By Helen Mort
Chatto & Windus £10.00 70pp
Much of this collection of poems by Helen Mort is anchored (or perhaps belayed would be a more appropriate word) in the treatment of women both in society in general and mountaineering in particular. Poems such as Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal and How to Dress remind the reader of how the early female mountaineers were regarded, expected to wear entirely inappropriate clothing and hang on not only to the rope but every word of masculine advice, while, if Jemima Morrell is to be believed, fending off snowballs with their parasols.
Nor was this approach restricted to Victorian times. It was well into the twentieth century when C. E. Benson declared in British Mountaineering “A woman who has once overwalked herself is doomed to be more or less an invalid for life” and Dorothy Pilley in her autobiography, Climbing Days, described the opprobrium heaped upon her for wearing trousers in public. A particular pinnacle of male sneering was reached when the author and mountaineer Etienne Bruhl declared that now the Grepon had been climbed by two unaccompanied women it could no longer be considered to exist as a climb. In effect it had disappeared. Mort turns the tables with a neat riposte. An Easy Day for a Lady congratulates her sex on their sleight of hand, that as magicians they can not only close up crevasses “like flowers curling in on themselves” and make “the lake no more permanent than frost” but more significantly remove the damage caused by man and “give back the silence/at the dawn of things”.
Even as late as 1961 this patronising attitude still existed. Alex White was leading a fellow member of the Pinnacle Club up a climb on Shepherd’s Crag. The climb was busy and she was waiting in a queue at the foot of the second pitch. When the preceding party was well ahead she started to climb, only to be hailed by a male voice: “I should wait a little while, dear, your leader hasn’t reached his stance yet”. Mort’s response to such presumption is the ironic “Ode to Bob”, an imaginary (and impossible to find) male climber who never offers advice or “steals the morning/with a story of a pitch he climbed/one-handed, wearing boxing gloves”
The final reference to the female mountaineer is in a group of poems that pay homage to Alison Hargreaves. She was an outstanding climber who was the first English woman to ascend Everest without the use of supplementary oxygen and climb the north face of the Eiger despite being pregnant. When she died during the descent of K2, her obituary from certain sections of the press was not praise for her feats of skill and endurance, but critical outrage that she should have the temerity to put her own selfish ambition before the welfare of her children.
As a result, much of the poetry strives to change the way we look at gender and landscape. The easy transfer of adjectives like “rugged” and “craggy” between landscape and a particular masculine type and the application of such terms as “conquest” and “triumph” in much mountain literature suggests that climbing and exploration is essentially a male activity. Mort, when she instructs the wife of Mr Henry Warwick Cole to abandon her “proper attire for women” and “slip on a jacket made of shale”, is encouraging women to assert their own identity and their rightful place in the mountaineering landscape.
The lot of the female mountaineer is echoed in the quartet of poems that tell the story of Lillian Bilocca, a fishwife from Hull who set up a campaign to improve safety through the reform of the fishing laws. Despite being warned that her accent was making her a laughing stock and advised to go home as “This is a matter for men”, she, against all odds, successfully persuaded Harold Wilson to make the necessary changes. Lil’s answer “I’ll stand until I’m frozen down to bone” is the poet’s answer to all the preconceptions that women have to face. Eventually, the latent anger and frustration is given its head in Beryl the Peril, who, “with a jaw / like a paperweight” can out-cow pie Desperate Dan, hurdle Sainsbury’s trolleys to outsprint the store detectives before finally “Clambering from the page, reaching the greatest height, gobbing on us all.”
The title of this collection is an ironic reminder of the difficulties the reviewer faces when writing about poetry. The map with its immutable contours and steadfast orientation gives a picture but not necessarily the picture. You can trace the rise and fall of the ground with your finger, note the presence of a tarn, the markings that denote a crag, yet remain completely unaware of the effect the actual landscape will have when you breast the rise and see it laid out before you. So it is with verse. Analysis can reveal the argument and applaud the well-turned phrase, but to understand it you’ve got to hear it, listen to it in every sense of the word. Only then does the rhythmic architecture reveal itself. Read it aloud and you hear her words as they rise, “leaving the checkpoint world” to flock, reform, then fall – at times like the clatter of sharp-edged stones released from frozen ice – at times like snow.