A long poem: Swims

01st November, 2017

Writing and swimming flow into each other like a river to the sea. This year has seen a flood of books dedicated to swimming, with a number of author’s being inspired by the water. Elizabeth Jane-Burnett is a poet, curator and academic who has just released her debut poetry collection, Swims. Elizabeth recently appeared on BBC Radio 3 discussing wild swimming and she will be appearing at the Kendal Mountain Festival sharing poems from the collection.

Swims is a long poem documenting a series of wild swims across the UK, the poem starts and ends in Devon, her home county. Elizabeth explains more…


Bright orange armbands against a turquoise swimsuit. Body as small as water is large. Arm against waist, striking out into open water. After a while, everything slackens: muscle, limbs, thought. There is only water. Time carries me gently, until I realise that the arm, the one keeping me safe, has gone. I turn to see my father at the shore, and realise I have been swimming. This was my first swim. I recall it in the closing poem of the collection, ‘The Dart’:

but however quick the split between worlds opens up

however fast plates move beneath water breaks below planet

heaves above

however soon the body is called back into building into posture

into slump

there is a glimpse of an orange armband and an arm missing

from a waist that turned to see him watch as I pulled away

for the first time unaided into wildness,

unable to stand but able to swim (a river is not a river without him).

I hadn’t intended for this collection of swimming poems to feature my father, or be overtly confessional, but the water brings many things to the surface.

It is a repository for waste as well as memory. As I explained in an article I wrote, Swims: Body, Ritual, Erasure as Environmental Activism, “the pleasure experienced in swimming is counterbalanced by a lament at the degradation of the environment in which it takes place.” In Swims, the ‘Preface’ finds pollutants in the water, tracing ‘metal onto clay / acid onto wire / electrified chicken wire to keep the salmon in’, while ‘The Barle’ later in the book reflects disasters further afield, ‘as in Fukushima, fishermen / record radioactive caesium in fish’. For every sublime moment of exhilaration, there is an act approaching mourning for the widespread effects of pollution, loss of habitat and species decline.

As I was writing the collection, my father’s health deteriorated, and mourning took on a very human form. Yet, in the midst of all this, there is no denying the rejuvenating pleasure of the water; the joy one feels at reaching a part deep enough to swim in (for which I decided to create the word kelling, by removing snork from snorkelling).

Pleasure and pain move together through the swims, yet my ultimate hope is that the poems (and the collection’s closing lines) leave the reader with a sense of renewal, just as the water does for the swimmer:

keep kelling through the pages of the street,

the lake, the body,

kelling in the middle of the room, the day, the core, keep kelling:

it is all yours, this open possibility.


Preface from the book:

Swimming is continuous. Only the rivers are intermittent.

The river is something that happens

like exercise or illness to the body

on any given day I am rivering.

Not that                        the river is like the body

or                                 the river is the body

but                               both have gone

and what is left is something else.

To not end where you thought you did

not with skin but water

not with arms but meadow

of watercress, dropwort, floating pennywort

against all odds to be buoyant.

To feel there is an upward force

greater than the weight of the heart

the knuckles the head to feel as in to feel

it physically push up the ribs which are bones now

everything remembering what it is

becoming is remembering

sinking in the silt is the sand

of the shell of the bone singing

in the reeds in the rushes

hordes of heartbeats not my own:

mollusc onto stone

milfoil onto moss

mayfly onto trout

metal onto clay

acid onto wire

electrified chicken wire to keep the salmon in

the summer we’ll make a day of it

fill the car up, make a day of it

fill the river, make like mayflies

in the summer, swim

in traffic, swim in the car

in the river in the summer in the city

in the chicken in the acid in the salmon in the rain

in the silt in the sulphur in the algae in the day we’ll come

and part as friends

in the day in the river in the moss in the rushes we’ll come and part

in the river in the heather in the rushes in the rain we’ll stay and

the day and the day

and the days dart over and summer is over

us salmon leap over

us all come apart

in the end

of the day

and the river.


Words: Elizabeth-Jane Burnett

To buy a copy of the book: http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/index.php/2017/08/swims/

For tickets to Elizabeth’s event at the Kendal Mountain Festival visit: http://www.mountainfest.co.uk/speaker/detail/elizabeth-jane-burnett