In the Balance
You pause beneath a boss of ice
above a thousand feet of space.
The picks of your axes barely bite:
it’s bullet hard, black with rock dust.
You’ve run out forty feet of rope,
placed only an ice-screw and screamer.
You’ve dreamed of this route for half your life.
Your calves ache. You can’t wait long.
Decision time. Weigh the following:-
an abseil retreat to blankets, pasta, beer;
the taste in your mouth if you bottle out;
November at work without a fix;
glimpses of where the pitch might ease;
a face at a window, Dad come home,
and you not knowing where you’ve been
or how to get back from it.
David Wilson turned to writing poetry a few years ago after being inspired by reading Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Midsummer, Tobago’ on the wall of a hospital waiting room in Leeds. He then discovered the Writing Days run by the Poetry Business in Sheffield and started writing poems of his own. His pamphlet Slope was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2016 and he has a collection coming out with them in 2019.
David was born and brought up in North London and studied at the London School of Economics, followed by a Master’s degree at Leeds University, which at the time had the only indoor climbing wall in the country and was close to excellent outcrop climbing. He has climbed extensively in the UK, Alps and further afield, at a standard best described as erratic. In mid-life he got hooked on windsurfing, but writing about climbing has led him back into it.
After living in Leeds, David settled with his family in Harrogate. He has worked freelance for many years as an organisation development consultant. He now works part-time, exclusively in the area of academic leadership, helping people like Heads of Department to tackle the many challenges they face. He mainly works 1:1 with people and the diversity of their subject areas is a delight: from Medieval Welsh Poetry to Theoretical Physics to Cancer Research to Arabic, and that’s just in the past few weeks! Favourite poets include Jane Kenyon, Les Murray, Jane McKie, Norman McCaig and Seamus Heaney.
David and I met on the 2012/13 Writing School and I’m delighted to share his work. Below are more poems from the pamphlet Slope. Everest was awarded 1st prize in the 2015 Poets & Players poetry competition, judged by Paul Muldoon. For a few technical terms: a cam is a device fitted into cracks to protect a lead climber. It has spring-loaded metal cams which grip the rock. A Micro-traxion gadget is a pulley that locks the rope, capturing what’s gained as a climber is hauled from a crevasse. A screamer is a sling which has stitches designed to rip and thereby absorb the energy of a fall. Typically used with doubtful ice-screws.
Summer’s returned for one day only,
blue sky, no wind, mist in the valleys,
bracken bronzing every hill,
the Edge’s gritstone silver in the sun.
Rock warm to touch. But holds won’t sweat.
I check my harness, knots and rack,
lay away, step high and up again to poise
off-balance, wriggle a cam into place,
then smear a slab, heels low, until
a crack grips my outstretched hand.
We linger on the edge. Smoke rises
straight up from the chimney at Hope.
It’s not a day to hurl ourselves against
but for dancing with, to feel alive
on Black Slab, Inverted V, Goliath’s Groove.
And it will light the long edge in our minds,
where name after name spells a life,
Flying Buttress and Left Unconquerable,
holds we could trust to be always there,
winds which threw every word away.
Once it was Chomolungma,
Mother Goddess of the Earth,
a face whose veil rarely lifted,
its whiteness the White Whale’s.
Now it’s like Elvis near the end,
a giant in a soiled jumpsuit,
blank, useful for percentages,
a sheet from which the music’s fled.
I was thinking of glaciers as metaphors,
you knew the car park’s exit code.
And you’d practised techniques
for rescue from a crevasse.
to dig a T slot, bury your ice-axe,
attach our micro-traxion gadget,
then fix the rope as a Z-haul
across the sweating surface, so that inch
by inch you heaved me up when I fell,
up from that cold place – its white walls
and longing, fins of green ice, pale blue caves,
darker blue depth beyond saying.