Poem of the Week: Llyn Gwynant by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett | Books


Llyn Gwynant

Throughout the night, my heart contracts.
Swimming is kind of a dud
which shakes the body clean apart.
Throughout the night, my heart contracts;
tight sleep contractions begin
break like waves pushing me up.
Throughout the night, my heart contracts.
Swimming is kind of a dud.

And even if I wake up from something deep,
the attraction comes from the darkening lake.
It’s not night, I haven’t slept.
And even if I wake up from something deep,
it’s not sleeping my muscles are piling up
on the bone but gently breaking waves.
And even if I wake up from something deep,
the attraction comes from the darkening lake.

Then always after a calm
which flattens the fold of the body,
the water holds me in its palm
and always after a calm,
a wash of mint and lemon balm
and Wallflowers (formerly known as Heart’s Ease);
then always after a calm
which flattens the body crease.

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I picked this week’s poem from an eco-poetry anthology, 100 Poems to Save the Earth, edited by Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans. As the listed contributors will see, I should “declare an interest” but, of course, my motives are only honorable! The collection is very fine in execution and intention. Welsh poets are strongly represented – Gillian Clarke, Paul Henry, Gwynneth Lewis, Robert Minhinnick, Owen Sheers among others, and the international cast includes Gbenga Adesina, Carl Phillips, Mir Mahfuz Ali, Paula Meehan, Mimi Khalvati, Sheenagh Pugh and Roger Robinson. Besides these well-known writers, some less established names appear.

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett was new to me. It was a pleasure to discover more of his work. Burnett is an English-Kenyan poet and critic. You can find more biographical details and a sample of his poetry here.

Llyn Gwynant originally appeared in the collection, Swims, which documents 12 wild swims in England and Wales, beginning and ending in the author’s home county. Many individual poems explore forms reflecting nature and blur various line and gender boundaries. As Burnett writes in its author’s note: “Each swim is designed as an environmental action, testing the ways in which individuals might effect environmental change.” The collection also contains a separate sequence of three poems for the poet’s then ill father, who taught him to swim and to whom the collection is dedicated.

Llyn Gwynant, named after the lake in Snowdonia, is swimming pool number 8. Its formal structure is surprising at first. The motif of each of the three stanzas is based on the triplet, an old French form that has somehow survived 21st century English verse, sometimes lifting a still youthful face. The triplet usually has eight lines, with an ABaAabAB rhyme scheme (the capital letters representing the repeated lines). Burnett’s choice may reflect the fact that Llyn Gwynant was the eighth race on his route. The fact that the triplet is a contained circular shape may also allude to the geology of the valley lake in its embrace of mountains.

Although the quiet repetition and regular tetrameter formalities of the triplet lend poetic “body” to the physical feel of the swim, Burnett initially opts for a staccato effect, with a first line of eight monosyllables and short “i” vowels. as in “twitch”. and “hiccups”. This stanza perhaps evokes the excited anticipation before the swim takes place, the ingenious compound noun “sleep begins” suggesting a waking night interrupted by sudden microsleeps (and perhaps the vivid dreams they brew ). But swimming in calm water can be dreamlike, and it’s possible poet Llyn Gwynant’s literal sailing has already begun. This “body-shaking” gasp could have been produced by the initial dive, and the moment when the swimmer’s whole body seems to gasp in shock at its new element.

With stanza two, the narrative seems more likely to have shifted to the immediate experience of swimming: “it is not the sleep of my muscles that pile up / On the bones but waves that gently break” . The waves are those created by the swimmer’s own movements, and the “pull” evokes the resistance of the water, as well as its desire. The description of the lake as “darkening” can mean an evening swim, or different shadows cast when mountains or trees block the sunlight, or a change in the weather. There may also be a broader symbolic meaning – a premonition of mourning.

There is certainly little celebratory and fulfilling rhetoric in the third stanza. The benign effects of swimming are discreetly summarized, and the prominent AB lines suggest the clearest release: “then always after a calm / which flattens the body crease”. Between these lines comes a moment of pure sensory acuity, the inhalation of “a wash of mint and lemon balm / and wallflowers”. The wallflowers recall an earlier poem in the sequence to the writer’s father, who remembers the days when “you sold wallflowers”. The plant can be memories, evoked by the “ease of the heart” of bathing.

I don’t know the lake in question, but I do know one of its neighbours, handsome Llyn Ogwyn. This lake suddenly seems to appear out of nowhere, a relaxed luminous expanse at the edge of the A5, constrained by no fence or railing. These lakes stop the passerby, and the heart, simply by saying, without any prideful embellishment, “here I am” – just like Llyn Gwynant, who shines among the multitude of images and stories in the anthology.

  • Note: Llyn means lake in Welsh; Gwynant is derived from “‘gwyn” meaning white, beautiful, blessed, holy and “nant” meaning stream.


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