swims is a long poem by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett documenting a series of wild swims across the UK. The poem starts and ends in Devon, her home county, but takes in Somerset, Surrey, the Lake District, London, Wales and Brighton on the way. Each swim experiments with a different way in which an individual might effect environmental change. swims is an overall sequence of twelve swims. We’re really pleased to be published here, for the first time today, the preface and swim III in the Ouse.

 

Preface

o– 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 ooooooo the river is like the body
or oooooooooooo the river is the body
but ooooooooooo 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.

 

 

III The Ouse

The site of Virginia Woolf’s drowning. Poem performed at increasing speed.

“The simplest method of determining the velocity of a current involves an observer, a floating object or drifter, and a timing device.” – U.S Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

 

One by one the horses come.

Breath’s soft shuffle through
water foams open and out
purrs a language
I am learning

through the body
I am learning
through the fact
of my being here
haunch in water
standing
head in hedge
standing
with everything I’ve got.

The simplest method of determining the velocity of a current involves a horse,
a floating object or drifter, and a timing device.

One by one the horses come purring
me open I stir and shake
shivers jolt in parts
of the body yet / to be discovered
I ache in the hedge
of the water
is forcing me open
the horses are dark as the earth
darker than earth
deeper
their flanks rise from the pit
of the word the gut of the word
the ditch the dust the ear
the éar the eard
the native soil or land
deeper than that is the horse
that purrs me open
in water
in open
in open water

the simplest method of determining the velocity of a word involves a horse,
a girl, and a timing device.

One by one the horses come stirring me open
into water into open water
I bend and purr
from rib to hip is a rich loaming
I flank and fall
and purr in the water I am learning
that the simplest method of determining the velocity of a word involves a horse,
a girl, and a poem.

 

 

 

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett is a poet, academic and curator. Recent creative publications include oh-zones, Exotic Birds and M (a poem-film with artist Brian Shields). Poems from the swims project have appeared in The Learned Pig and Lighthouse (forthcoming) and her article“Swims: Body, Ritual, Erasure as Environmental Activism” is in the current “Conceptual Writing” feature edited by Divya Victor in Jacket 2. She is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Newman University, Birmingham.