Tuesday Poem: Mountains, by Sarah Jane Barnett

Her brother sits on the couch 
and suggests climbing the Remarkables
with their parents, his bare
hairy foot jiggling, and she
says ‘hmmm’ while her girlfriend
prepares couscous in the kitchen. 
‘You weren’t there as a kid,’ she says.
In the levelled lot next door, relief 
men dig out stumps to make space. 
She likes to think they communicate
by pungent emission—she spends
hours against the window.
It takes a long time to dig out the heavy roots.
Her girlfriend—Sarnia—leads the way. 
The system of mountains stretch like panic,
montane, a complex breath.
She watches Sarnia’s thighs:
upturned stratified formations wrapping around 
her flanks. Her axial crystals, a gulf
of sweetness and relief.
The wind unfastens a sheet of soil 
from the skin of the track. It sweeps out and over the ridge:
a lifted conversation or smudges of rain.
The range grows wider and higher 
as they move south. Each new face 
takes on its own personality. She can’t see the granite,
but a woman, and then two men in the rock.
Far below the lake rests in the basin
as the mountain replicates itself across the lake.
She once went to a talk at the university
about the creation of mountains. The expert 
moved over the stage like a buoyant wave of radiation.
His voice intruded upward. He told them
it was fairly common for rock that does not fault
to fold. It will do this either symmetrically 
or asymmetrically. There aren’t other options:
it is upfold or downfold, anticline or syncline.
She left the lecture and walked downtown to a bar.
This was during her dark phase: dark dresses,
her hair dyed dark in the laundry sink. In the bar
she drank white Russians and let a man—older,
a crusher—put his hand between her legs. 
He gave her a long string of beads he’d brought back 
from Peru. At least that is what he said.
Given time, the pressure of water will invert relief. 
The soft upthrust of rock is worn away and the anticlines 
become gentle. She rises up and down.
Over time she dissolves mountains by breathing. 
In bed Sarnia says, ‘There is no universal definition 
for mountain. It’s okay to live with ambiguity.’
She puts on her teacher’s voice with its sexy 
unspoken argument over elevation and steepness.
Upon ascent, the women expand and cool. 
The subalpine forests of needled trees break
the sun into phosphorescent waves.
‘A mountain must be higher than a hill,’ she says
as the track threads around an elbow of scarps.
‘What, then, is a hill?’ Sarnia asks.
Years later they climb Puncak Jaya, the highest
peak in New Guinea. It will be after the death of Sarnia’s 
sister, but before everything else.
The peak rises five thousand meters above the sea:
a precise measure of their strength and courage, or 
Nemangkawi to the locals.
Outside the guests are arriving. Her parents’ 
car pulls up and they wave their hands 
in front of their mouths. Her brother continues 
to talk about mountains, and how he found 
his true essence of self. ‘You should do it, man,’ he says
with conviction, such a small tremble.

Credit note: “Mountains” was first published in JAAM 29 and subsequently included in Sarah Jane Barnett’s debut collection, A Man Runs into a Woman (Hue and Cry Press, 2012). It was included in Best New Zealand Poems 2012, where it is available in both text and audio formats. You can also watch a video of Sarah reading the poem. The poem is published here by permission of the author.

Tim says: I recently read A Man Runs into a Woman and, although there are many fine poems there, it was “Mountains” that particularly stood out to me for its combination of technical excellence and emotional heft. (Plus, I am a sucker for anything about mountains!). I wouldn’t normally run a poem as long as this as my Tuesday Poem, but I hope you will agree with me that the poem’s gradual unfolding is worth the wait.

The Tuesday Poem: rocks and rolls the place.

4 thoughts on “Tuesday Poem: Mountains, by Sarah Jane Barnett

  1. Odd, weird, peculiar, perhaps a little kooky, very controlled and quite remarkable. Above all else original. A great poem.The comment box is asking me to pass a Turing Test : \”Please prove you're not a robot.\” Hey, Tim, I though that we'd left Au Contraire!

  2. I agree with Harvey – it is so measured, so controlled. It seems to move so carefully, weaving from the natural to the human. I can't get over the lines: 'it was fairly common for rock that does not fault to fold'. Fabulous. Thank you Tim & Sarah!

  3. Fantastic Tuesday poem Tim. Not sure if you knew, but the collection, \”A Man Runs into a Woman\” that holds that poem was just put up for an NZ Book award. So, excellent timing.If you get a chance to hear her read that one – go for it. It's even better out loud.

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