On Honister Pass


I leave my Escort
at the car park,
leave behind families
of English picnickers
huddled on blankets
in the sharp wind
and head up, past
the slate quarry
towards heather,
morning bright.
Having grown up
in Appalachia, I
should feel at home
here on the heights,
where weather breaks
and scatters rock
like so many decks
of playing cards.
Instead, I find myself
fiercely alien,
incredibly young,
without a past.

A few men have gathered
around a machine
outside a wooden hut.
They speak in tones
and words I can't
quite catch, joking,
perhaps, about me,
though they don't
take any notice
even as I pause
twenty yards beyond
where the path
suddenly disappears.
I am so out of place
that I'm invisible,
transient as the wind:
I bring nothing
to this landscape,
cannot conceive
of changing it,
quarrying it for


I lied about being invisible. I also lied
about bringing and taking nothing with me.

At the top, when the ground before me
drops away and I feel about to step into air

I turn, set my camera on a rock, and stumble back
to pose against the background of lakes strung out

into the blur of distance. For a few moments I live
in the future, compose the elements of a scene

I won't quite recognize months from now when
I tell my friends, look where I was in August,

and, like them, I see myself there for the first time.
The photograph rearranges memory, repaints landscape, just

as the poem claims to capture the elusive and unnameable.
Both are imitations set up in place of the original,

ego in masquerade, begging for attention, for love.


Six months later, I sit in a chapel service on Shrove Tuesday, listening to a group of students and faculty recount their trip to Bolivia during the previous month. They read aloud from the New Testament the account of Christ's transfiguration, then attempt to tell us with words and photographs how they were changed by their encounters with an alien people and the uncanny spirit of the mountains. My friend's voice wavers and nearly breaks as she speaks of the hospitality of an ancient Quechua woman, her skin the texture and color of the mud hut she has lived in forever, her eyes the eyes of God, who offered the group her last bit of food in the house. I am on the fringe of this festival, envious of the cameraderie of these fellow-travellers, blind to the significance of what I glimpse in the slides on the screen, as embarassed as a child who wanders into the room where his parents are making love. On the brink of Lent this family, linked like Christ's disciples by bonds stronger than blood, feasts on memory, repeats an unfamiliar litany, shares a private language, bathes for what may be the last time in the blaze of inner light my friend calls grace. The rest of their lives, I think to myself, will pale by comparison. I hear myself murmuring something as inane as Peter said to Jesus: if we could just suspend time, if we could just stay here on this mountain. . . . And as I walk out of that warmth into the February night I feel as if I have given up something I never really had, someone else's childhood, perhaps, or a dream that slips away at the moment of waking.


So what are you to believe,
or more important, what are you
supposed to do with these words?
I tell you how I climbed a mountain
in England, in late summer,
Wordsworthian phrases echoing
in my ears as I hope they will echo
in yours about Cumbrian scenes
that flash upon the inward eye,
about the glory and the freshness
of a dream. I tell you the poem
is a cheat, the poet a seducer.
I remind you that we cannot
escape our skin, our tunnel vision.
And yet I give you this poem,
a tangle of other people's tales:
I invite you as I was invited,
as Christ invited his disciples,
to see the invisible, to place
yourself in someone else's photograph.

Look for an emptiness, a gap between
two people in the front row
of the group picture, a blur
in the background by the trees,
the white space between adjective
and noun, the halo above the head
of Christ. You are there.
You have always been there.

Tell me your story.