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Poetry Feature: Chip Brown

Posted on: February 22, 2017


A photo of Manhattan from the author. On the connection between the landscapes of the wild and Manhattan, Brown writes, I remember the poet John Haines looking at me like I was crazy when I told him I was leaving Homer to move to a big urban jungle. He shuddered and said, 'I don't know how you can do that.' But what Alaska and Manhattan had in common was, again, a kind of intensity. And the same river running through them both. [Photo] Chip BrownA photo of Manhattan from the author. On the connection between the landscapes of the wild and Manhattan, Brown writes, "I remember the poet John Haines looking at me like I was crazy when I told him I was leaving Homer to move to a big urban jungle. He shuddered and said, 'I don't know how you can do that.' But what Alaska and Manhattan had in common was, again, a kind of intensity. And the same river running through them both." [Photo] Chip Brown

[Chip Brown lives in New York and is the author of the books Good Morning Midnight and Afterwards, You're a Genius. He has also written numerous articles for magazines such as The New Yorker, Outside, Vanity Fair, National Geographic and more. This is one of the first poems he's published since a trio of outdoor poems he wrote for Mountain Gazette in 1978.—Ed.]

AMBULANCE

Sirens in the city tonight
keening in the teeth of things

like the Yukon wolves we tracked once
at dusk through the mineral pastures

of the snow, their yellow eyes
like votive candles in a morgue.

Mica in the concrete, tenement soot
the wild canter of a knife....

Friend did you forget? Even here
You bend where the river bends.

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We asked Chip Brown to comment on the relationship between climbing and poetry, and this was his reply:

The only connection between poetry and climbing that I can conceive of is the intensification of experience. The two disciplines are similar in the kind of coherence that sometimes comes over you when you are engaged in one or the other. I tried to write about this 21 years ago in an Outside magazine article about climbing the Petzoldt Ridge on the Grand Teton:

Philosophers of climbing often speak of the narrowing of attention en route, how the past dwindles until it is only the rope that traces the way you've come and the future is just the pitch ahead, if even that, if even anything more than the here and now, the life you own by virtue of withholding it from oblivion. As it tends to do, the work of climbing—the pulling and hauling and jamming, the placing of nuts and slings, the clipping and unclipping of carabiners, the constant effort to study the gray and golden stone for useful cracks and holds—forced its peculiar focus on us. I could feel my scattered selves converge and that paradoxical time begin to flow in which minutes seem like hours and hours fly like minutes. It seemed we would never be warm, but then—like that—we were luxuriating in the sun. With each pitch we gained a more panoramic view. Tom could see not just the shadow of the Grand stretching west but the outline of the very notch where he was anchored.

We were projecting ourselves onto the world, or being projected. It was hard to know which. What I was astonished to discover was not the relief of dread abating, but joy: the joy of burgeoning confidence, of belonging to the earth. It seemed as if some balance were being struck between the glory of the outer world and the yearning of the inner. There was no tension between what we could feel and our power to express it.

Hegel once said, "Only insofar as something has contradiction in itself does it move, have impulse or activity." I'm sure what propelled us up the Petzoldt Ridge were simply contradictions that could not be resolved by anything less than the risky rush itself. Climbing was its own expression; nothing stood in the way of the conviction that our relation to the world was at last palpably and almost conjugally real. We could slip our hands into the mountain, insensible to cuts and scratches; we could touch the foundation, the essential rock of reality, as if our lives depended on it. And of course they did. We belonged more completely to the earth, and in belonging we were made whole, more completely ourselves. Healed, I suppose you could say—healed of whatever various juvenile alienations we were grappling with at the time. For days afterward I could summon the fruits of this Hegelian exercise—flow, fullness, unity of mind and body—from just the smell of granite on my fingers, a dry powdery champagne smell, indescribable as ever, alas.

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