Helen Mort was born in Sheffield. A stand out poet of her generation, there was a buzz around Helen Mort even before she published her first collection Division Street. She had already published two enthusiastically received pamphlets, and won the Foyle Young Poet award numerous times. Division Street was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Poetry Award and won the respected Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and in 2010 she became the youngest poet in residence at the Wordsworth Trust. Now she has a second Poetry Book Society Recommended collection, No Map Could Show Them.
Helen Mort’s poems are often breathtakingly wonderful. Assured, full of mystery, subtly witty, completely unique in the images they paint, reveal and capture for the reader. An Easy Day for a Lady is one such extraordinarily exuberant poem turning a derogatory comment aimed at female mountain climbers into a marvellous celebration of courage and power:
we are magicians of the Alps -
we make the routes we follow
Another brilliant example of Mort’s ability to upturn perspective and make things she writes about seem completely new and fresh, with complete integrity and conviction is in the poem Items Carried Up Ben Nevis, which begins,
The piano, that was easiest, despite the keys
rattling like dice beneath the lid, so next
I strapped a toffee-coloured horse across my back
The strangeness is balanced by the attention to detail and the poem builds verse by verse into an ending that subverts our expectations and seems to leave us in very different territory.
Hauntings, in the form of ghosts, near misses and glimpsed epiphanies form a strong thread in Helen Mort’s work and she responds to a question about this in a Granta interview with Rachael Allen, “I think poetry itself is a kind of haunting for me. That’s how poems start – I’m visited by an idea that won’t go away and I often carry it around for months.” There is the image of her mother standing at the window in the poem Deer,
Those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur,
Their eyes, like hers, that flickered back
towards whatever followed them.
Or the pub in Stainless Steven ‘where brambles twine around the pumps’ and men stride in and
Tug their collars,
loosening the noose of heat.
Some of the poems evoke a vision of the north of England as a place haunted, by its past and history; a place which is in a sense disappearing as it changes beyond recognition, ‘The mills are plush apartments now’. In Fur the snow
wants my childhood for itself.
It wants to claim The Blacksmith’s Arms,
digest the Calow Fish Bar whole...
Class is a strong theme, explored in poems in both collections such as in the brilliant and moving poem Tom Hulatt’s Mile about an iconic race where he was the only runner who was not a university student. This theme is perhaps most strong and personal in Scab, a poem about the clash between picketing miners and the police in 1984. Helen Mort says, “I could only write ‘Scab’ when I’d figured out what my connection with it (the aftermath of the strikes) really was, why it bothered me so much. And that centred around experiences at Cambridge University, the idea of having crossed an invisible picket line. I had to come at it a bit slant.’
A stone is lobbed in ’84,
hangs like a star over Orgreave.
Welcome to Sheffield. Border-land,
our town of miracles..
Not only class, but gender and the many voices that are traditionally and persistently forgotten, ignored, misunderstood or unheard. Often Helen Mort’s poems tackle difficult themes with assured wit and a satirical flare, such as in the poem Difficult, ‘In London, it’s said you’re never more than 6 feet/ from a difficult woman.’ Thinspiration Shots is overtly about an eating disorder, but also less easily about the urge to disappear,
Once you dreamt of being small enough
to fit inside your grandma’s jewellery box:
the dancer spinning on her gold left leg,
Rachel in Attercliffee takes the voice of a sex-worker in a city sauna. The wonderful sequence of poems Big Lil celebrate Lilian Bilocca who became a campaigner after the 1968 Hull trawler disaster. The poems work on many levels, imagining Bilocca’s inner life as in Lil’s dream and satirising her portrayal in the media.
Helen Mort’s writing has a strong musicality, with beautiful use of rhyme and word sounds to create a lovely lilt across many of the poems. It is no surprise therefore to find out that she is inspired by John Burnside and Andrew Greig. Many critics also comment on the precision of her writing, such as a tattoo captured in ‘the knit-knit whine/of needle dotting bone’. Her poems about landscapes reflect her passions as a walker, runner and climber and draw the reader deeply into their wildness and strangeness. Her poems are full of phrases and images that, as one critic puts it, seem ‘effortlessly beautiful’ as in Coffin Path:
Today, the dark’s grown courteous:
shadows seem to step aside
to let me pass...
You are very successful
but you have rocks in your chest,
wedged where your breasts should be.
Your stomach is a boulder.
To hold you up, your legs grow stony too.
You zip your jacket up
and nobody notices you are a mountain.
You buy coffee,
run board meetings where no-one says
you’re made of scree
but above your head, their talk is weather,
your eyes collect new rain
and you know what you are because
like any hillside
you don’t sleep. Your feet could hold you here
forever but your sides
are crumbling, and when you speak
your words are rockfall, you’re
scared your heart is tumbling from your mouth.
/ Big Lil
i.m. Lillian Bilocca and the Hull triple trawler disaster, 1968.
I dreamed Hessle Road was a river
thundering by night to the North Sea
and all the men I’d tried to warn
were channelled from their pubs and houses
fists still clutching glasses, papers,
kitchen knives. I lay down in the waters
like a boat, but I was buffeted,
I zig-zagged after them, face-down,
my body bloated in the stream. I could still see
and knew the shoals beneath weren’t fish
but scraps of hulls and decks,
dead radios. The riverbed was lined
with messages, scribbled goodbyes
to everything we’d not yet lost
to all we could not carry, would not need
where water planned on taking us.
What the papers said
We’ll fight for our lads said 17-stone Lil,
proud on the docks like a 17-stone anchor.
Each ship needs a working radio, said the fishwife,
raising herself to her full height
and full 17 stone.
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.
With 17 stone behind her, she’s looking squarely
to the future. I’m proud of her said her husband
10-stone Charlie, gazing out to sea.
Don’t speak until you’re spoken to.
The ocean’s given me my cue.
You shouldn’t raise your voice outdoors.
My words live in the crowd’s applause.
This is a matter for the men. Go home.
I’ll stand until I’m frozen down to bone.
Your accent’s making you a laughing stock.
Long as they listen, let them mock.
They’ll mute you, Lil. They’ll throw you out to sea.
They’ll have to gag this town to silence me.
Lil’s last word
Nothing touches Hull except the sea.
As if a tide cut Hessle Road
and Anlaby, making us islands to ourselves.
I dived in where the ocean shelved away
and tried to swim. Before I’d raised my arms
I was already too far in
and too far out. The city fixed me
with its lighthouse stare. I opened my mouth
and I was ransacked by its glare.
I let a single word go like a flare
and watched it douse the night, then fall.
I sank as if I never swam at all.
“God knows there are difficult women out there. Women who are - at times – shallow, bitchy, selfish, dishonest and, of course, crazy.” – AskMen: Why Men Date Difficult Women
Difficult women don’t care 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.
Some of them are running, cycling, or worse,
driving cars. If a difficult woman hits you at 30 miles per hour
you have a 50 percent chance of survival. At home,
difficult women are more like walls than windows
but if you lean on one, you fall straight through
and sometimes at night they show your face.
Difficult women don’t know they’re born.
Difficult women don’t know the meaning of the word.
There could be one folded into your newspaper,
holding her breasts like oranges. There might be
one carrying your coffee, or moving to your road.
In London, it’s said you’re never more than 6 feet
from a difficult woman. Have you or a colleague
had a difficult woman in the last 6 months?
If so, you may be entitled to compensation.
Do you have difficulty with our questions?
Are you afraid you may be difficult yourself?
/ How to Dress
“A lady’s dress is inconvenient for mountaineering.” – Mrs Henry Warwick Cole, 1859
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 forearms gloved with permafrost,
your fingers lichen-light,
your mouth becoming fissured
and your ankles malachite.
Slip on a jacket made of shale,
cold stockings from a forded stream.
Take off the clothes they want
to keep you in. The shadow of the hill
undresses you. The sky
will be your broad-brimmed hat.
Give us good days.
Days unspectacular but adequate:
the weather neither calm nor wild,
your coat zipped nearly to the top,
a silver thermos cooling in your bag,
the sky at Bamford reddening, as if
embarrassed by its own strange reach
and day-old, pipe-smoke clouds.
Above the Hope cement works,
crows wheel arcs of guarded flight
and when you touch the rock
your fingers hold.
/ Kinder Scout
Gold light. I wish the day
could break me like an egg
so I’d ooze the same colour, flatten
on the skillet of Mam Tor.
I’d like the summit path to be a knife
that pared me, skin
like apple skin, saving
just my necessary parts.
Surely the best northwesterly
could whip me into lightness,
sugar me, admit the air
so something of this landscape
could be folded in:
September bracken, lichen, stone.
I don’t know if I’m ready
to be taken
but I’d like to lie prepared:
unnoticed, important as butter,
on the hill’s plate.
/ Alport Castles
The wind let the landscape move
how it always wanted to,
leaned us together
like ferns, or upper branches
and we walked the slope
believing we were part of the scenery
talking about music and summits,
places we’d never go again.
Then the rocks finished my sentence -
tall and architectural:
their moat of grass
their keep of clouds,
more intricate than any human fort.
We sat up high and praised
like two off-duty gods
as if a view was something
made. And the clouds
over Derwent mended
and we were briefly glorious,
though neither of us had
built, would build a single thing.
/ The French for Death
I trampled ants on the quay at Dieppe, dawdling
by the desk where they wouldn’t take yes for an answer;
yes, it was our name and spelled just so –
Dad repeated it in Oldham’s finest guttural,
we shook our heads at Moor and Maud and Morden.
Rope swung from the captain’s fist
and lashed the water. I saw him shudder,
troubled by a vision of our crossing:
glower of thunder, the lurch and buckle
of the ferry. I looked him in the eye
and popped my bubblegum. Child
from the underworld in red sandals
and a Disney t-shirt, not yet ashamed
by that curt syllable, not yet the girl
who takes the worst route home, pauses
at the mouths of alleyways, or kisses
strangers on the nameless pier; eyes open,
staring out to sea, as if, in the distance
there’s the spindle of a shipwreck,
prow angled to a far country.
/ Twenty Two Words for Snow
The lawn was freezing over
but the air stayed empty,
and I wondered how the Inuit
would name this waiting –
our radio playing to itself in the bathroom,
the sound from the street
of ice-cream vans out of season
in this town where we don’t have
twenty-two words for anything,
where I learned the name
for artificial hills, the bridge
where a man was felled by bricks
in the strike. From the window,
I watch the sky as it starts to fill.
In the kitchen, dad sifts flour,
still panning for something.
The deer my mother swears to God we never saw,
the ones that stepped between the trees
on pound coin-coloured hooves,
I’d bring them up each teatime in the holidays
and they were brighter every time I did;
more supple than the otters we waited for
at Ullapool, more graceful than the kingfisher
that darned the river south of Rannoch Moor.
Five years on, in that same house, I rose
for water in the middle of the night and watched
my mother at the window, looking out
to where the forest lapped the garden’s edge.
From where she stood, I saw them stealing
through the pines and they must have been closer
than before, because I had no memory
of those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur
their eyes, like hers, that flickered back
towards whatever followed them.
/ Rag & Bone
Seeing the cart and quartz-white mare
from your window, open to the street,
I want the things that other people don’t:
tortoiseshell glasses someone must have
died in, a boa’s glossy soddenness,
the china mug, cracked with a final argument.
I want to climb inside the knackered stronghold
of a fridge – no longer cool – or lie beside you
on a mattress moulded by another’s bones,
drift down the City road, lay claim
to every disused shop, the winter trees
still reaching out for all the leaves they lost.
Come back: we’ll take the slim, once-wanted moon,
unfashionable blackboard sky. No-one will miss
the world tonight. Let’s have the lot.
/ The Dogs
Some mornings, waking up between the sandy whippet
and the black – their breathing slow as mine,
their eyes more sorrowful – I remind myself I’m not a dog.
It’s not acceptable to taste the grass or roll in moss until
I’m musked with it. There are deer in the woods I’ll never see.
My thirst discriminates. It does not have me bend
my grateful head to puddles, gutters, hollows
in the rock. I don’t track rabbits in my sleep.
I’ll not know love like theirs, observed in mute proximity
and if I sometimes sit bolt upright after dark, sensing
a movement in the yard, it’s only that I’ve learned
a little of their vigilance. I’m not like them:
one night I’ll set off past the meadow, down
behind the beck, beyond the blunt profile of Silver Howe
and nobody will call me back.
/ Items Carried Up Ben Nevis
The piano, that was easiest, despite the keys
rattling like dice beneath the lid, so next
I strapped a toffee-coloured horse across my back,
ferried a coffin with the body still inside
pitching from left to right with every move.
I took a statue of Napoleon and set it
on the pony track – a kind of shrine –
and goaded later in the pub, I dragged
the whole place up with me, stopped
to pull a pint beneath the summit cairn.
By then, the town was a skeleton,
the mountain curtseying with weight,
which just left you: I draped your arms
around my neck. Light as you are,
I couldn’t take you with me. Not a step.
The leaves aren’t lit, but morning’s struck a match
so I can see a path through Linacre - low gold
that spreads across the grates of reservoirs
and stokes the trees, long after an electric summer
and its short-fuse sky. September, sparking
on the ground so nobody can step into these woods
and not be burned. A woman calling for her dog
goes smouldering to moss. A cyclist
becomes a Catherine Wheel. I run
and feel my body catch, my face a taper,
shoulders taking light, my ribcage flammable.
I shed the new ash of my collarbones and spine
until I’m cinder, smoke, or left with all the parts
last winter made - the soft snow of my shoulders,
wrists and throat and when I try to hold
my voice I find it’s thawed, a river,
all the names I ever knew
/ Fox Miles
Supple as a dream I can’t call back,
a vixen, in the hedgerow’s
matted black, is startled out
to skirt the dawn, and vanish with the dark –
her flame-bright tail extinguished
by the railings of the park. But first,
she bolts across an empty road
and keeps her pace with mine. I slow
to look at her across the gap. We run in time.
She turns her face. Her eyes flare
in the artificial light, and then
she finds a trapdoor in the night;
a corridor towards the sun that she
slinks down alone, and covers miles
she might mistake for home.
And what she sees she cannot tell,
but what she knows of distances,
and doesn’t say, I know as well.
/ In Defence of Cliché
I write: ice in the fjord as pale as thought
then hear the calving face crash through my language
with a sound (like what?) like cannon fire
and the moon seen by our telescope
refuses to be petal, snowball, sleeping moth,
regarding us with its inhuman face.
The sky is not the cover of a hardback book,
but a sheet I try to lift, imagining the stars
as skin, until the night is veiled green -
a belt first, then a curving whale bone arch,
that strain of time that Hopkins saw
correcting the preoccupation of the world
and we stand like nothing, shaken
from the pockets of our lives, our mouths
stuck on the silent word for awe.
/ Looking Glass
You cannot use your knife or fork or teeth too quietly.
- Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society, 1843
There is always a cake that says eat me.
Currants, like the pupils of small eyes,
the open mouth of the mirror
showing how you’ve grown -
your wrists ballooning
and your thighs two chimney pots.
The world’s a doll’s house,
trampled by your tread,
of your left feet.
There is always a bottle marked drink me.
Your open and unsteady palm,
the room outgrowing you,
the ocean of the carpet,
tabletop becoming sky.
Among the skyscrapers of furniture
you could forget yourself,
a longed-for, liquid
the way your limbs contract,
as if you should be on a cake yourself,
a three-tier, sugar-spun affair,
a wedding in July and you
on top, in marzipan, in miniature,
the laughing bridesmaid
with her caught bouquet
and lilac dress who bends
towards you saying:
isn’t she good? Doesn’t she
look like a real woman?