Dear Alison by Helen Mort
‘I Write to You Because Your Imprint’s Everywhere’
From the anthology No Map Could Show Them (Chatto & Windus, 2016) poet Helen Mort has focused on women who have had a particular relevance to her and across history. In ‘Dear Alison’ she writes not about but to the late Derbyshire-born mountaineer Alison Hargreaves who died climbing in 1995, and whose decision to continue climbing in the face of being a young mother has left its haunting shadow in her wake.
In discussing the making of ‘Dear Alison’ Helen observed how for her mountaineering and writing poetry are very similar; and how the act of climbing might help shape a line of poetry on the subject – an area that Judy Kendall herself is familiar with.
The resulting poetry film, made with Dark Sky Media and UKClimbing.com sits between a form of documentary tribute through poetry, and an evocation of the very themes that preoccupy the poet herself. It is in fact a form of portrait of Helen through Alison; or, not only Helen as conduit for Alison but Alison as conduit for Helen, where we see Helen more clearly as a result. And it is also a metanarrative on the process of writing: of the struggle of putting one word after another; of literally conceiving poetry, line by line.
The film follows Sheffield-born Helen as she climbs at Stanage Edge rising dramatically above stark moorlands in the Peak District, UK. She has mentioned before that this is a place where she finds she can compose; where lines surface and images resonate, whether climbing, running or walking with her whippet Charlie.
Echoing the contrast of the landscape the filmmakers have shot Helen’s authorial journey partly in extreme close-ups as if we are trying to see as close as possible into Helen’s mental poetic footholds, as well as the wider rock-climbing experience. As such the filmmaking is astoundingly direct, condensed and uncompromising; it is held together editorially as a series of complete visual vignettes, rather like the serial nature of climbing itself, from ledge to ledge. Most importantly we feel we are with Helen not watching her, and as such we also are touched by and reminded of Alison’s journey and spirit. Here the protagonist as writer but also climber is constantly shadowed by her subject, and as Helen moves up the rock face we sense both the struggle to write but also the struggles of women who are courageous and take risks.
With the topic of non-metaphorical poetry films still echoing in our minds we also might consider this particular work as riven with metaphorical seams (rock metaphors to discuss metaphor notwithstanding). Throughout ‘Dear Alison’ close-up shots of Helen’s hand writing the poem punctuate the film and at the end she draws a firm but balanced line under the last word. We might think of this as jointly associative for both climber and poet: the metaphorical horizontal evocation of the joyous release from the vertical ropes and carabiners that stop a climber’s fall; or equally, the poet’s release from language, deliberately letting the line go; the summit having been reached. However, the analogy between mountaineering and writing ends there: the poet displays their roped words, carabinered like woven lace; the mountaineer hauls in their rope erasing all traces of the climb.
I too was born in Sheffield, my mother’s hometown, where her side of the family were painters and decorators for nearly a century and my father worked in the steelworks. Whilst Helen grew up in Chesterfield I was brought up ‘down south’ on the borders of Herts and Cambs, where my mother never regained social consciousness, having lost the shopkeeper spirit of camaraderie that sustained her. Seeing life through her eyes, her failed compromise, has given me an exile’s fondness for the town. As such I take to Helen’s writing, and her crafted phrasing, as if it were of the city itself; so I too, like Helen, am channelling identity through another woman’s experience.
Helen Mort’s first collection ‘Division Street’ (Chatto and Windus, 2013) was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Costa Award and won the Jerwood Aldeburgh Prize. Her second collection ‘No Map Could Show Them’ was shortlisted for the Banff festival’s mountain book awards in Canada. Helen is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan. In 2017, she was a judge for the International Man Booker Prize.