"Taught from infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison."
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1796
The title of Helen Mort's No Map Could Show Them evokes the opening poem in one of the most important collections published since the Second World War. Elizabeth Bishop's question, 'Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their own colours?', is a key reference point for much of this collection, as Mort considers the female mountaineers of history and how they have gone beyond their 'assigned' paths. I wonder if Mort is deliberately putting herself at a perpendicular intersection with Bishop's North and South in the line 'Due west, due east, you are / x-marks-the-spot'.
The first half of the collection is a meditation on the trailblazing female climbers of the 19th and early 20th Century, and the social circumstances which made their pursuit all the more difficult. The ironic 'An Easy Day for a Lady' bears the epigraph from Etienne Bruhl:
'The Grepon has disappeared. Of course, there are still some rocks standing there, but as a climb it no longer exists. Now that it has been done by two women alone, no self-respecting man can undertake it.'
In the poems which follow, Mort often uses pronouns to emphasise conflict between the female climbers and the male hegemony they are flouting; "Where you made ways, / we will unmake" ('An Easy Day for a Lady') and "Take off the clothes they want to keep you in" ('How to Dress').
The men who the speakers encounter on the mountains are often characterised as insufferable mansplainers, as we see in 'Miss Jemima's Swiss Journal': 'I'll be devastating in my notebooks / reserve my best scorn / for the tour guide // with his winter field of hair', and the sardonic 'Ode to Bob' in which the speaker celebrates an imaginary male climber who could never possibly exist:
"He never steals the morning / with a story of a pitch he climbed / one handed, wearing boxing gloves ... For, when he has advice / he will not offer it // and when we have advice / he takes no heed."
This strand of post-Duffy, witty millennial feminism reaches its darkly humorous peak in poems such as the Dandy fan-fiction piece, 'Beryl the Peril':
"In my badly-drawn version, / Beryl is getting shit-faced / with Desperate Dan, / matching him / with every dripping forkful / of cow pie."
and then in poems like 'My Diet', and 'Difficult' which adopt the language of lifestyle magazines and web-forums in ways which amuse while they shock:
"In London, it's said you're never more than 6 feet / from a difficult woman. Have you or a colleague / had a difficult woman in the last 6 months? If so, you may be entitled to compensation."
But all humour subsides by the time we reach 'Rachel in Attercliffe', a sonnet spoken by a prostitute to the partners of the men who pay her for sex on Boxing Day. As 'Your dad, your boyfriend nips out for a beer / then indicates down Derek Dooley Way', the speaker of the poem finds ways to reconcile the morality behind her work. 'Sometimes, I say I work in mental health' she writes, and then the final, crushing couplet: 'I like to think there's hospital, a recently-dead wife. / I like to think I'm saving someone's life.'
An interesting shift occurs in the collection after this poem, in the sense that the speakers in the final third of No Map Could Show Them are no longer distracted and obstructed by male figures and possess the freedom, the altitude perhaps, to engage with the sublimity of their environment on their own terms. As a reader, it is hard not to breathe a sigh of relief when we get to a poem like 'Hathersage' towards the end of the collection, in which the speaker is allowed the freedom to engage with the environment through their own, unfiltered lens:
"It's hard to say a thing simply, / but here the sun manages it, / a flashbulb through the branches / taking your photograph / all the way out of town."
No Map Could Show Them is a highly intelligent, yet very accessible collection and an interesting addition to the ongoing discussion of where our culture is with gender identity. In a zeitgeist which celebrates Jennifer Lawrence's approach to femininity, the Sufragette movie and the #likeagirl campaign, there is something which feels very necessary about this collection and there are moments throughout where it feels like a worthy successor to The Feminine Gospels and The World's Wife.
Helen Mort: No Map Could Show Them (Chatto, 2016)