David… My Poetic First Love

That day, the last of my youth, on the last of our mountains.

I tend to be a pretty logical, concrete thinker, and so the language of poetry, often full of hyperbole, tends to turn me off. The very first poem to ever move me (despite getting a degree in English Literature first! ) I encountered 25 years ago. It gave me goose bumps and it entered my dreams.

Written by Earle Birney, it was (no big surprise here!) a mountain poem. It reads more like a story… a particularly moving story with a horrific result, but a story. The imagery in the poem is fantastic, creating such deeply riveting pictures in my minds eye. Full of layered meaning, the language moves my heart and mind every time I read it. 

Knowing that the setting for the poem lies in our Canmore/Banff area Rocky Mountains, I do our hikes, always with part of my heart scanning the peaks and slopes across the valleys, trying to locate “the finger” formation that is the location for the pivotal scene in the poem. I know I could find it on a map… but part of me doesn’t want to. I want to find it for myself. Just happen on it.

Could this be “The Finger” (just right of top centre)??? Seen from Aylmer Lookout, high above Lake Minnewanka, just outside of Banff.

A poem about an obsession with mountains… something I definitely share…. the tone of this poem is full of foreboding and intense imagery that foreshadows its end. [If you like this poem as much as I do, go to this link from the University of Toronto that has hypertext links from each line of the poem to the places it talks about and the references it makes.]

David and I that summer cut trails on the Survey,
All week in the valley for wages, in air that was steeped
In the wail of mosquitoes, but over the sunalive weekends
We climbed, to get from the ruck of the camp, the surly
Poker, the wrangling, the snoring under the fetid
Tents, and because we had joy in our lengthening coltish
Muscles, and mountains for David were made to see over,
Stairs from the valleys and steps to the sun’s retreats.
Our first was Mount Gleam. We hiked in the long afternoon
To a curling lake and lost the lure of the faceted
Cone in the swell of its sprawling shoulders. Past
The inlet we grilled our bacon, the strips festooned
On a poplar prong, in the hurrying slant of the sunset.
Then the two of us rolled in the blanket while round us the cold
Pines thrust at the stars. The dawn was a floating
Of mists till we reached to the slopes above timber, and won
To snow like fire in the sunlight. The peak was upthrust
Like a fist in a frozen ocean of rock that swirled
Into valleys the moon could be rolled in. Remotely unfurling
Eastward the alien prairie glittered. Down through the dusty
Skree on the west we descended, and David showed me
How to use the give of shale for giant incredible
Strides. I remember, before the larches’ edge,
That I jumped a long green surf of juniper flowing
Away from the wind, and landed in gentian and saxifrage
Spilled on the moss. Then the darkening firs
And the sudden whirring of water that knifed down a fern-hidden
Cliff and splashed unseen into mist in the shadows.
One Sunday on Rampart’s arête a rainsquall caught us,
And passed, and we clung by our blueing fingers and bootnails
An endless hour in the sun, not daring to move
Till the ice had steamed from the slate. And David taught me
How time on a knife-edge can pass with the guessing of fragments
Remembered from poets, the naming of strata beside one,
And matching of stories from schooldays. … We crawled astride
The peak to feast on the marching ranges flagged
By the fading shreds of the shattered stormcloud. Lingering
There it was David who spied to the south, remote,
And unmapped, a sunlit spire on Sawback, an overhang
Crooked like a talon. David named it the Finger.
That day we chanced on the skull and the splayed white ribs
Of a mountain goat underneath a cliff-face, caught tight
On a rock. Around were the silken feathers of kites.
And that was the first I knew that a goat could slip.
And then Inglismaldie. Now I remember only
The long ascent of the lonely valley, the live
Pine spirally scarred by lightning, the slicing pipe
Of invisible pika, and great prints, by the lowest
Snow, of a grizzly. There it was too that David
Taught me to read the scroll of coral in limestone
And the beetle-seal in the shale of ghostly trilobites,
Letters delivered to man from the Cambrian waves.
On Sundance we tried from the col and the going was hard.
The air howled from our feet to the smudged rocks
And the papery lake below. At an outthrust we balked
Till David clung with his left to a dint in the scarp,
Lobbed the iceaxe over the rocky lip,
Slipped from his holds and hung by the quivering pick,
Twisted his long legs up into space and kicked
To the crest. Then, grinning, he reached with his freckled wrist
And drew me up after. We set a new time for that climb.
That day returning we found a robin gyrating
In grass, wing-broken. I caught it to tame but David
Took and killed it, and said, “Could you teach it to fly?”
In August, the second attempt, we ascended The Fortress,
By the forks of the Spray we caught five trout and fried them
Over a balsam fire. The woods were alive
With the vaulting of mule-deer and drenched with clouds all the morning,
Till we burst at noon to the flashing and floating round
Of the peaks. Coming down we picked in our hats the bright
And sunhot raspberries, eating them under a mighty
Spruce, while a marten moving like quicksilver scouted us.
But always we talked of the Finger on Sawback, unknown
And hooked, till the first afternoon in September we slogged
Through the musky woods, past a swamp that quivered with frog-song,
And camped by a bottle-green lake. But under the cold
Breath of the glacier sleep would not come, the moon-light
Etching the Finger. We rose and trod past the feathery
Larch, while the stars went out, and the quiet heather
Flushed, and the skyline pulsed with the surging bloom
Of incredible dawn in the Rockies. David spotted
Bighorns across the moraine and sent them leaping
With yodels the ramparts redoubled and rolled to the peaks,
And the peaks to the sun. The ice in the morning thaw
Was a gurgling world of crystal and cold blue chasms,
And seracs that shone like frozen saltgreen waves.
At the base of the Finger we tried once and failed. Then David
Edged to the west and discovered the chimney; the last
Hundred feet we fought the rock and shouldered and kneed
Our way for an hour and made it. Unroping we formed
A cairn on the rotting tip. Then I turned to look north
At the glistening wedge of giant Assiniboine, heedless
Of handhold. And one foot gave. I swayed and shouted.
David turned sharp and reached out his arm and steadied me
Turning again with a grin and his lips ready
To jest. But the strain crumbled his foothold. Without
A gasp he was gone. I froze to the sound of grating
Edge-nails and fingers, the slither of stones, the lone
Second of silence, the nightmare thud. Then only
The wind and the muted beat of unknowing cascades.
Somehow I worked down the fifty impossible feet
To the ledge, calling and getting no answer but echoes
Released in the cirque, and trying not to reflect
What an answer would mean. He lay still, with his lean
Young face upturned and strangely unmarred, but his legs
Splayed beneath him, beside the final drop,
Six hundred feet sheer to the ice. My throat stopped
When I reached him, for he was alive. He opened his grey
Straight eyes and brokenly murmured, “Over … over.”
And I, feeling beneath him a cruel fang
Of the ledge thrust in his back, but not understanding,
Mumbled stupidly, “Best not to move,” and spoke
Of his pain. But he said, “I can’t move. … If only I felt
Some pain.” Then my shame stung the tears to my eyes
As I crouched, and I cursed myself, but he cried,
Louder, “No, Bobbie! Don’t ever blame yourself.
I didn’t test my foothold.” He shut the lids
Of his eyes to the stare of the sky, while I moistened his lips
From our water flask and tearing my shirt into strips
I swabbed the shredded hands. But the blood slid
From his side and stained the stone and the thirsting lichens,
And yet I dared not lift him up from the gore
Of the rock. Then he whispered, “Bob, I want to go over!”
This time I knew what he meant and I grasped for a lie
And said, “I’ll be back here by midnight with ropes
And men from the camp and we’ll cradle you out.” But I knew
That the day and the night must pass and the cold dews
Of another morning before such men unknowing
The ways of mountains could win to the chimney’s top.
And then, how long? And he knew … and the hell of hours
After that, if he lived till we came, roping him out.
But I curled beside him and whispered, “The bleeding will stop.
You can last. ” He said only, “Perhaps … For what? A wheelchair,
Bob?” His eyes brightening with fever upbraided me.
I could not look at him more and said, “Then I’ll stay
With you.” But he did not speak, for the clouding fever.
I lay dazed and stared at the long valley,
The glistening hair of a creek on the rug stretched
By the firs, while the sun leaned round and flooded the ledge,
The moss, and David still as a broken doll.
I hunched to my knees to leave, but he called and his voice
Now was sharpened with fear. “For Christ’s sake push me over!
If I could move … Or die. …” The sweat ran from his forehead,
But only his hair moved. A kite was buoying
Blackly its wings over the wrinkled ice.
The purr of a waterfall rose and sank with the wind.
Above us climbed the last joint of the Finger
Beckoning bleakly the wide indifferent sky.
Even then in the sun it grew cold lying there. … And I knew
He had tested his holds. It was I who had not. … I looked
At the blood on the ledge, and the far valley. I looked
At last in his eyes. He breathed, “I’d do it for you, Bob.”
I will not remember how nor why I could twist
Up the wind-devilled peak, and down through the chimney’s empty
Horror, and over the traverse alone. I remember
Only the pounding fear I would stumble on It
When I came to the grave-cold maw of the bergschrund … reeling
Over the sun-cankered snowbridge, shying the caves
In the nêvé … the fear, and the need to make sure It was there
On the ice, the running and falling and running, leaping
Of gaping greenthroated crevasses, alone and pursued
By the Finger’s lengthening shadow. At last through the fanged
And blinding seracs I slid to the milky wrangling
Falls at the glacier’s snout, through the rocks piled huge
On the humped moraine, and into the spectral larches,
Alone. By the glooming lake I sank and chilled
My mouth but I could not rest and stumbled still
To the valley, losing my way in the ragged marsh.
I was glad of the mire that covered the stains, on my ripped
Boots, of his blood, but panic was on me, the reek
Of the bog, the purple glimmer of toadstools obscene
In the twilight. I staggered clear to a firewaste, tripped
And fell with a shriek on my shoulder. It somehow eased
My heart to know I was hurt, but I did not faint
And I could not stop while over me hung the range
Of the Sawback. In blackness I searched for the trail by the creek
And found it. … My feet squelched a slug and horror
Rose again in my nostrils. I hurled myself
Down the path. In the woods behind some animal yelped.
Then I saw the glimmer of tents and babbled my story.
I said that he fell straight to the ice where they found him,
And none but the sun and incurious clouds have lingered
Around the marks of that day on the ledge of the Finger,
That day, the last of my youth, on the last of our mountains.

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