No Map Could Show Them by Helen Mort is the poet’s second collection of poetry. Mort has previously published Division Street which was shortlisted for the Costa and TS Eliot Prize and won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize. She has released two smaller collections one for Derbyshire, where she served as poet laureate, and another called a Pint for the Ghosts. Mort also performs in Poeta with flamenco guitarist Samuel Moore (http://www.poetaflamenco.com/). Reminiscent of a modern day version of Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye at St. Mark’s. She is a runner, climber, whippet lover, and recently a Greenland explorer.
Perhaps I am just getting older and a bit more conservative (in only my poetry). My background is in political science and not literature and I sometimes feel at a loss with prose poetry and the latest pop poetry of one or two lines, resembling a song lyric. I, by no means, prefer rhyming couplets, but I do like some form in my poetry. I did a quick glance through Mort’s latest collection and saw quatrains, cinquain, three line stanzas and possibly a sonnet. On the surface, it contained poetry in a traditional format. The introductory epigraph is complete with near rhymes that quickly disappear in the body of the work. What I saw as a sonnet at first was a line off and the stanzas, I soon came to realize, are not rhyming. It is traditional looking, but with a little rebellion present. Structure with freedom. The words, however, carry a great deal of meaning and beauty as in the poem “Ink” where the tattoo artist is scarring you elegantly.
Early on the poetry begins to personify the mountains — sandstone chests, wedge for a breast, and a boulder for a belly. At the same time, the climber becomes part of the mountain with clothing of shale and lichen light gloves. There is a natural blurring of the boundaries between the two as the join. The poem “How to Dress” has the reader reflect back on the historical. One thinks of the early climbers in wool and canvas without the benefits of heated gloves, Gore-Tex, and light-weight equipment. What of the women climbers? The proper Victorian dress code for outdoors did not include pants and there was little in the way of women’s sized polar weather clothing. A bit of humor also resides in the writing that concerns “Bob.” For the experienced women climbers, Bob was the ancestor of today’s “mansplainer.” There is the wrong way to do things and the right (man’s) way of doing things and women shouldn’t be out in the first place. – It might get too cold or dangerous.
Mort pays tribute to several climbers and other role models. She pays a very touching tribute in several poems to Alison Hargreaves, the British climber who completed an unaided summit of Everest, soloed all the great north faces of the Alps in a single season– a first for anyone, male or female. She, however, died in 1995 while descending the K2 Summit. Perhaps the most touching poem in the tribute is “Home” taken from a diary entry when Hargreaves was at home with a broken leg, unable to climb. Katherine Switzer’s 1967 Boston Marathon run is remembered as well as Derbyshire’s Tom Hulatt’s run. In a non-sports related poem Lillian Bilocca, a fishwife, took up the cause of maritime safety after the sinking of three fishing trawlers in 1968. Although successful in drawing attention and change, she was ridiculed, received death threats, and was blacklisted by the fishing industry.
As much as I appreciate Mort’s historic context in all her work she adds something more. Many times when poetry is written about a particular subject, the poetry suffers to center stage the subject. For example, Bicycle wheels spinning and pulse ticking in time to the cadence of the cranks. It’s bicycle poetry. It’s a bicycle enthusiast trying to write poetry. Mort doesn’t write climbing poetry; she writes poetry about climbing (among other things). The difference is who stars in the writing — the poetry or the subject. Here it is the poetry that stars and uses the subject as its showcase. It all blends together perfectly as the collection finishes with a blaze of rapid-fire poems celebrating Everest; it is the poetic equivalent to a 4th of July fireworks finale. A brilliant collection.