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Elizabeth-Jane Burnett: 'Swimming can give you the optimism to keep going'

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Swims is a work of poetry that follows its author into open waters around the UK, where she finds both simple pleasure and more complicated political hope

“What can I do as a person on the planet, as a human being, as a writer, as the unique set of things that I am?” asks Elizabeth-Jane Burnett. “How can I help the environment?” For a writer and scholar who has been exploring the natural world and alternatives to capitalism in pamphlets, exhibitions and academic papers, the response to environmental catastrophe was clear: poetry.

Swims, her first book, is one long poem that follows the author as she dives into open water across England and Wales, plunging into rivers, lakes and seas in a watery circuit that takes in the Ouse, the Teign, the Channel, Grasmere and King’s Cross Pond in London. Some sections record a process or ritual – hopes and fears written across a swimsuit in black marker pen before immersion, or a group of swimmers inhabiting some non-human identity, entering the sea and then reporting back. Others focus on the feeling of not ending “where you thought you did / not with skin but with water / not with arms but with meadow / of watercress, dropwort, floating pennywort”, the sensation of “an upward force / greater than the weight of the heart”.

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