On The Mountain
Those who climb mountains make a special claim to knowledge: that their step-by-step (or hand-over-hand) experience is the truth of a mountain, unavailable to those who merely look. In Simon Schama’s words, a climber’s perception is akin to collage: “an additively constructed assembly of details, each one discretely verifiable.” As a walker in high mountains (though never much of a climber) I consider this truth to be obvious, and fundamental. I hold it in tension with other ways of knowing—especially, of course, what I’ve learned from poets—but am interested in the fact that I have been walking rocky trails longer than I have been writing poems.
Some days, I say the one-two line structure, the open and open-ended syntax, and the asymmetrical rhythms of “A Ghost” mimic walking on rocky ground—“a stumbler stumbling / uphill,” assembling an experience that can’t be reduced to sentences with more orderly, hierarchal organization. Other days, this form seems merely literary, a line evolved from earlier poems . . . which in turn devolved from Oppen and other poets, not from my feet. Moore’s “An Octopus” also stands in the background—a very tall ridge, though behind that, taller still, stands Shelley’s “Mont Blanc.”
The poem has a setting—a ridge in the Colorado Sangre de Cristo—and a not-quite-absent beloved, lost in and to that landscape. It also carries, in the tension between its images and its thoughts, a long conversation among those who think on their feet and those who think with pencil in hand—a debate in which I can’t help but take both sides.
In the 1850s, John Ruskin, a lover of mountains and of J.M.W. Turner, criticized climbers in the Alps for their focus on the summit and on what Leslie Stephen described as “hours of labour, divided into minutes—each separately felt." While such muscular sensation might be good preparation, Ruskin argued, it could never be the truth of painting, which for him included a more omniscient eye. That eye was not merely Romantic, however: it was geological. Of Mountain Beauty, the 4th volume of Ruskin’s Modern Painters, is largely devoted to the structure of mountains, from their wave-like crests to the microcosmic topography of a stone in the hand—both of which make visible the ghostly landscape of living rock conjured by our knowledge of geology as not-quite-arrested motion. In Ruskin’s own drawings are no human figures: the artist himself is the traveler and his eyes are our eyes. In this I find a parallel to the grammatical absence of the poet in Taoist mountain poems of T’ang and pre-T’ang China—an absence I have emulated in “A Ghost.”
Ruskin was not an artist, per se, but one who used drawing as a way of seeing, attaining by hand his own muscular knowledge of mountains. Many of his drawings from the Alps remain unfinished—one part a colorist’s dense or delicate tapestry, one part a skeleton of penciled rock forms, their contours and ridgelines extending over inches of raw paper. Critics have chided him for a short attention span, but unfinished sentences don’t trouble me: those drawings are eerily moving, records of a process that halted at the exact moment a sought-for knowledge was reached.