Wholly Mountains

Mark Goodwin – Rock as Gloss (Longbarrow Press, 2019)

Rocks. Humble rocks. Every philosopher should have one on their desk. In fact, when they tire of trying to prove the existence of their desks, I find that philosophers will often reach for the humble rock and think about that instead.

Johnson kicked one to disprove idealism. Descartes tried to imagine the inside of one. Nietzsche, despite his many recurring ailments, made a habit of climbing them.

Mark Goodwin’s new poetry collection, Rock as Gloss, goes one better than all of them. In a series of four cycles, or “Compasses”, he guides us through the precarious world of rock climbing.

Through his compact imagery we feel the mix of adrenaline and silence that carries the climber upwards. Descriptions are hard, palpable, and elegantly varied in such a way that the subject never dulls, it only grows deeper. The struggle of man against nature, slippery shoes against rock are driven home in the sacred signifiers: friction, rubber, grip.

Goodwin repeats the image of fingertips on rock with such love and duty that it becomes religious. The cycle of repetition contains infinite tiny variations, enough to reward his eternal return.

There are references that will please advocates of the sport. Menlove Edwards, climber of the pre-war era, is heralded as a hero. One character even becomes Menlove in his dying moments. Coleridge is here too. Another mountaineer-poet in whose handholds Goodwin climbs.

And yet in his poetry Goodwin is not so much Romantic as Metaphysical. The romance of the climb is described, primarily in short sections of prose, but the poetry itself is stripped of heroic or nature-based poesy. It is a poetry of engagement. Goodwin faces the rock with his fingertips, hanging on for dear life. His words struggle to really grasp this, really grip it.

Goodwin favours the narrow line. When he needs more elaboration he prefers to implement concrete poetry techniques, adding complexity onto the surface of the page in order to keep his images stark and bare. He knows a hundred synonyms for rocks and their parts. They are his kit, the Gore-Tex jacket of his poetry. He rarely slips down the scree of metaphor, preferring hard surfaces throughout.

You can feel the traces of struggle in this poetry. His search for the exact word is visible on the page, like a handhold on a cliff face. Goodwin is facing the thing itself, searching it, trying to name it. A terribly difficult thing to do.

One can understand the appeal of rock climbing in Goodwin’s work. As a keen rambler, I know the joy of a hill conquered. Yet, as Goodwin points out, where we ramblers go around things, climbers go straight up them. Their confrontation is more direct. They refuse to compromise with the rock.

But where do all these physical metaphysics lead? The turning point comes in Compass 3, where Goodwin tells the story, in prose, of a climber who encounters an old sheep on a mountainside. A funny image at first, made funnier by his recollection of a nanny goat who once head-butted him off a hill. But then, as a storm brews and he crawls back shivering to a shelter, the sheep suddenly seems mystical, like a divine vision.

Christopher Lichen, our Childe Harold-like protagonist, now reappears through poem after poem, experiencing more and more epiphanies until, finally, we see him falling down on his knees and running his fingertips over every single inch of the mountain. Doing so, he becomes the mountain itself. His body dissolves and he becomes a pagan God, a spirit of place.

And so we find that Goodwin has led us along a path to enlightenment all along. He follows the steps of Nietzsche, Rumi, the Buddha, Jesus and Moses, climbing the holy mountain to bring back godly wisdom. What started with the sensation of rock on fingertip, has grown into a transcendence of mind and matter through language.

As a reading experience, Goodwin’s poetry is a delight. It is made moreso by the book’s design.

Put out by Sheffield’s Longbarrow Press, Rock as Gloss comes to us with all the dignity of a real, authentic, timeless collection: proper hardback binding, a tasteful dust jacket, and typesetting for Goodwin’s concrete poems that makes their complex arrangements into works of art. I look forward to reading more from this publisher.

Mark Goodwin’s Rock as Gloss is a thing of rare beauty. A book that every reader of contemporary poetry should grab onto.

– Joe Darlington

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