Caught by the River

Swims: an extract

7th November 2017

Swims, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s lyrical celebration of wild swimming, is published by Penned in the Margins. Here, taken from the book, is her author’s note, followed by ‘XII, The Dart’, the section of the poem dedicated to the Devon river which holds a special allure for us here at CBTR HQ.


Swims is a long poem documenting twelve wild swims across England and Wales, beginning and ending in Devon, my home county, and moving through Somerset, Surrey, the Lake District, London, Snowdonia, Sussex and Cornwall. Each swim is conceived as an environmental action, testing the ways in which individuals might effect environmental change. They are interrupted by a sequence for my father, whose health deteriorated during the writing of the poem; part of this sequence features swimming in the Aegean Sea.

Parts of Swims have been displayed in The Trembling Grass, an exhibition I curated with the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World (CCANW) in 2014 at the Innovation Centre, University of Exeter. This also showcased work from poets such as Allen Fisher, Maggie O’Sullivan and Harriet Tarlo. Excerpts have been performed at the Flow and Fracture conference, ULB, Brussels (2014); Warwick Thursdays (2015), run by Jonathan Skinner at Warwick University; and at the Language, Landscape and the Sublime symposium at Dartington Hall (2016) — where I also curated a group swim in the Dart — and The Barrel House, Totnes (2016). ‘Swim XI, The English Channel’ was performed at the Sussex Poetry Festival, June 6, 2015, and engages with Swallows and Amazons.

‘Swim XIII, King’s Cross Pond’ was published in Lighthouse (II: Winter 2016 — an ecopoetics edition guest-edited by Anna Reckin); ‘Swim I, The Teign’ has been published in The Learned Pig (2016) and ‘Preface’ and ‘Swim III, The Ouse’ have been published in The Clearing (2016). Swims is the subject of my article ‘Swims: Body, Ritual, Erasure as Environmental Activism,’ in Jacket 2 (Fall 2015). The Poetry Society published a section of ‘Preface’ in a feature by Jen Hadfield on nature poetry, ‘Ways to be Wilder’ (2016).


XII The Dart Anemone cloud over Dart, tracking for a point of entry. A walk is not a walk without a river. Stepping stones, throughing roots, yellow gorse flanks steepen to pink; valley split open like a grapefruit. Total immersion in hills: surround-sound air, mist, buzzarding, moss, buttercupping, trees brimming age into live memory banks. Water drops off edge of stone to foam, higher pools clear down to floor of purple campion, violet water-boatmen skate – the satisfaction of finding a spot deep enough to swim in needs its own word, signalling a joy at depth, like snorkelling without the snork; kelling – eruption of eye over retina in slow pan of arrival, in spring kelling. Entry is slip, unplanned into palette of oils, limbs form brushstrokes, muddied in matter, smell of earth and sadness at getting further from the river needs its own word; a de-connecting, de-spiriting, de-kelling – 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) what the body buries the water returns, what the water buries the body burns in slow sift of memory; 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.


Swims is available here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £9.99.