The Singing Glacier (Hercules Editions) by Helen Mort is a brief collection, just six poems slotted into the size of a crack. But the heart-shaking imagery produced in response to this precious and precarious landscape cuts right to the core.
The book opens with an orchestra of clattering spoons and chattering customers; percussive rain pounding against a café window as prelude to the melodious lure of the landscape (‘the singing glacier’). Here in ‘Hand of Ice’, a prefatory interview, Helen Mort is reminiscing about her trip to south-eastern Greenland – crossing remote glaciers and scaling mountains near Sermiligaaq Fjord – with composer and companion William Carslake. But alongside plain awe, reminiscence is scored in such a way that the acoustics of friction shuffle into the foreground.
Joined by filmmaker Richard Jones, the team patch together a powerful interdisciplinary response to this fleeting and frost-bitten terrain, rendered all the more tremendous by prints and drawings from artist Emma Stibbon RA: ‘there’s a friction between the music, poetry and film which mirrors what’s happening in the landscape’, explains Carslake. This casual overture is more important than it seems as it sets the scene for the driving force behind Mort’s poems: the friction between linguistic frameworks and their locator, following on from being faced with the sublime. The experience is explained with endearing transparency:
I wanted to cry because it was so big and beautiful. And I thought, if the only words I can come up with are ‘big’ and ‘beautiful’, what hope is there for me as a poet?
Mort is cautious about slipping down the slope of cliché, traipsing across the same mountains of thought already tread by others. ‘I hesitate to say this, but it feels like being in the presence of a God’, she admits. The collection almost reads like a catalogue of how to navigate around the issue and Mort brazenly holds nothing back.
A lot of what I was writing in Greenland was just cliché. But I remember thinking that the reason clichés came to mind [….] was because there was a degree of accuracy to how those phrases captured my emotional response! […] When writing about vast landscapes, the idea of linguistic originality can almost seem a little arbitrary.
When the first poem finally comes into focus, ‘Glacier Song’, whose three parts study the sounds and silences of the glacier through the shifting moods of daylight, the whiff of cliché is waved off with fanciful characterisation. ‘The glacier is restless’, for example, quickly gains the qualifying independence of an ‘insomniac’ that hasn’t ‘slept / for centuries’.
In ‘Glacier Speaks’, it is charming arrogance that counteracts the cliché: ‘Go on then / says the glacier – / how are you going to score my silences?’. With the irritating nudge, ‘Don’t you / remember’, the glacier challenges the poet to a duel of words: ‘I have silences / / and they’re nothing / like the silence with your lover in the car’. Its freight of flesh appears fickle but fierce, clinging onto what’s left of our wintry climate with colossal resolution that refuses to solicit a reader’s sympathy, contrary to expectations.
While Mort uses anthropomorphism, there’s a simultaneous undercutting thanks to her characteristically stripped-back, quietly comedic and clever tone. The Knud Rasmussen glacier simply ‘does breathing exercises. In // then out’ in ‘Glacier Song’, for example, sucking without a sound on its ‘lozenge made of cold’. But like pearls that are both plain but dazzling, certain lines stand out for their brutally hard-hitting truths, in spite of being revealed with a blasé sleight of hand. ‘A glacier is a misplaced bet’, for instance, gains pertinent and poignant undertones with the threat of climate change hazing up the horizon.
In glaciology, chattermarks are scars left on the bedrock surface after the burden of ice has moved its load. Mort acknowledges such pre-carved marks through her self-conscious retrospection, but she also resolves to make them her own. These dynamics of resistance and reclamation come into play in ‘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
In this poem, Mort eventually seeks refuge in silence: ‘and we stand like nothing, shaken / from the pockets of our lives, our mouths / stuck on the silent word for awe’. Elsewhere, as in ‘And Noah’, whose lines are snatched from conversations between the locals, she skirts round the problem with found poetry: ‘Here is a drum […] Here is the skeleton of a seal […] Here is a toy […] Here / is Noah’s Kayak […] Narwal. Dog. / Polar Bear. Musk Ox. / Snow Hare. And Noah.’ This threadbare minimalism might seem to muster nothing more than listed observation but it brings authenticity in bundles.
Mort usually dips in and out of short lyrics, but swept away by the sense of shifting from all angles – the constantly evolving state of glaciers and the way they sustain communities – she allows herself ‘to be more sprawling on the page’. Rather inventively, Mort works in the idea of ‘putting a foot wrong’ inspired by poet Mark Goodwin: ‘just as when we were crossing those shifting boulder / fields and scree we were stumbling but still going forward’.
Nonetheless, in spite of the shift in length, some aspects of Mort’s style remain the same. As ever, Mort’s imagistic flair keeps us flicking eagerly from one page to another. In ‘Arctic Fox, August’, for instance, there is this: ‘sky stubbed out the day / against a crown of rocks’. Her train of thought is briskly crystalised, offering bitesized wonders that reach beyond the barest of frameworks. Mort doesn’t just look, she listens to what this fragile landscape has to say and transcribes its tales with precision-engineered originality and style.