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Picture 11054370, photograph by William Alfred Green, early 1900s, digitised from a glass plate negative, image copyright Mary Evans / National Museums Northern Ireland

Off the map
by Rosie Johnston

 

For RR Johnston who pioneered the F-M rock climb on Slieve Lamagan in 1949   

           

‘Descent’s the toughest part, hard on the knees.’

He rubs his barrel-knotted fingers

over boulders of arthritis in his own.

It’s his younger self talking,

the lad in his twenties

who zigzagged Mournes crags and cliffs, unnamed

until he and his friends, no satnav, no phones, scaled and claimed

the likes of the Raven’s Nest and ‘the F-M’.

Silence. He’s away,

remembering.

That chuckle in his eyes, the one that hooked the women – here comes the story:

in towering rain, well off the map, their army surplus sodden,

his cheap wee gutties useless on that mossy

upper slab so off they came, shoved

dizzy dazed into his jacket,

sock soles,

no going back though upward felt like

overhang,

the mountain itself tipping him back

into air ‘til there it was,

the edge

 

rough to the finger whorls but

it’s a hold. A teetering clamber up against the winds,

downpour still sheeting his glasses,

he twisted into place and sat.

 

Fuck me, he breathed.

Alive. Fuck me! Loud, lusty, and his friend laughed too,

full-chested cheers away beyond the fields below

their bellowed primal whoop at sheer survival.

So, that’s what that ascent became: ‘The F-M.’

 

Fuck me. My father’s life could have skidded,

bounded, slithered down the rocks,

crashed in gorse and heather, quenched in some

sheuch, trickle-bled away

before my spark lit.

 

My own ascents are unnamed.

Back from an awkward descent, one

lonely step, another, skidding, losing grip

in howling gusts, my oldest agonies reclaiming me

then weary-wake all night, I know nothing but that I too have

been somewhere

exceptional.

 

On my knee, my father’s compass. Its metal finger

tinkles against the glass case, swings like a dancer

around the neat, blue capital letters of the winds.

This tiny wheel measured distance on his maps,

proper maps in the browns, greens, ochres,

dirty snow-greys of the land itself.

At the top this round link here is

to wear it, as I do, so you’re

close to me, Dad.

Still my belay.

 

 

© Rosie Johnston

Picture 11054370, photograph by William Alfred Green, early 1900s, digitised from a glass plate negative, image copyright Mary Evans / National Museums Northern Ireland

 

Rosie Johnston’s four poetry books are published by Lapwing Publications in Belfast, most recently Six-Count Jive in 2019. Off the Map is the title poem of her fifth collection, to be published by Lapwing in 2023. Her poems have appeared in SnakeskinThe PhareLondon GripCulture NIFourxFour, The Honest Ulsterman, Mary Evans Picture Library’s Poems and Pictures blog, Words for the Wild. Her poetry is anthologised by Live CanonArlen House, OneWorld’s Places of Poetry anthology, Fevers of the Mind and American Writers Review. She reads her poetry widely, most recently at Faversham and Gloucester Poetry Festivals. http://www.rosiejohnstonwrites.com

 

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