Jan 5 2024
A TERRAIN OF THEIR OWN: Matthew M C Smith revisits Helen Mort’s 2016 collection No Map Could Show Them and reflects on its exposure of gender stereotyping in mountain literature
Sheffield poet Helen Mort’s second collection No Map Could Show Them is centred on groundbreaking women in the fields of climbing and mountaineering. It is a collection of free-verse poems that are intricate, whilst avoiding affectation, as befitting the sub-genre of mountain literature, which is often dominated by disciplined, precise writers, who come equipped for the job and don’t waste a word. In the poem “Mountain”, an enigmatic female climber, is at one with the mountain and natural elements, juxtaposed with her day job which is dominated by the banality of small-talk:
you have rocks in your chest, skin-coloured sandstone wedged where your breasts should be [...] You buy coffee, run board meetings where no-one says you're made of scree but above your head, their talk is weather
The almost-granite strength of the protagonist, their symbiosis with the mountain, takes a turn when their vulnerability is highlighted – ‘your sides/ are crumbling, and when you speak / your words are rockfall’. The world of the mountain is far away from communal human activity.
The second poem “An Easy Day For A Lady” takes us panoramically above the alps to a group of female climbers:
Turn round to see the swooping absence of the face, the undone glaciers. crevasses closing in on themselves like flowers at night.
The poem “How to Dress” sardonically exposes the restrictive expectations of female dress in the mountains during the Victorian era and points out that fashionable or conventional clothing and shoes were incompatible with the dangerous pursuit of climbing.
Your fashionable shoes might be the death of you Your hemline catches stones and sends them plummeting Below the col, set down your parasol put on the mountain's suit - your forearm gloved with permafrost, your fingers lichen-light
Mordant humour dominates the poem with women wearing ‘a jacket made of shale,/ cold stockings from a forded stream’. The ‘shadow of the hill’ which undresses the female climber is, of course, death. This is the destiny of women inappropriately clothed because of societal expectation. Mort is skilful in shaping these whittled-down, bare poems. No floweriness, no excess verbiage. It reminded me of the prose of Chris Bonington and Joe Simpson, with all of the atmosphere of mountain writing, albeit much more minimalist in form, delivered by a writer who is used to climbing and steeped in its diverse literature but has their own no-nonsense approach. The history of climbing and its most well-known texts are usually by men so Helen Mort’s approach feels different and refreshing, almost deliberately light, as a liberating contrast to a heavier, masculine approach in an elite field dominated by male egos.
Poems range from those focusing on women, such as ”Miss Jemima and her Swiss Journal”, to satires on insufferable mountain mansplainers, in particular “Ode to Bob”, which highlights the cringeworthy behaviour of some men, who act as if the pursuit of claiming the mountain peak is exclusively a male preserve. This, of course, is one of the well-documented downsides of mountaineering and summit-fever, where intrepid humans not only need the adrenaline rush of danger but also need ego-fulfilment.
The poem “Height” has Fanny Bullock Workman, another climber, ready to leap a crevasse. We are with her at that dizzying, heart-stopping moment –
It was only/ a bed's width only an arm span [...] I seemed so light I might not land again; go clear above the seracs and the frozen scarps.
The explorations of Joe Simpsonmay be more involving and a more intense literary experience, but what Mort offers are brief, captured moments, fragments of expedition, vignettes which are just as immediate, but in a different, vastly pared-down way.
Poems such as “The Fear”, “Scale” and “Beryl the Peril” seem to abruptly shift to the poet with carefully constructed pieces reflecting on personal fears and a detached, madcap perspective on the body – ‘My weight is /four whippets.//two Chinese gymnasts/ half a shotputter’. The poet explores the notion of ‘difficult women’. A poem in tribute to Alison Hargreaves, takes us inch by inch down a rope at twilight with the climber, descending Tryfan. I found this poem affecting as it precisely renders and resurrects a female climber and moments of her youth. The presence of Hargreaves recurs through the book, a haunting reminder of someone who has iconic status among climbers and who was taken too soon. Sentimentality is avoided by means of artful employment of the power of suggestion. Elsewhere, we are transported to the Eiger and K2, some of the most dangerous climbing environments in the world and we, as readers or listeners, are caught up in the excitement and dread of expedition.
This book, with approximately 52 poems, makes for recommended reading, and is one you can dip in and out of. There’s no sense of showboating, no sense of the writer wishing to demonstrate their prowess in the grandiose or bourgeois manner of some climber-writers. Instead, Helen Mort takes us quietly into the mountains, revealing the terrain and contours of wild places and shines a torchlight on the stories of female climbers, who are long-neglected in this most male-dominated of activities.
Dr Matthew M. C. Smith is author of The Keeper of Aeons and editor of Black Bough Poetry. Twitter: MatthewMCSmith Insta: matthewmcsmithpoet Also on FB