Poetry by Helen Mort



At Orrest Head, above the lake

my body tips the year’s scales.

September, don’t be reckless:

I’m a child on a park see-saw

with no-one on the other side.

Canada geese. Light tangling

in tree roots, ferns and lichen

and the naming of parts:

Red Screes, Cold Pike, Swirl How,

High Raise, Steel Fell, Ullscarf.

Cold plucks at my scalp,

a kind of lovesickness.

For two weeks each year

the ground smells sharper

and anything might happen

in the cool palm of the woods

and I dream the same stranger

each night, cupping her breasts

in my hands, holding the autumn

of her hair and by morning,

we’ve danced back to our lives,

pretending the distance

means we’re no longer

touching. Here, the road

runs steady below the copse

impersonating river

and though this is barely a hill

if I stand motionless

I can see everything coming,

slate clouds, starlight, storm.




In the living room, my stepson

is trying to Liberate The University.

In the kitchen, I try to liberate

my left leg from the clutch

of his jam-faced brother. The air

is pungent with garlic, rosemary,

roast lamb for five. Outside,

a bailiff thrush hammers the wall

animated by the work of bludgeoning

a snail from its thick, tabby shell.

These are the means of production.

My stepson produces ideas.

His father produces a calm environment

for staff. I produce date flapjack.

The baby produces gleeful burps.

In the laundry basket, a burnished

cravat belonging to my stepson.

The patterns fold around each other,

red and dull gold. I hold it

between thumb and forefinger

like an ancient, unreadable scroll,

a message of solemn importance.

The label says hand wash gently,

drip dry, do not twist. Surely he

does not intend this task for me.

It must have landed there by accident

falling, leaf-soft while he shrugged

off his white linen shirt.


Tonight, I am ursus arctos horriblis

with a dished face and soft round ears.

My shoulders are humped with muscle.

My fur is tipped blonde-grey, as if

I brushed the sun, survived, kept its trace.

I am always naked, clothed only

in my own warmth. Do not speak to me

as I lope from house to house.

I’m solitary except with my cub

and when he sleeps, I only feel

the torque of my hunger, longing

to gorge on moose and bighorn sheep

musk ox and mushrooms, sedge grass,

tubers, white bark, bison, lemmings

and cutworm moths. I want to walk

into the dead centre of a wet meadow

in the hours after a glacier slide

  and take my fill, lapping

the ground’s sweet afterbirth. 

I’ll eat bees if I have to, bite into

the neck of a black bear calf.

What have you left for me, here

in my new, shy territory?

Cardboard, tampons, Guinness cans.

Cotton wool, chicken bones,

grape stalks, blood. I walk towards

the overpass, watch cars swarm north

and I could be crouching at the base

of a waterfall: thunder and spray,

the salmon leaping for their lives,

their bodies glittering headlights

and me with my outstretched paws

and open mouth, ready

for anything.

About the contributor

Helen Mort
Helen Mort is an award-winning British author based in Sheffield. She has published two poetry collections Division Street, 2013 and No Map Could Show Them, 2016, a debut novel Black Car Burning, 2019 and a short story collection Exire, 2019. Never Leave the Dog Behind, a memoir exploring the relationship between dogs, mountains and people was published by Vertebrate in September 2020.

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