A careful engagement with nature ‘in its fault and fold’ is also a watchful flight from human complication
the Yellow Mountains in Anhui province, China.
‘Emptiness and order’ … the Yellow Mountains in Anhui province, China. Photograph: Wu Hong/EPA
To travel the world explicit
in its fault and fold.
To enter the background
as each thought discards itself:
pine-needles to the tree-line,
To move small, sleep low
and dream new depths
Sign up to our Bookmarks newsletter
of emptiness and order.
To be troubled by neither.
The loosening air
concentrates your blood
and your heart has the simple grip
of speedwell or gentian.
You forget what it is
to elaborate or qualify.
white against white sky.
The collection from which this week’s poem is drawn, The Casual Perfect, first appeared in 2012. Greenlaw discusses, and reads from, the collection here – beginning with her connection to Elizabeth Bishop, one shared by a number of British women poets of Greenlaw’s generation. This connection is wrought not only through the artistic goal of making the casual perfect (as Robert Lowell said of Bishop). Places and journeys for both Bishop and Greenlaw are vital sources for poems, and also establish the inner conditions essential to their execution.
On the Mountain seems grammatically to contain two distinct parts. The first is dominated by the infinitive verb-form, evoking timelessness. It’s an admirably subtle, asymmetric approach to the “poetic list” structure. Each line beginning with “to” answers an unasked question about the nature of climbing, and living on, this particular mountain. There are four of these infinitive “answers”, elegantly embedded in five stanzas, forming almost a small poem within the poem.
Geological nouns embrace metaphorical zones in the opening: “To travel the world explicit / in its fault and fold.” Those precise, solid, soundly meaningful words, “fault” and “fold”, have physical presence. They earth the poem. But it’s the word “explicit” which serves to illuminate the distinction between the challenging but reliable kinds of rock-formation, and equivalent disturbances in another kind of world, one that is not the world of the mountain, and not “explicit”. The faults and folds of historical time may contain mystifications and falsifications that cannot be surmounted as simply as difficult rocks can be negotiated physically.
To travel, to enter, to move, sleep and dream – that decreasingly energetic series culminates in the quiet circadian rhythms described in stanzas four and five: “To move small, sleep low / and dream new depths.” Such dreaming, perhaps combining both conscious and subconscious possibilities in the verb, digs closer to the psychological level of perception at the poem’s core. Longed-for conditions, such as “emptiness and order”, may turn out to be comfortless, riddled with their own convoluted demons, but the mountain is prophylactic against this pathology, too. To enter the world of the mountain, and “sleep low” in the bivvy, is not only to climb but to sink down, and be received into “new depths // of emptiness and order” and feel “troubled by neither”.
Now the infinitive is put on hold: the harder-breathing present tense takes over, and the informal pronoun, “you”, adds an intimate tone to the assertions. Speaker and surroundings interconnect further. “The loosening air / concentrates your blood // and your heart has the simple grip / of speedwell or gentian.” The ascent imagined in the poem presumably takes place at a hospitable altitude, with no threat from dwindling oxygen. “The loosening air” suggests a new, fresh wind blowing, and the climber’s blood being enriched by exertion. However, the heart is not only the physical organ: the delicate tenacity implied by “the simple grip / of speedwell or gentian” suggests that an emotional connection has also been focused by the mountain, enhanced by its re-ordered priorities. As in the third stanza, the landscape is close-read. One of the pleasures of the poem is that its vision includes pine-needles, scree and small flowers, while somehow evoking magnitude, physical and conceptual.
The penultimate stanza, again, evokes mental release, with a characteristic pairing of words (and an echo of the infinitive structure): “You forget what it is / to elaborate or qualify.” Sweet forgetfulness recalls the speaker’s desire, in the fourth line, to enter the approaching “background”, in which thoughts themselves amount to little more than mountain debris. The last stanza marks a culmination of the speaker’s identification with their surroundings. This time, fusion is achieved with the sky itself – a cold, winter sky, as the whiteness of the breath tells us. The visual effect, of white on white, seems to imply an ultimate, and perhaps rather blissful, self-erasure.