Caught by the River

Gas and Air: a poem by Helen Mort

1st March 2020

When he naps, my son holds his dummy
like a mountaineer using oxygen. Yes,
he’s so serious – he’s a climber in a down suit, fighting
to inhale a thinness, moving through new territory
high above the snow line, beyond the routine world.

Or he’s me, clutching that tube of gas and air
the night I struggled to give birth to him,
nearly drowned in the kidney-shaped pool
in the Royal Hospital, body tensing, pushing 
somewhere far beyond control. I closed my eyes,

pretended I was roped up, following the sun
on Ama Dablam, K2, Everest, imagining
I could stand on the roof of myself, 
holding the flag of my blood and look down,
through bone and sinew and placenta

and when they took the gas from me, I wept 
like someone turned away from a summit,
forced to descend through the ice-bulked shapes
of mountains, seracs and snow-bridges, the climbers
they enfold and trap, their strange pregnancy,

fathers and mothers, daughters
and sons whittled to femurs and fibulas,
vertebrae and skulls, reduced to potential,
to hardness, to all the parts
the cold deemed strongest.


Helen reads on our stage (well…boat) at the upcoming Aerial Festival, 28 March, alongside Amy Liptrot, Jack Cooper, and Roy Wilkinson. More information available here.