Poem of the week

What the Mountain Saw by Philip Gross

A walker in Clair National Park

A walker in Clair National Park.

There’s a lot of short-story-telling in contemporary poetry, perhaps partly reflecting the influence of cinema. Irish poet Matthew Sweeney, for example, describes his poems as “imagistic narrative”. The poet can do everything a good independent film director does, working with strange, quirky, uncompromising characters and bizarre events, tracking the psychological hinterland. For the reader, there is the satisfaction of cutting straight to the emotional core, to the moments of revelation and epiphany. As in a short story, but even more rigorously, every detail has to earn its narrative place.

This week’s choice, “What the Mountain Saw” by Philip Gross, is an exemplary story-poem that demonstrates the art of saying enough but no more than enough. It seems to encapsulate the entire emotional story of a family – and, as a few politicians have recently twigged, the family story also tells society’s story, or one of its stories.

The poem has an omniscient narrator, and this helps to give it both the authority and distance of a piece of 19th-century fiction. The father is introduced in line three in a phrase which defines his character: “The father is first awake.” He is, we note, “the father”: the other players are similarly identified by their familial roles, “wife and child”, “the child”. None of the characters is ever named. All are in some way archetypal – like the mountain, which is the first thing paterfamilias sees, alone, having wakened the exhausted family, no doubt, with that explosive “clack” of the shutters.

That the father is orchestrating the holiday is immediately clear. It’s not until the fourth stanza that we see his retinue, trudging along patiently and passively. The mountain is important because of the challenge it represents for dad. Is it ugly, is it beautiful? It “squats square in the window” but it also twirls a scarf of cloud like a femme fatale. Either way, it is uncompromising and unreliable, and the father is determined that he and his family should conquer it.

The poem cuts from the first “shots” of the mountain to the family’s attempt to grapple with it. Despite the generous line-length and the discipline of the four-lined stanza structure, the sentence rhythms convey a strong sense of forward pace, and the reader is completely drawn into this relentless, hopeless hike. We feel a sense of impending danger early on, one which is steadily intensified. The north face, we’re told, is “a killer”. When the father “brings the family, breathless, to its knees” it’s only to show them an “icicle-white wild crocus”, but the colloquial meaning of the phrase lingers.

While the merciless trek goes on, we’re shown things of remarkable beauty: not only the startlingly described crocus, and other flowers, but the lake and the waterfall, also associated with whiteness and ice. That these things seem gifts within the father’s power, while they are actually the mountain’s, enhances the atmosphere of hubris. The drama climaxes when, hair-raisingly, the child “teeters/ on a plank beneath the water-fall”. Now, for the first time, the pronoun tells us her gender. And this, as the father will later say, is “their furthest point”.

And yet it isn’t the climax, after all. The poem creates for the reader an experience similar to that of the climbers, slogging up the mountain and always thinking that the summit is near. The next narrative peak occurs at the very moment the reader might be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief – at the breakfast table, and mid-stanza. It is here that the child, valiantly obedient till now, “has one of her turns”. The colloquialism emphasises a hopeless effort to tame the frightening condition with vague, meaningless words.

The narrator freeze-frames the different stages of the “turn” with great dramatic effect, catching perfectly that strange psychological phenomenon in which accidents seem to slow time for those experiencing or watching them. This new event is revelatory. We now begin to understand the desperate draw of the mountain for the father, and realise how powerless he really is. Despite his drive to escape, resolve, transform the tragedy and its consequent embarrassments, he will “never reach” the child.

We are not told the name of the mountain, the location, nor the time in which the poem is set. Whatever their historical period, the family-of-three is bound in a set of destructive conventions. The rigid patriarchy by which they operate seems reflected in the etiquette of starched table-linen and hushed breakfasts.

A successful short story is a journey, and however much or little happens in terms of event, the reader, in the company of the protagonist, should reach a different mental place at the story’s end. For me, the transformation was that I now understood, and even sympathised with, the father. In fact, he has his own “turn” – into a kind of artist, whose raw material is his family. When he imagines how small the breakfast episode would look to the mountain, it’s as if we’re seeing a director’s cut. The isolation of the last line is a symbol of the cold, aesthetic isolation the artist-father truly craves.

Philip Gross’s latest collection The Water Table recently received the TS Eliot prize. “What the Mountain Saw” is an early poem, but it displays all Gross’s understated mastery of pace and rhythm, his acute descriptive skills and his emotional tact. It appears in Changes of Address: Poems 1980-1998 (Bloodaxe Books, 2001). Grateful thanks to the author and publisher for permission to reprint it here.

What the Mountain Saw 

They arrive by night, travel-stunned, and see nothing.
They sleep wrapped in pine-tang and the rush of waters.
The father is first awake. He clacks the shutters back
and a mountain squats square in the window, looking in. 
It never leaves them, though it changes hour by hour,
twisting a scarf of cloud, or turning a hard profile
to the morning sun, or dissembling a sugar-pink haze.
However far they walk – and they walk, walk every day – 
it’s above them, a bit of beyond. Some snow hangs on
in shreds. This is a famous north face, and a killer.
Each day the father scans it with his old binoculars
for any hint of tracks, and never finds them. 
So the holiday proceeds, in a series of snapshots.
Here, in mid-stride, he crests a rise, wife and child
at his boot-heels, tranced by their thud and the heat
and the insect hum. But the snow-face is no nearer. 
Here, through veils of spruce, he breaks into a glade
possessed by pallid green-veined hellebores.
Or here, he brings the family, breathless, to its knees
before one icicle-white wild crocus. Here is the lake
he finds them, like a souvenir, round and still
enough to hold the mountain, till a fish jumps.
In between, there are the hours he drives them on
for health. Stop too long, the sweat begins to chill. 
Breathe deep!‘ he cries, and strikes out higher
up a wide white stony stream-bed, tumbled and scoured
by the spring-melt, strewn with tree-trunks, torn
and bleached, and a few tiny tough mauve flowers 
he can’t name. He grips the child’s hand as she teeters
on a plank beneath a waterfall. Its ice-breath touches them.
Their hair goes white with spray. Afterwards he will say
This was our furthest point,’ and sigh. As they drag home  
footsore, the mountain shows itself again behind them,
in its pure dream of itself, untouched … Just as now
it looks in through the breakfast-room window when the child,
as if the strings that controlled her had fouled 
and were jerked tight, has one of her turns. An egg
tips from its silver cup, a glass pirouettes to the edge
but has not yet smashed, the other guests have not
yet turned to stare, the father reaches for her but 
is frozen. He will never reach her. Any moment now
the yolk will burst on crisply laundered linen. Soon
there will be splinters and tears. Behind it all he sees
the mountain at the window. If one could stand there 
looking down
, he thinks, this would all be very small.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/feb/01/poem-of-the-week-philip-gross