Was this sequence inspired by an actual climb (perhaps in the Flatirons in Colorado)? There are clearly allegorical descriptions at work here, yet the poems also seem anchored in the “real” outdoors. Could you talk a little about that balance, if you see it as relevant?
Yes, the poem was inspired by a free solo climb, with experienced companions, of the first Flatiron in Boulder. As you say, readers may have the feeling that the language of climbing, while rooted in the real, is also a vehicle for something more—if not strictly allegorical, then at least abstract or symbolized.
I did take care to have the language of the poem follow nature—the sandstone (specifically arkose), scree, lichen, etc. If I had fudged these, my longtime friend and sometime Sherpa, the poet Charles Doersch, in whom mountains are instinct, would have objected. The poem is for him and for Sean, Chris, Matt, and A.J., who climbed that day.
As far as the balance between the background and what I think of as the poem’s more suggestive, symbolist idiom, I must admit to playing it all rather fast and loose. Many of the images are taken directly from experience and then modified to find a place within the imagined world of the poem (no longer the real world at all). After the climb, for example, I had a hard time getting to sleep—as soon as I closed my eyes I was right back on the rock. I had essentially a photographic recall of large sections of the climb. In the poem, “they sometimes rise up still in dreams, my love.” There are lots of moments like that.
Why is this poem presented as a sonnet sequence rather than, say, a blank verse narration?
The reasons are idiosyncratic. I had written several years ago a sequence of sonnets about a transatlantic sail from Maine to the Azores that was similarly based on nature but played in a more associative register. Climbing the first Flatiron suggested to me a different, though related, experience. The compression and pressure of the sonnet, its quick turns and rhymes, what Geoffrey Hill has called the “malign final couplet” that “threatens to make [one] a laughing stock”—all these helped to create a music that made sense to me. Also, since there are five Flatirons, it seemed right to have five sonnets.
In some ways, the sequence is focused on the relationship between the speaker and his beloved, but it also contemplates humanity as a whole: its hubris, its frailty, its drive to exceed itself. The focus seems to switch most dramatically in the last section (v), which is very universal in feel—as if seen by “panoramic eyes.” Could you say something about this ending of the sequence and your hopes for a reader’s last impression of “Flatirons”?
It would be hard for me to say much about the last sonnet without resorting to the words of the poem itself. Roughly speaking, it elaborates on the tension in the poem between the temporal and the spiritual, as perceived, perhaps, by someone interacting purposefully and intensely with nature.
Since my natural element is more water than earth, I’d better let a master have the final word (sent to my attention by the writer-climber Ange Tysdal). The great mountaineer Lionel Terray writes in Les Conquérants de l’inutile (1961) that many people:
may think that we were madmen indeed to go through such suffering and danger to arrive at this lonely spot. What did you hope to find up there, they may ask. Glory? Nobody cares about young fools who waste their best years in meaningless combats far from the eyes of the world. Fortune? Our clothes were in rags, and next day we would go back down to a life of slaving for the barest essentials. What we sought was the unbounded and essential joy that boils in the heart and penetrates every fiber of our being when, after long hours skirting the borders of death, we can again hug life to us with all our strength.
This poem attempts to render both an embrace and a letting go.
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This poem originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Poetry magazine