum. And behind you, your fleet marching beat-wards: each shipmate stepping to a foot hot with trickery. Their arms gunning in time—only a sailor could spot that coded mischief buried in the rhythm of hips and ships and jiggle. 

Forgive me, Admiral, for I have always sensed something queer in the hold of your Landship. 

A safe haven and friendly society, the Landship was born to undock the emancipated from the legacies of slavery. I don’t know much about friendly societies but I’d like to think I know a thing or two about chosen families, and the kinds of support and futures we imagine for each other in worlds we have no place in. 

Admiral, our prime minister named our debt to you, that your ship should not disappear with your passing.[6]

And I’m sure we’ll do right by that debt. Enough has already been written. Enough has already been remembered and rehearsed to keep your ship afloat in this island’s cultural memory. Even if docked or run aground, you and your fleet will be grieved and remembered. 

But what legacy do we owe you, Deva?

Mannequins in Motion, ripened in a glamour this place is still afraid of. We lost you the other day,[7] and I’m left asking if this island will grieve you in the ways you deserve. 

Will there be grief, archives, and commitments to memory? Will you be survived by the spirit of your work? Will there be drums that miss you in screams? Or will there be a low hum nothing where drum-skin has no words?  

I need questions that cut. Questions toothed in coral that cut islands in half. That cut us into memory. How much must you be cut out of this place before it begins to miss you? 

Deva, I remember your glamour that night, when you invoked Sia in Titanium.[8]

     Cut me down, but it's you who'll have further to fall

Hearing it now, I remember you. The decisive cuts of your arms through air, your silver white jumpsuit high-kicking with legs for days, weeks and epochs. From the black of nowhere, you step to be seen. And with the music pumping bloody, your heartbeat needs no hallowed drum. Drum-skin wish it could speak back to you. Fire away, fire away.

Image: Nadia Huggins

Deva, who taught you how to loop the moon through needles, and dress in threads of night? Dusted in moonlight, you conjure moments in your moves. I see you when the sea is black and doused in glitter. I feel you in the glow of night seen through gullies’ teeth. Hell, I see you right now, shaming the cosmos out of frame, view, and concern. And then your mask becomes a strobe-light at the height of the song and I just——sometimes there aren’t any words, Deva. Only feelings. 

But these feelings aren’t only for the glamour. It was never only about the glamour. 

Your presence in this place of all places—you made life and more life to spare for some of us who needed it. I want to thank you for being visible in a place that hates to see it. Thank you for showing up when we weren’t able to show up for ourselves. Thank you for carving homes in stares. Being seen and being loved are not mutually exclusive. Thank you for teaching us in sequins. There are sisters to be found in shimmers and starlight. Thank you for arriving before words. I didn’t need “trans*” to love where you were taking me. I don’t need no queer theories when you are living proof. 

Deva, all the poui in bloom have nothing on you.[9]

But I don’t know if they know that yet. I don’t know if they know the pain of losing starlight.  


I woke up thinking about you and I couldn’t get back to sleep. 

I didn’t know you very well but I remember you. But before I remembered you, walking along Gibbes Beach a few years back, you remembered me. So, for that kindness I couldn’t return back then, I want to return it now. I want to remember you, with a difference.  

Perhaps these are not my words to give but, I’ve been told, these words need love, too. And I don’t know if you need my love but I have it for you here, and it’s not at all complicated. It’s right here if you need it.

You were also an artist. You played guitar. 

And you were sitting in the shade of a manchineel tree when you remembered me. 

I have been scouring the fragments looking for you. Looking for what little was written down to remember you. And, truth be told, I don’t think these fragments remember you to any meaningful consequence. The one newspaper article I can find calls you by a name I can’t recall, and describes you in a way I’m not sure you’d be at home in. 

These fragments only condemn you to the way you made your crossing. They do not remember you in how you lived your life.

I need something else to be written. I need more words to be poured at your feet. I need to nurture the memory. And I need to hesitate these fragments to keep your little life a little longer. I need a life thickened with words and moments. So please, stay here and hesitate this moment with me.

When you remembered me at Gibbes, you reminded me we first met at Kadooment. You were among the few of our friends, and I was on the truck playing pan. It was still called Spring Garden Highway back then and I will remember its old name to sense you there a little longer. I can’t remember us then. What we looked like. But I can always remember light. And we were at the edge of twilight, an embering sunset shaded by a grove of almond trees. It was that calm sort of cool in the air—dark blue streaked with a tired, tired orange—the kind of relief deeply sweetened by a day of sweat.

We all were speaking louder than we could. Kadooment will do that. Our breath was drowned in Soca, its tail whipping ahead towards the end of the highway. Always there, without the wall of almond trees, the sun would try to survive a little longer, a last attempt to blister-blind any reveller who thought themselves unburnt. We all were already quieter than they wanted us to be. I don’t know how we could ever grow loud in a place that made small and silent anything out of place. And we were out of place—we still are—because we swam too far out and didn’t come back. We couldn’t if we wanted to. And yet they still spoke to us as if we never left, as if we never moved, as if we never made a crossing. They still spoke to ghosts of ourselves we left drowning in the water. We had changed and they could not remember. 

But I remember you. 

I remember the shade of manchineel. She is a proud kind of tree who leans into her power. So much so that the manchineel and her kin are marked red with X’s. To signify her danger. To warn you of her toxins. To call her life untouchable and unlovable. Did they mistake us for manchineels when they marked us with an X?  Or were you just vibing with a sister who was marked down and out of line? 

It’s typical of us to find shelter in poisonous places. It’s typical of us to choose manchineel over being sighted. And it’s typical of me to choose sharks over being stuck here. We learned the hard way that if safety can’t be found, then you make do with “safer.” And there is something to be said of finding safer spaces in the risk of sharks and manchineel. 

I’m keeping you just a little longer. I’m sorry if it’s feeling tedious. I just need to tell you how the light was different in the moment you remembered me. 

It was around the same time of day and we were hidden in the trees. And the sun was crawling up the shoreline trying to chase the water. Though shaded, the low, hot light on the waves bounced back to us in sparkles. She’s the kind of light that masks everything in beauty. Everything was alive in amber and the salt on our faces could’ve been sweat or sea breeze. It didn’t matter which. 

We didn’t have to speak louder than we could. The sea never tries to compete with what you’re saying. It makes the kind of noise that keeps your secrets safe. It is a foam for your words to sleep on. To dream on. It will carry our voices forward without ever speaking a word. It really is memory. 

I want to be a sea for you. I want to love you in a salt that keeps things lasting. I want to hesitate this moment longer on the water. I want to give these words the love they need. So the sea might take them from me, to you, over there, where you’re too far out to come back. 

I need you to know I remember you now, on the water and in the trees. I remember you in manchineel, amber light, sundown sweat, and voices too soft for Soca. 

I remember you, Charlie. 

🌊

What you want:

     to nurture a hesitation that takes seriously the afterlives 
of drowned queer men[10]

What you want makes me shiver. And to shiver in my body might mean to sense a need. A need of conch, a need of songs. A need which sets my lateral line on fire. 

Your hesitation gives life where life was overlooked. Your hesitation gives grief where coffins lay unsalted. 

I read your words before I read Abeng.[11] And when I sat to read Abeng, I expected a story about queer people going somewhere, swimming too far out and drowning. I can’t lie—it was disappointing yet unsurprising to realise we were only drowning in the margins. 

Must we only ever live and die as metaphors? Worded to life, worded to death only in the passing of a chapter?

But I’m not here to flounder in that old wound. I’m here to soak in your hesitation. I want to swim with you a moment and float along your words. Will you read to me, Jovanté? Will you read what’s written in the water?

     we should not foreclose the possibilities of their drowning[12]

When you read this, I am reminded of Daughters of the Dust.[13] Have you watched it? Julie Dash tells the story of three generations of Gullah women who live at Igbo Landing. You also tell the story of Igbo Landing, don’t you? A new arrival of enslaved Igbo people see the life ahead of them, and decide it wiser to walk back towards the water. Wagering on the possibilities of their drowning, they would foreclose an unliveable future. What possibilities did Clinton and Robert see, glittering out on the horizon? What kinds of life do funnyqueer,and off people find too far out into the water?  

And where are we going when we go too far out

Ronald shared a conversation with me about the joys of curating Black queer legacies. And from it, something came to surface. Something I had forgotten. That some of the lives we are living are impossible.[14] These impossible livings, these impossible lovings. They give us the space for impossibility to surface in so many different and unusual ways. Ronald lends me an affirmation when he says that it is 

     not just a question of impossibility but also a refusal to draw 
     borders around what this practice might be and what it looks 
     like.[15]

And maybe this is an affirmation for you too, Jovanté. On the possibilities of these queer drownings, I feel a resonance when you beckon us to

     recognize that their practice is connected with that of 
other queer people on the island.[16]

An impossible life might not be going anywhere. Or they might not ever reach where they’re going. They might drown too far out on their way there. Or too far out might be far enough. I don’t know. But it all points to somewhere else, something else. And that is always already enough to take seriously. To grieve and love, seriously.[17] To remember those impossible queer lives who might only live among us now[18] in duppies, haunted beaches, and manchineel trees; bodies ground to salt and all our beloved memories, scattered on the air. 

Jovanté, you are teaching me to hesitate life at the precipice of death. To nurture a hesitation that lets life linger, just a little longer. I am thankful for all the hesitations you have given me. 

I need hesitations that send the waves backwards. I need hesitations that unbury. That undrown. I need hesitations that grieve a grief too thick to forget. I need hesitations that refuse to die so neatly. 

I refuse to disappear another queer life who finds their way across the water. I refuse to disappear queer lives who lose their way across the water. 

Send me a wind to unseat tobacco seeds from doorways always closed to us. Fetch me the will to break circles of coffee and salt that bar us from concern. Lend me the strength to stand firm in pawpaw—let an axe fail to see me out of root. Pray for a rain that rains down in manchineel. And let them suck salt and remember our flavour. 

And let us, the living, live haunted with the memory, with the grief, with the love of queer lives lived impossibly. 


[1] https://barbadostoday.bb/2021/01/13/no-shark-sightings-but-maritime-affairs-urges-caution/

[2] https://barbadostoday.bb/2021/01/16/mild-warning-as-sharks-appear-near-regional-shores/

[3] Michelle Cliff, If I Could Write This in Fire (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

[4] https://barbadostoday.bb/2021/01/15/btcolumn-we-are-drowning-politicians-are-talking/

[5] https://barbadostoday.bb/2021/01/21/minister-and-ncf-ceo-give-their-commitment-to-the-landship/

[6] https://www.nationnews.com/2021/01/09/landship-loses-stalwart-watson/

[7] https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=3786006464753236&id=164584373562148

[8] https://youtu.be/JRfuAukYTKg

[9] Shoutout to Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné for her original post: “Tell me all the poui in bloom don’t make you feel a deep surge of love for this place.” (7 May, 2018)

[10] In this fragment, I’m honouring Jovanté Anderson and his text which he generously shared with me, Reading the Water: The Politics of Queer (After)Life.

[11] Michelle Cliff, Abeng (USA: Plume, 1995)

[12] Jovanté Anderson, Reading the Water

[13] There are some things said in Daughters of the Dust that resonate with some of what I’m saying ahead.

[14] “Ain’t nobody can walk on water.” (Daughters of the Dust)

[15] Ajamu , Courtnay McFARLANE, Ronald Cummings, “Promiscuous Archiving: Notes on the Joys of Curating Black Queer Legacies,” Journal of Canadian Studies 54, no. 2-3 (2020): 585-616

[16] Jovanté Anderson, Reading the Water

[17] “It’s up to the living to keep in touch with the dead.” (Daughters of the Dust)

[18] “Those in the grave, like those who across the sea, they’re with us.” (Daughters of the Dust)

Anchor image: Zoya Taylor. The Coral Connection

Ada M. Patterson (Bridgetown, 1994) is a visual artist, writer and educator based between Barbados and Rotterdam. Working with masquerade, video and poetry, she tells stories and imagines elegies for ungrievable bodies and moments. Patterson is the 2020 NLS Kingston Curatorial & Art Writing Fellow. They have exhibited with LADA, London; Barbados Museum & Historical Society, Bridgetown; TENT, Rotterdam; Ateliers ’89, Oranjestad; Alice Yard, Port-of-Spain. Her writing has featured in ARC Magazine, Sugarcane Magazine, PREE, Mister Motley and Metropolis M.

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