A Love that Knows No Drowning (for Alexis)

February 2023

Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (Chico: AK Press, 2020); 174 pages; ISBN 978-1849353977 (paperback)

Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a collection of fragments that archives what it means to train ourselves toward other modes of living, loving, and dying. In a world where the right to breathe is unequally distributed, Gumbs steps off the shoreline and dives underwater, listening to the lessons lived by different ecosystems and families of marine mammals. Enrolling a diversity of dolphins, whales, seals, manatees, and even some sharks, Undrowned is a generous gathering of teachers versed in sophisticated breathing practices and whose pods and family units complicate, Blacken, and queer nuclear and normative understandings of being together. The lessons surfaced in Undrowned are chaptered as nineteen instructions—such as “listen” and “be vulnerable”—almost feeling like gentle but grounding reminders for both Gumbs and her readers as we committedly train toward becoming marine mammals ourselves. Each instruction offers a gathering of fragments punctuated by a three-dolphin insignia (lifted from the 1967 revolutionary flag of Anguilla, as designed by Lydia Gumbs, Alexis’s grandmother). The dolphins look like they’re swirling or spiraling into each other, whirlpooling us deeper down into both the water and the texts. Undrowned is written lyrically and drifts somewhere between a study, a taxonomy, a love letter, an instruction, a meditation. I could keep listing the possibilities it practices, but what it does most effectively is reach for all these forms and more, subverting them into something altogether more breathable. I was left with so many complicated, breathtaking, and breath-giving feelings after reading Undrowned. I want to honor the spirit of the text by writing back with love and gratitude directly to Alexis herself. Below is the only way I know how to speak about Undrowned. Let’s step off the shoreline and take a dip in these feelings together.


A dream that feels like a memory from the future:

The sun is starting to set on the mouth of Gibbes Beach, Barbados. You know that when it sinks into the horizon the warmest quiet will be laid. A quiet of nesting wood doves cooing like creaking branches. A quiet of waves over sand; the shivering sound of burnt sugar cooled in the sting of ice water. A quiet of laughter from people who never want to go home. And then the sun is gone and the water bleeds from green to grey to black. The last flames of the day smoke out across the sky and the first stars open their eyes to water. Yes, sunset is the sweetest grief you know. And Gibbes Beach is where you honor it.

You don’t know how you got here today. You didn’t think you could go here. Not in this body. Not anymore. And yet you’re here, walking the shoreline, with each sleepy wave teething at your ankles. But you didn’t make it alone. You needed help and it’s okay to know that. Four of your oldest friends are holding you between them. Four Black and Brown women you’ve known since girlhood. Huddling around you, they are keeping everything you love about you hidden, whole and safe. You don’t want everything you’ve worked on to leak out into the crude cut eyes of strangers. No, you don’t want to become an endangered species. You just want to swim. Yes, all you want to do is go deep, stay black, and breathe.


I’m trying to write back to you, Alexis. It’s been too long and I’m faltering. It’s difficult for me to write honestly about a moment long gone and sunken. Feeling scattered, I am stuck on the other side of the ocean trying to look further back than both time and the horizon will let me. Impossible at best. Dishonest at worst. But it’s the memory of what you gave me back then that matters. And what you gave me this ocean remembers. How has it changed—this memory—underwater, under pressure? 

Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals is like a collection of love letters to different schools of ocean dwellers. Rehabilitating the often cold and clinical language of taxonomy, you break it open and let your love close the distance. At times it feels like you’re swimming along in the pod of your teachers, your posture shifting, breath acclimating, complicating the very idea of what it means to study. Closeness for you is not an obstacle. It is a necessary condition for a practice of meaningful listening. Where your most common words are “I love you,” the kind of love you’re channeling is one that stresses, “I love you enough to learn from you, to listen to you.” Yours is a study that cherishes falling in love, where love is not something that risks legitimacy but instead something that surfaces a deeper kind of clarity. Because of your refusing to let distance get in the way of your feelings, yours is a study of not being afraid to get wet while writing.

Undrowned has a feeling of possibility soaked into it. It culminates to a closing series of activities (a bonus chapter) guided by such instructions as “listen,” “be fierce,” “go deep,” “stay black,” and “breathe.” Your writing is not a poetry for poetry’s sake. It is all incredibly practicable, and I am speaking from experience. Borrowing some of your activities to use within my own facilitation practice, I want to especially thank you for the instruction, “Take Care of Your Blessings” (174). In this exercise around cherishing, you instruct us to conjure someone we hold dearly, making a collective call to find strategies to deepen our care for that cherished person. In my own collective grieving practice, a session is opened by invoking the memory of someone or something, inviting each of us to widen the space for their arrival. I have used your cherishing activity to deepen our personal mourning rituals around the human and nonhuman loved ones, places, and phenomena we might have lost along the way. How might we strengthen the ties between the living and dying through conscious acts of cherishing? How might we refine our efforts to grieve more meaningfully those who have passed so that we may honor their memory in ways that keep us (and them) nurtured and thriving? These are some of the questions awakened by your guidance. I bring them here to let you know your practice is a mutable one. It grows and germinates like seaweed blossoms, in other hands, in distant waters, and in different forms.

Where Undrowned differs from other texts, from those trying to learn something from nonhuman worlds, is that you are not interested in making humans out of marine mammals. Rather, you step to the water as a marine mammal in training. You know how much there is to learn from mammals more versed in strenuous and sophisticated breathing practices. Alternating between a first- and second-person perspective, you invoke a correspondence between you and your teachers. A correspondence shaped by the contours and resonances of your shared experience. At times it’s not clear whose body we are swimming with. Whose song we’re hearing. Whose breath we’re sharing. The boundary between breathers is wet and slippery, but that’s the point. Shattering the surface, you refuse any binary of “above” and “below.” That kind of separation doesn’t interest you. You are interested in widening and deepening the scope of ancestry and kinship, making space for a solidarity that transcends bloodlines, species, and terrain. A solidarity of breathing differently in a world of unbreathable circumstances.


Alexis, I started reading Undrowned somewhere between the precipice of change and the shoreline of Gibbes Beach. I was in a very different time, place, and body when your words first held me like how the sea holds a coconut. Forgetting where it comes from, not knowing where or even if it will land, I wonder whether a coconut trusts the sea as much as I trust you. I cast your words back to you on the water: “I too have been moving in circles, confused. I too have been struggling to breathe. I too have wondered how did I get so far from what my body and spirit need” (105). For all this, I am grateful for Undrowned being a text that wrenches us from a world that doesn’t know how to hold us beyond captivity. A world obsessed with naming us yet uninterested in seeing us. And yet it is here where we do what we can. We make waves where there is only breakwater. We find a way where there is none. We love in ways they said we couldn’t. By all means we make do. So yes, I am grateful to know we can breathe in unbreathable circumstances. And yet what I’m most grateful for is the space you give to dream of worlds where unbreathable circumstances need not be the rule.

We are living in a world off course. And the pressure in your lungs is urgency. We have to learn the language of this air. We are sick of these tired cycles of economic vulnerability, resource grabs, and waste and harm spiraling down. We are ready to breathe differently. And evolve. (105–6)

Alexis, from one sea creature in training to another, I feel so ready to breathe differently. Thank you for imagining worlds where breath is not a luxury.

With a love that knows no drowning,



Ada M. Patterson (b. 1994, Bridgetown) is an artist and writer based between Barbados, London, and Rotterdam. She works with masquerade, performance, poetry, textiles, and video, looking at grief, elegy writing, and archiving as tools for disrupting the disappearance of communities queered by different experiences of crisis. Patterson was the 2020 NLS Kingston Curatorial and Art Writing Fellow. Recent exhibitions include Life between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s–Now at Tate Britain, London.


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