Every month, we shine the light on a book from our collection – one which is new to the library, which has been particularly enjoyed by a borrower, recommended by a volunteer, or which seems salient to the month’s events or happenings. To see the archive of past books of the month (formerly book of the week), click here.
The current book of the month is…
August: Swims by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett
Oxford comes into its own in the summer and one of the big reasons for that is the river – that first dip of the year, the water winking at you, those breath-snatching first steps and then plunge. There is nothing quite like it. Swims by Elizabeth -Jane Burnett is undoubtedly about that: the joy and freedom of wild swimming, feeling yourself melt into the ebb and flow of water.
Burnett takes us through the rivers, lakes, and open seas of the UK, “to be where people had not planned you to be.” We learn how submerging yourself in these waters is more than something you do but is something you become. When Burnett swims, there is a merging of one’s humanity into something bigger, and the poem with its flowing lines becomes the vocalization of this experience. The self is the water is the poem is the river. These poems feel like a river-swim: the rough and tumble, the flow, rising and merging. “Imagine every full stop / replaced by perhaps,” the poet asks. This is writing that does just that, leaves space and openness between its lines, room for breath and softness.
What is important here, though, is that the rivers are not romanticized. What is in the river is the dissolving of problems, the fish, insects, sweet wildflowers, but also the “electrified chicken wire to keep the salmon in,” “radioactive caesium.” Burnett explains, “I can no more take this out of the poem as out of the water.” In celebrating the experience of river-swimming, the impact we as humans have had on the rivers cannot be ignored, and there is an unapologetic fight to be fought to here. There is destruction everywhere: pencil-pushing, ineffective bureaucracy satirized in the ‘The Teign.’ There are plastic bottle caps and poisons in the water. A collection like this is timely not just because it is river-swimming season, but because Oxford has its own very active campaign to protect our rivers in the form of the #EndSewagePollution Mid-Thames Group. This is a campaign against pollution in the Thames but particularly to make dumping untreated sewage into the rivers illegal, and there is a (socially distanced) protest on this very subject on August 8th at 10am.
It’s a cause worth fighting for, as Burnett demonstrates in this book. The final sentiment of the collection is a reminder of how embedded these bodies of water are in our lives and minds: “Swimming is continuous, only the rivers are intermittent.” Whether we are in the water or not, it is a part of us. So it’s more important than ever to add your voice to the campaign, go to the protest on 8 August, and importantly: don’t forget this month to pay our river a visit, remember that you do not “end where you thought you did / not with skin but water.”