No Map Could Show Them by Helen Mort

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No Map Could Show Them, Mort’s second collection, explores the narratives of Victorian and modern women –mountaineers, campaigners, runners – and considers, more broadly, the marks, narratives and pathways we leave, or don’t leave, behind us. The opening poem, ‘Mountain’, serves as an introduction in which geology meets female body: ‘Your stomach is a boulder. /To hold you up, your legs grow stony too.’ This ‘you’ takes on a surprisingly urban quality in the couplets that follow:

You buy coffee,
run board meetings where no one says

you’re made of scree
but above your head, their talk is weather

This simple comparison is made more interesting by the way it seems to speak to the subject of a woman in a (perhaps male-dominated) workplace. There’s a tension here between a confident persona who appears in charge, and a vulnerable, crumbling interior. Yet, these tensions seem less relevant as Mort moves away from such particular detail and creates further metaphors between the body and the mountain – ‘Your feet could hold you here/forever but your sides/are crumbling, and when you speak/your words are rockfall’.

These metaphors between mountain and body repeat themselves in the opening pages of the collection. ‘How to Dress’ describes ‘your mouth becoming fissured/and your ankles malachite’. Given that Mort’s collection draws attention to overlooked female mountaineers, these metaphors serve to emphasise the closeness, the intimacy of woman and mountain. This is refreshing in the way it takes ownership of an otherwise male ‘ruggedness’ usually associated with such landscapes. Yet, given that Mort is aware these mountains have claimed lives – ‘Above Cromford’ alludes to Alison Hargreaves’ death descending from K2 – there’s an issue as to whether these metaphors underplay the power and scale of the landscape and assume likeness where there’s striking difference.

A more risky, vertiginous sense of the landscape, and of the mountaineer’s place within it, is afforded in ‘Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal’. Written ‘After Jemima Morrell and her tour of the Alps, 1863’ Mort takes her perspective:

I could stand in my blue dress
beneath the falls
at Lauterbrunnen, higher

than all society, a teardrop
if you only saw me
from the sky.

This stunning juxtaposition of scale and its inversion of height and depth echoes Mort’s epigraph to the collection by Antonio Porchia: ‘Suffering is above, not below. And everyone thinks that suffering is below. And everyone wants to rise’. Whilst Mort’s collection is clearly seeking to reverse our presumptions about gender and landscape, as a whole it often seems less evocative of Porchia’s stark aphorism and more committed to exploring liminal states. ‘The Fear’ and its depicted paralysis, sourced from the speaker’s anxiety and self-consciousness, is generated through carefully devised repetition:

I worried about the party and fear
was a drink, a pale flute pushed into my hand. I worried about drink, so fear
leaked through the seams of my clothes, grew into a stain on my wool coat

Worries accrue into a dense prose poem that concludes ‘fear is a pledge, a lifelong IOU, a signature that / looks like this’. Given its line lengths, the poem is the only one in the book to be printed lengthwise: the signature is bulky, unwieldy, unstoppable. Unlike most of the poems in this collection ‘The Fear’ isn’t framed as a mountaineering-themed poem and whilst it doesn’t quite mirror the vertiginous quality of ‘Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal’, there’s certainly a dizzying quality to the way each worry sparks another and another.

It seems that when Mort lessens her grip on the central concept of the collection, a more subtly crafted and conceptual poetry appears. In ‘The Old Dungeon Ghyll’, Mort writes of a bird entering the building and ‘the pub divided: those who tried to swoop for it/and others, too afraid to move’. A second sestet parallels this juxtaposition of confidence and fear:

Behind us was the wooden table, scored with signatures
where I once tried to carve my name
and nicked my wrist, the penknife shaking
till the barman took my hand:
If you have to leave a mark, don’t make it shit.
I tried again, half meaning it.

The careful pace of this narrative and Mort’s restrained use of rhyme effectively create a rhythm that echoes the uncertainty and reluctance depicted in the poem. Whilst there’s no reference to mountaineering here, ‘The Old Dungeon Ghyll’ works metaphorically in light of the collection’s central (and paradoxical) narrative – of the astonishing feats of women mountaineers and their disappearance from history. Throughout, Mort returns to the motif of making, marking and scoring as a way of talking about the routes and paths women have taken. ‘An Easy Day for a Lady’ makes this parallel clear. With the epigraph stating that ‘Now that it [the Grepon, a mountain] has been done by two women alone, no self-respecting man can undertake it’, Mort writes ‘we are magicians of the Alps –/we make the routes we follow/disappear’ and ‘Where you made ways,/we will unmake’. There’s some confusion as to what nature makes of this: the forest ‘curls into a fist’ and the ground ‘retracts its hand’. When the poem draws attention to a female challenge of the male ego, of man’s presumed territory, it’s unclear why nature appears complicit. This would seem parodic if the poem wasn’t so sincere.

Uncomfortable sexist tension comes to the forefront of poems that explore more contemporary contexts. ‘Difficult’, with an epigraph from the AskMen website, adapts the list form to write on ‘difficult women’:

Difficult women don’t care about what time it is, they’re
crowding the bus stop with their difficult bodies,
refusing to budge for the light, or in the parks,
dragging their difficulty behind them like a fat dog

Likewise, ‘Skirt’, a found poem drawn from Wikipedia and an online forum, exposes what, from their awkwardness, seem to be authentic, unedited forum comments with explanatory notes. Of men eyeballing women’s bodies in summer clothes:

I know we enjoy it
however it ruins our summer
and I am tired, you can’t look at their face

A more masculine look
including flattened breasts and hips
short hairstyles like the Marcel Wave, the Eton Crop.

When Mort focuses upon the physicality of the female body and takes a more personal perspective the poems become suddenly surprising, affecting. Writing on Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 (as the Notes explain) ‘ran the Boston Marathon, a race only open to men’, Mort opens

If I run too far, too quickly, my breasts
will drop to my kneecaps and my uterus will fall out.

My light hair will grow heavy,
My hips will drag along the floor

Surreal humour and a darkly ominous tone – all achieved through a lightness of touch – make these poems lift off the page. ‘What the papers said’, included in Mort’s ‘Big Lil’ sequence, demonstrates a similar ability. Explained in the notes, Big Lil (or Lillian Bilocca) battled to change safety legislation on board fishing trawlers, but was often mocked.

Lil is meeting Harold Wilson next week
and, at 17 stone, she’s bound to make an impact.
The 17-stone Hull woman has called for a reform
of fishing laws in her distinctive Yorkshire accent,
Standing at 17 stone and 5 foot 5.

The repetition of ‘17 stone’ continues throughout the poem. In this sequence, Mort not only manages to return a presence to a woman who ‘sank as if I never swam at all’, but also manages to provoke thought on contemporary gender issues – the fact that a woman’s significant contribution is still frequently devalued through irrelevant comment upon her appearance. Mort’s No Map Could Show Them is an important book in the way it embraces a range of female narratives. Mort looks at fearlessness and fear, strength and weakness, not settling for a simpler story, but engaging with a variety of perspectives over time. Whilst questions might be raised over Mort’s treatment of the landscape as an overly simplistic background to the mountaineers she focuses upon, Mort clearly succeeds in drawing attention to neglected female figures obviously deserving of greater recognition in a sensitive and engaging manner.

By Isabel Galleymore


cover.jpg.rendition.460.707 (2)No Map Could Show Them by Helen Mort, Chatto & Windus, 2016