Helen Mort’s story of mountains and motherhood is published today by Ebury. Kerri ní Dochartaigh reviews.
‘I measure myself against
the sky in its winter coat’
‘with the county below me,
the cold sky above’
[Poems by Helen Mort from the Poetry Foundation’s website]
This book came to me in the first few days of this year. I devoured it, keeping myself awake way too long into the frosty, milky, winter nights; with every part of my son’s sleeping body touching mine. Since giving birth, this is the only book I have managed to read in a single sitting. It is the only book that made me feel both like I could see parts of myself reflected back and that I was encountering, with each hurried page, a vast and ineffable unknown. What is the point of art other than this; what is the point of keeping on? (for this is why we rise; why we do & make & share; for this is why we waken.)
Mort’s story is two-part, following a neatly divided structure of alternating sections: that of her personal story, and another thread – a separate but related story – from the point of a view of someone else (a unnamed male); that took me until the end of the book to fully understand. This is not by any means a criticism; rather a reflection on the clever, intricate poetry that runs through this gorgeous, essential book. Summarised as a story of Mountains and Motherhood, it delivers with exceptional grace. The dual themes of the book are interwoven finely but are very different in style, making for a thoroughly stimulating read. Alongside Mort’s sharp, raw telling of her journey towards and through motherhood we are given the story of British climber Alison Hargreaves. The alternate section is much slimmer each time and documents the actual details of climbing from the male narrator’s viewpoint. But this book is about so, so much more than even these two vast themes. This book is also an exploration of what it means to be in a relationship; with the self; the body; a lover; friends; family; other women; one’s desires. This is a book of the seen and unseen; on being alive; on being wild; on being a woman. This book is about being a woman – both seen and unseen – alive and wild – in a world that needs new words for every single part of this.
And my oh my, how Mort writes those new words.
We begin at the very beginning: in a delivery room.
‘When I gave birth…I felt that I was fighting for my life…I felt timeless and adrift, connected to a long line of women through history for whom death in childbirth was a real threat….I was on the threshold of my life as a mother…trying to claw my way back towards the sky.’
I realise this is something I have read very rarely; birth centred around the woman, as opposed to the baby. This moment of becoming. This birth of a mother. Why don’t we talk more about the fact that two new people enter the world when a baby is born? Why don’t we do more to hold both of those people, instead of only the smaller of the two? The book continues in this vein, sharing Mort’s journey – both with climbing and mothering.
‘The decision to become a mother had felt…impulsive, instinctive, irrational. It came from somewhere beyond me and inside me at the same time.’
She recalls swimming in a loch on New Year’s Day 2017; ‘I wanted something to swim in me. I wanted to hold something the way the lake held me. To be a vessel and an element, known and unknown. I wanted to be a mother.’ Just over a year later she was pregnant.
Motherhood is laid bare in all its fullness; ‘the new loneliness I felt, the terror of love and responsibility.’
Mort’s son had to return to hospital shortly after birth and it is profoundly moving to read her honest, affecting words about what must have been a heartbreaking, difficult time. Almost every parent I know has voiced the fear Mort verbalizes so precisely; so honestly; that fear at swim inside that ‘you are somehow not enough’. Parenting – caregiving of all forms – can be a tricky, trying, tumultuous thing. New motherhood is a thing I could only try to understand before I entered its Republic, so heartachingly written of by another poet Liz Berry. Matrescence – the birth of a mother – feels too vast an ocean to even try to circumnavigate – let alone write of, for many of us. The blues; the ache; the exhaustion; too often we have such realities held away from us – I’m not quite sure why. It felt humbling and empowering to read such truths, so eloquently rendered.
There are so many women in this book: this is a female text. Not for this reason alone did I find myself back with Doireann Ní Ghriofa’s astonishing, gorgeous book A Ghost In The Throat – in which she writes of the poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, who she hungrily researches in between nursing her baby, mopping floors, packing lunches etc etc etc. ‘When we first met, I was a child, and she had been dead for centuries’. Ní Ghriofa, also a poet, writes of her journey towards a personal translation of ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, ‘The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire’ – previous translations – ‘leave me hungry. Not just hungry. I am starving…whenever I sit, it is to emit pale syllables of milk, while sipping my own dark sustenance from ink.’
Like Ní Ghriofa, Mort vocalizes her concerns around writing the story of another alongside her own; ‘What gives me the right to weave her story into my own?…If I go to look for her, she is nowhere…But I imagine her everywhere, breathing steadily in my ear.’ Like Ní Ghriofa she also shares how transformational the process is, how beneficial for her art; ‘In chasing her ghost, I become a ghost in my own life. I give myself permission to pass through walls, slip underneath the surface of the ice…Most of all, I want to write to her. Or to her ghost.’
There is an incredible section in which Mort shares a story of another woman – Jane Ellen Harrison – who she encounters in Francesca Wade’s Square Hunting on. Harrison, a Classics Scholar, is obsessed with bears. Mort is too: ‘I am fascinated by bears because I am not yet ready to become a woman, a mother, even though I have a child.’ She goes on to share an exquisite moment of settling her son to sleep; their intimate, shared ritual: ‘Dada loves you. Nana loves you. Baba loves you…Sister loves you, brother loves you…Mama loves you. Most of all, Mama loves you…I look to the cold sky…trace the constellation of Ursa Major…This is what Alison would have seen…I dream of height.’
Female friendship as the confusing, achy thing it can often be is written of so well in this book. I especially love how Mort writes of the uncertainty that can keep some of us back from entering fully into friendships if we’ve had difficult experiences in the past. Mort’s friendship with another climber and writer – Anna Fleming – was very touching to read of. I haven’t climbed since I was a child but this book – especially the accounts by the unnamed narrator and the sections on Alison Hargreaves – have left me hungry; not only to climb but to read more about it.
What does it mean to be responsible for the wellbeing of a small human, perhaps particularly one you have chosen to mother, however that looks? Mort touches so delicately on the intricacies involved in a way that will stay with me; the love & all-encompassing joy; the fear & uncertainty. ‘I am afraid that he will climb past me, out of sight, with movements I recognize too well, movements that are my own.’
Mort writes about breastfeeding in a way I have never encountered before. She writes that she believes Hargreaves found this a difficult element of motherhood too. Again, the narrative we are often given is of the intimacy; the sacrifice that verges on martyrdom; how ‘natural’ it all is (as a breastfeeding mother I understand that these are valid points of which to read) but there is – in countless cases – a whole other story. The constant worry; the pain; the fear. The loss of your own self, your desire, your body; many of us experience breastfeeding as being harder than giving birth and I am grateful to get to read such truths; ‘My body did not feel like mine.’
I realised as I read over the notes I made in the small hours that the only person aside from an Instagram Lactation Consultant that I have ever heard talk about what happens when you stop breastfeeding is Helen Mort. I am not shocked by the honesty with which she approaches this topic; with the poetry she affords this chemical, biological process: ‘This was when I first started to lose my geography.’ Mort does something in this book that as a reader and writer I am deeply inspired by. She writes the personal in such an unflinching, exceptional way. I am not shocked that her words on Postnatal experience leaves me bawling. Neither am I shocked that I felt she was failed by a system that itself needs support. When are we ever going to learn to listen to, trust and support women properly?
Perhaps the most affecting exploration within this book is that of wildness, and how that is impacted on when someone becomes a mother. ‘As a mother, I often imagine that family has tamed me…Alison’s example shows that, with enough…care, mothers can keep their wildness.’
Something we hear, again and again, is that you are changed forever when you have a child. But I want to hear how to navigate a relationship with the parts of you that haven’t changed. Those parts that still call to you in the wee small hours; even as you try to cover your ears because it hurts so bad; this loss of things that make you ‘you’. ‘I long to take off into the night and flatten myself against moorland peat, roll in heather, taste the ground, alone and without him. I imagine creeping back…bringing him the small of ferns, the taste of feathers, the roughness of gritstone, my eyes glittering with the small light the stars have granted me.’ We carry out any role best of all when we are allowed to be ourselves. What needs to happen to get us to the stage where mothers aren’t celebrating peeing in peace as a personal victory? That being a woman, no matter what choices we make, in any context, doesn’t carry the weight of so much that it becomes immeasurable?
‘Motherhood splits the mother and creates parallel selves’, whilst at the same time women are subject – over and over – to being placed firmly inside one box only by a (toxically) male society. We will always be reminded of our ‘femaleness’. The bit where Mort writes of the horrific deepfake pornographic images posted online (images of her that were stolen and made to show her being exposed to deeply traumatic violence) and their impact on her wellbeing made for incredibly difficult but essential reading. Writing is what took the nightmares she had of rape and turned them into dreams of empowerment; female solidarity; dreams of climbing.
In Ireland, on a daytime run along a canal in the Winter sun, a woman is murdered by a violent man. I sit on the sofa nursing my young son, tears streaming down my face as I read of Ashling Murphy. I log into Instagram, trying to take my mind off it all, off the hideous male violence that holds up the walls of our world. I message my closest friend, also a mother of a baby boy, seeking answers to the questions I am still too tired to verbalise. Questions about how best to raise a son, a male, in this world, in this moment, in this life. I scroll through my feed, the only thing I seem able to find concentration for these milky, foggy days, to find – one after the other – images of the following: the young sons of a writer climbing a misty, grey hill in Yorkshire after school; the young son of a writer in the Peak District looking down on the world below; the young son of a writer up at the very top of a high climbing frame.
All the young sons are so full of joy in their backlit squares it almost fills my grey room.
All the writers carrying their sons up these frames and tops; hills and mountains (including the one who wrote this excellent book) are women.
(I tilt towards her, reaching.)
‘A Line Above the Sky’ is out now and available here (£16.99). Helen Mort will read from the book at this year’s Camp Good Life.