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.

Related Articles

‘The Paths We Tread’ by Clare Morris

Clare Morris, Editor of The Write Life, introduces essays by Kieran Devaney, Elizabeth Jaeger, Sarah Leavesley, Ysella Sims and Ada Wofford, highlighting the underlying themes that link them all.

Poetry by Kathleen McCracken

Kathleen McCracken is the recipient of the University of Toronto Review's Editor's Choice Award for Poetry, the Anne Szumigalski Editor's Prize, the Glebe House Harmony Community Trust Poetry Award and the 2017 Poetry Ireland/Tyrone Guthrie Residency Bursary.

‘Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath’ Heather Clark. Review by Emma Lee

'Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath' Heather Clark Jonathan Cape ISBN 978-1-787-33253-0 I did wonder if I had the stamina for another...

More Like This

Two Poems by Robyn Rowland

A searing honesty coupled with deep compassion is the hallmark of these superb works by Australian poet Robyn Rowland. And finally, a poem dedicated to the unsung heroes working in aged care!

Booker prize winner, Roddy Doyle talks to Dave Kavanagh

Doyle's most recent books include The Dead Republic (2010);Two Pints (2012); The Guts (2013), which takes us back to Jimmy Rabbitte, now in his forties; Two More Pints (2014); Dead Man Talking (2015); Smile (2017); and Love (2020).

Two Poems from ‘Consecration of the Wolves’ by Salgado Maranhão, translated by Alexis Levitin

Alexis Levitin’s translation of Salgado Maranhão’s poems stunningly captures the musicality and rawness of the Portuguese language and the poet’s vivid tongue.

That final wonderful someplace; Short fiction by John Saul

Fiction by John Saul, shortlisted for the 2015 Seán Ó Faoláin international prize and runner-up in Forge magazine's 2018 competition.

Two Poems by Judith Beveridge

From iconic surfers to washer women at work – acclaimed Australian poet Judith Beveridge shows her impressive range in these two exquisite works!