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

Llyn Gwynant

All through the night I twitch my heart.
Swimming is a kind of hiccup
that jolts the body clean apart.
All through the night I twitch my heart;
tight contractions of sleep starts
break like waves pushing me up.
All through the night I twitch my heart.
Swimming is a kind of hiccup.

And though I wake from something deep,
the pull comes from the darkening lake.
It is not night, I did not sleep.
And though I wake from something deep,
it is not sleep my muscles heap
on bone but waves that gently break.
And though I wake from something deep,
the pull comes from the darkening lake.

Then always afterwards a calm
that flattens out the body’s crease,
the water holds me in its palm
and always afterwards a calm,
a wash of mint and lemon balm
and wallflowers (once known as heart’s ease);
then always afterwards a calm
that flattens out the body’s crease.

I’ve chosen this week’s poem from an anthology of eco-poetry, 100 Poems to Save the Earthedited by Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans. As will be seen from the listed contributors, I should “declare an interest” but, of course, my motives are nothing but honourable! 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 such well-known writers, some less-established names appear.

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

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

Llyn Gwynant, named after the lake in Snowdoniais “swim” number eight. Its formal structure comes at first as a surprise. The pattern of each of the three stanzas is based on the trioletan old French form which has somehow survived into 21st-century anglophone verse, occasionally raising a still young-looking face. The triolet typically 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 swim on her itinerary. That the triolet is a contained, circular form also may hint at the geology of the valley lake in its embrace of mountains.

Although the triolet’s leisurely formalities of repetition and regular tetrameter give poetic “body” to the physical sensation of swimming, initially Burnett goes for a staccato effect, with a first line of eight monosyllables and short “i” vowel-sounds, as in “twitch” and “hiccup”. This stanza possibly evokes the excited anticipation before the swim takes place, the ingenious compound-noun “sleep starts” suggesting a wakeful night interrupted by sudden microsleeps (and perhaps the vivid dreams they brew). But swimming in calm water can be dreamlike, and it’s possible that the poet’s literal navigation of Llyn Gwynant has already begun. That hiccup which “jolts the body clean apart” could have been produced by the initial dive, and the moment when the swimmer’s whole body seems to gasp with the shock of its new element.

With stanza two, the narrative seems more likely to have passed into the immediate experience of swimming: “it is not sleep my muscles heap / on bone but waves that gently break.” The waves are those made by the swimmer’s own movements, and the “pull” evokes the resistance of the water, as well as the longing for it. The description of the lake as “darkening” might signify an evening swim, or different shadows being cast as mountains or trees block the sunlight, or a change of weather. There may be a larger symbolic meaning, too – a premonition of bereavement.

There is certainly little rhetoric of celebration and achievement in the third stanza. The benign effects of swimming are quietly summarised, and the important AB lines suggest release at its plainest: “then always afterwards a calm / that flattens out the body’s crease”. Between these lines comes a moment of pure sensory sharpness, the inhalation of “a wash of mint and lemon balm / and wallflowers”. The wallflowers are a reminder of an earlier poem in the sequence to the writer’s father, which remembers when “you used to sell wallflowers”. The plant may be memories, conjured by the “heart’s ease” of the swim.

I don’t know the lake in question, but I am familiar with one of its neighbours, the beautiful Lake Ogwyn. This lake seems suddenly to appear from nowhere, a casual luminous vastness at the side of the A5, constrained by no fence or railing. These lakes stop the passerby, and the heart, simply by saying, without any self-important flourish, “here I am” – and so does Llyn Gwynant, shining among the anthology’s multitude of pictures and stories.

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

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