Barbara Smith lives in County Louth, Ireland. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Queen’s University, Belfast. Recent achievements include being shortlisted for the UK Smith/Doorstop Poetry Pamphlet competition 2009, a prize-winner at Scotland’s 2009 Wigtown Poetry Competition, and recipient of the Annie Deeny 2009/10 bursary awarded by the Tyrone Guthrie Centre for Artists and Writers, Ireland. Her first collection, Kairos, was published by Doghouse Books in 2007.
Because It Was There
‘You will ask ... “What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?” and my answer must at once be, “It is no use.” ... What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.’
G. L. Mallory, 1922
A patch of white, whiter than snow, or rock
around it: a body with blasted clothing,
skin freeze-dried smooth like casting plaster,
muscular arms reaching up, strong hands,
fingers dug into the frozen gravel,
right elbow broken or dislocated,
cuts, abrasions, bruises on the right side,
rib-cage squashed by two loops of rope,
legs extending downhill, one broken – a hob-
nailed boot still firmly tied around the foot –
the other covered over for defence,
ragged layers of old natural fibres,
a shirt scrap, at the nape, a tag for laundry,
an embroidered name: George Leigh Mallory.
Wild Flowers for Ruth
After snow and rock
to see things grow again –
as they like growing –
enjoying sun and rain; that is joy.
I collected a bunch of wild flora:
pink cranesbills, yellow cinquefoils,
plants that looked like our violets,
grass of Parnassus,
and a brilliant cherry-button flower,
which may belong to the garlic tribe.
Most of all, I found kingcups,
a delicate variety, smaller than ours
at home; somehow especially
reminding me of you.
Thirteen selected Europeans, snugly wrapped
in woollen waistcoats and Jaeger pants,
in armour of wind-proof cotton smocks,
splendid over-coats, furred finneskoes,
or felt-sided boots or fleece-lined moccasins;
sixty porters in new English underwear
leather jerkins and puttees from Kashmir.
The scatter of our stores at Base Camp —
rows and rows of tins of Harris’s sausages,
Hunter’s hams, Heinz spaghetti, herrings,
soi-disant fresh sardines, sliced bacon, peas,
beans, Ginger Nuts and Rich Mixed, and besides,
blue and green two-gallon cans of paraffin,
petrol and an impressive heap of yak’s dung.
Finch reckons he can convince us all
of the advantages of those gas tanks.
We spent three days overhauling the stores
of oxygen, checking the war-like masks.
We trialled it out on walks: two pairs,
one with and one going steady, but without;
Finch and Bruce so easily outpaced us.
Later, using oxygen, we set high camp
at twenty-five-thousand feet, boxed in
by a violent storm; almost succumbed
to the numbing cold. Suddenly Finch
remembered, bringing in a clanking set
and set a good flow strongly going,
restoring warmth to all our frozen limbs.
English Air—the Sherpa’s term for the oxygen tanks
You must know the end to be convinced
that you can win the end, cool and quiet:
the solemn dome, fine and firm above all
its chasms of ice, its towers and crags,
this place where all desires point up to.
Here, experience distils the muscle ache
and crystal skies into a memory
of how you gained the top in sixteen hours.
The conquered enemy is but ourselves.
Success means nothing here. Kingdoms of rock,
air, snow and ice, we hold for just the time
it takes to survey in a slow circle
soberly astonished by our struggle
to master mountains with our own minds.
©2010 Barbara Smith
Barbara Smith's blog
Poems by Smith in Horizon magazine
Smith at Doghouse Books