Translating Mountains

Yvonne Reddick
Publication Date: 
Thursday, March 2, 2017
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‘It’s impossible to read this collection without being moved’ – New Welsh Review

‘This is a beautifully structured pamphlet that offers the reader a deeply felt sufficiency’ – WriteOutLoud

‘Reddick sets a sombre music behind the rawness of loss, like a glimpse of her mountains in the distance’ – PN Review


Translating Mountains is the Mslexia prize-winning pamphlet from Yvonne Reddick. The poems are multi-layered compositions. They tell of grief for a beloved father as well as a close friend, who both died in mountain-climbing accidents. The author’s own love of mountaineering comes through with her vividly described sections of action: grappling with tie-lines, slopes and ravines, of aspiring to glorious heights while coping with treacherous and changeable weathers.

These poems are also hymns to stunning landscapes, with mountains and place names often in a craggy, atmospheric Gaelic. Full of tension, emotion and action, this writing grips our attention. The author searches for ways to grieve and come to terms with the trauma of her father’s death. She can understand his love of the sport, as she shares this. But bravado and needless risk-taking also rankle with the telling and her devastation is deepened with the death of her friend in the High Andes, perhaps even more tragic as this person was only twenty-two.

The author’s background as an exponent and practitioner of ‘eco-poetry’ gives us a further dimension: we are always aware of the wild landscapes under threat from human action. The mountaineer’s love of risk has its parallels with the perilous risks we are taking with the natural world. Translating Mountains introduces us to a striking new voice in British poetry, with a distinctive Scottish focus.


Review by Jenny Hockey, WriteOutLoud

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

This pamphlet by Yvonne Reddick was the winner of the 2016 Mslexia poetry pamphlet competition. Born in Glasgow, Reddick won a Northern Writers’ award for poetry in 2016 and is currently an academic researcher and lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire. Her poems have appeared in Stand and Shearsman and Palgrave Macmillan are about to publish her book, Ted Hughes: Environmentalist and Ecopoet.

The 16 poems that make up her pamphlet lead the reader into a persuasive emotional geography, almost entirely by way of the landscape of mountains.

We follow a shapely journey, first by collaborating in a search for a missing climber and eventually by witnessing “[all] the dead come striding/from Steall Falls//and Coire Eòghainn,/up Jacob’s Ladder”. The dead assemble “with spindrift hair”, “on a single peak” and the pamphlet’s final words – “and the whiteout//lifts into light”, conjure a vision of them ascending together into heaven – but without saying anything so explicit.

These are elegiac poems, many written in response to the death of Yvonne Reddick’s father in a climbing accident in Scotland. There is also the death of a mountaineer friend in the Andes, plus the adventures of another family member, several generations back, a crystal hunter who “shins down to the blind-end fissure” in the Alps.

These poems make no easy sense of either the risks involved in climbing, or the impossibility of her father’s changed state, “from solid to intangible”. Instead the pamphlet’s first person voice draws us into emotional and materially-grounded journeys; some are undertaken with her father prior to his death, some during its immediate aftermath, others in dreams and in memory. In the process we learn how risk averse her father was, in a poem saturated with an entirely unspoken ‘Why!’ (‘Risk’). Indeed, the dead themselves, at times, actively beckon both reader and poet “along the path I can’t follow” (‘On the Alaskan Peak We’ve Never Climbed’). Similarly,   “the careful hand” of her grandmother’s grandfather “beckons/in sepia ink, to the keyhole pass” (‘Alexandre Resteau, Geologist Manqué’).

What will remain with me from these poems, whose language manages to be both delicate and robust, are Reddick’s descriptions of grief - for example, in ‘Sorrows of the Deer’, lines such as “I need to weather brunt winds,/ stolid as a tor/where mizzle pools and trickles − /I am hornless,/the wind stings through my fur”, and a stanza later, “I want to endure”. These images evoke a pain that only more pain can equal, a reaching out for sensory substance when substance – her father’s remains – is about to be committed “to fire, to air”.

Embodied grief is brought vividly to life: reliving her father’s accident in a dream, the speaker wakes “heart a trapped finch at my ribcage”; her mother’s hand is “weightless as the quills of a wing” as she “pads across the floor above”. This consistency of imagery – as here, in ‘At the Corrie of the Birds’, makes for profoundly satisfying poems.  The fragile lives of human beings, animals and the environment itself are repeatedly intertwined, each lending resonance to the particularities of the other’s strengths and losses.

I loved Reddick’s use of language.  She takes her time, doesn’t clip her words or dump articles unnecessarily.  Lines such as “Monte Somma’s rugged mezzaluna” in ‘Vesuve, 1857’, a poem that ends with “that hellmouth whiff of sulphur’, are a delight; similarly, “my clumsy mouth stumbles their meanings” in ‘Translating Mountains from the Gaelic’.  Sometimes I felt that the present tense was over-used to give actions and emotions immediacy – but overall, this is a beautifully structured pamphlet that offers the reader a deeply felt sufficiency. Its poems are moving, yet never once shift into despondency or melancholy.

Review by Vicky MacKenzie, New Welsh Review

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Yvonne Reddick won the 2016 Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition which was judged by Seren editor Amy Wack; part of the prize is publication by Seren. Translating Mountains focuses on hillwalking, mostly in Scotland, and the pamphlet is dedicated to the memory of the poet’s father, an experienced hillwalker who died in the Scottish mountains in 2015. The poet’s grief is palpable and it’s impossible to read this collection without being moved, particularly when Reddick lists the items returned to the family after his death:

…a map, still legible
despite the bleeding ink.

A sealed survival bag.
His damp wool hat and gloves.

The collection is peppered with the Gaelic names for the hills which for the poet seem to form a litany, particularly in the title poem where she scatters her father’s ashes in the hills:

the rain will seep through you,
mingle you with Aonach Bàn,
Loch Teimheil, Sìdh Chailleann.

Birds feature here too. In the poem ‘Howlet’ (a Scottish word for owl or owlet) the narrator’s father has nailed an owl box to a chestnut tree, but after his death the owl abandons it, preferring ‘a twiggy mess / on the chimney pot over the cold hearth.’ Life goes on around the family, indifferent to their anguish.


Read the full three-book review on the New Welsh Review website.

Review by Alison Brackenbury, PN Review

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Yvonne Reddick’s high landscapes of grief in Translating Mountains are carefully explained by the cover note’s allusions to two deaths: that of Reddick’s ‘beloved father’, in the Scottish Highlands, and that of ‘a mountaineer friend’. From Gaelic place names and their translations, Reddick sets a sombre music behind the rawness of loss, like a glimpse of her mountains in the distance:


The duty sergeant creaks up our staircase,

to tell us –

                 an animal cry

breaks from my lungs.

                                          Core nam Eun – Corrie of the Birds


Reddick writes strongly of mundane details, often with one suggestive adjective: ‘his damp wool hat and gloves’. Her poems travel deep into the past in accounts of Resteau, her geologist ancestor. They link, wonderfully, the living details of her present and Resteau’s frozen stones: ‘an iron rose(…) the blood-lustre garnet/ a dark vein between us’. the gravity of her rhythms carries a sense of her dead father’s return to the elements ‘as we commit him to fire, to air.’ Later in her pamphlet, Reddick describes her friend, killed in the Andes, also joining the landscape he loved: ‘Your breath, becoming cloud’. Her writing shows a remarkable sympathy, without bitterness, for the passions which killed them both.

   In Reddick’s poems, even London acquires mountains. ‘Haplessly lost’, she uses her compass to locate the summit of the Shard/pointing north’. Her final poem, ‘Ascent’, ends on the high ground of vision: ‘All the dead come striding/from Steall Falls (…) the whiteout// lifts into light’.

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Review by New Welsh Review

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Disturbance is a precisely constructed, unflinchingly observant, heartbreaking and terrifying novel of poems, a powerfully delivered and devastating firestorm of words. It portrays the build-up to and fallout from the murderous and suicidal conclusion to family life. This family has been bruised by domestic abuse, broken by divorce and ultimately obliterated by the words ‘you can’t keep my children from me... they’re mine’.

Beginning at the inquest into these tragic central events, Ivy Alvarez presents a story told in non-chronological kaleidoscopic fragments of minute detail and raw emotion. These include an emergency services operator helplessly hearing screams and shotgun blasts down the telephone line; a grandmother thinking of buying a carpet to cover bloodstains; the mistress of the murderer suffering scapegoat-hungry media coverage; Jane, scrabbling in vain to hide from a long feared fate, and Tony, a violent control freak, blaming his victims for his actions.

Over the course of forty-four poems, the reader is taken forwards and backwards in time, each poem helping to construct the wider story and often simultaneously offering a snapshot portrait of the principal character in their own words. This results in a provocative array of stylistic approaches, including a dark appropriation of the Ladybird Readers: 'See Jane run. Watch Dick run. Watch Dick chase Jane. Watch Dick chase / Jane through their house. Dick has a gun. Run Jane run.'

Within this 'verse novel', Alvarez shows admirable artistic control and a remarkable capacity for empathy. She has crafted a range of voices that, even in the briefest of appearances, reveal another facet of the wider narrative and another example of just how far the hurtful consequences of terrible acts can travel. Telling the story in verse form creates just enough distance to prevent Disturbance becoming too emotionally overwhelming to read. This method also reveals a terrible beauty within the blackest shadows of human experience.

Disturbance is a fully ‘adult’ book which may require some readers to look themselves in the eye and ask if they would have acted differently from the neighbour who didn’t want to get involved or the policemen who didn’t rush towards the sound of a shot. So authentically self-protective are some of the characters that a childlike feeling can descend on the reader seeking the need for a hero.

Among the visceral responses Disturbance provokes is a sense of helplessness. In this harsh reality, apparently definitive signs of a tragedy waiting to happen become visible only in hindsight. Wisely, then, Alvarez does not seek the moral high ground of pointing out what people should have done or said. Rather, we are offered authentically painted human responses to the kind of events most of us will be lucky enough never to be caught up in. Alvarez does not seek to suggest how to prevent these kind of horrors. As comforting as it might be to tell ourselves otherwise, such terrible acts occur because one person chooses to commit them. Tony’s choice is his alone, whatever means he uses to justifying himself:

Better to be a brute
than be far less.

So common is the real-life scenario of a divorced father saying ‘You can’t keep my children from me’ that Disturbance could be justified solely as a humane parable and warning about the dark places such a statement may lead. But the skill and imagination with which Alvarez approaches her subject matter from so many perspectives also makes the book an adventure for the mind. This is achieved without ever engendering the feeling that it is exploitative of suffering, and Alvarez leaves plenty of room for readers to bring their own imaginations into play.

Each reader will have their own individual response, just as Alvarez’ characters react individually to these terrible events. The timeless value of storytelling is that it can transport us into the lives, experiences and minds of others, and hold up a mirror to our assumptions and moral certainties. Alvarez has taken a long, courageous look into such a mirror. The reflection we see may bring us close to weeping for humanity. But not to giving up on it.

– Will Ford, New Welsh Review
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09/12/2013 - 13:53
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Review from Cordite

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Disturbance is Ivy Alvarez’s second collection of poetry. Its dedication to Dorothy Porter, Ai and Gwen Harwood is not at all surprising given that, Alvarez’s poems are comparably unflinching, unsettling and precise, exposing the horrors of family violence with an artistry that is always in the service of its compassion. Furthering the link with Porter’s work, it is also a verse novel, but a relatively unconventional one. Rather than following a linear progression, Disturbance throws us immediately into atrocity and its aftermath – the murder of a mother and a son by the father, who takes his own life, leaving a daughter alive. Each poem that follows is a fragment, retrospective and prospective, accumulating a picture of what we want to know but feel disturbed to approach – how did this happen?

When I began reading it, I assumed that the story at the heart of the book was fictional, a composite of many cases synthesised from research. Subsequently, I began to wonder how ‘real’ the poems were; in a way, attempting to measure the gap between poem and reality, I was reaching for the real, yearning for it. But Alvarez notes that Disturbance is ‘an imaginative retelling of and a response to actual events’. Like an exhibition of documentary photography, it presents framed yet incomplete impressions from particular perspectives, which confront us with the existence of the real while acknowledging the gap between an account and its source.

The book is both kaleidoscopic and choral. We are presented with the thoughts and memories of the mother, Jane; the police officers, in their enculturated impotence; the journalists, with their condensations and abstraction; and the son and daughter, with their confusion, bravery and cornered-ness. While the poet’s own aesthetic temperament gives them a certain consistency, each of these character voices is distinct and convincing. The grammar, vocabulary, emotional tone, punctuation and lineation, are all finely attuned to reflect their individual posture and energy. Yet the music of the poems is subtle and unobtrusive; Alvarez doesn’t want anything to overshadow what is being exposed and examined. Sentences are generally complete and naturalistic, a fusion of the mundane and the metaphoric, of the composed and the chaotic, which is quietly chilling:

My dinner rests warm in my belly.
I’ve just come in for my shift.
Familiar smell of old coffee,
stale sweat accumulates,
hovers near the ceiling.

‘What is the nature
of your emergency?’
wears my voice.

But then she speaks.
I type quickly. I press buttons.

‘What is your address?’
The pads of my fingers prickle,
become slick. Keys slip beneath my skin. (‘Operator’)

Appropriately, there are also occasions where the language itself breaks down or fragments. Here, the poetry draws on an almost risky knowingness and wit, but it never loses its focus and visceral impact, as in ‘The Detective Inspector II’, which begins ‘ – eyes make/in/cre/mental/adjustments/in the dark’. Or, in ‘Hannah’s Statement’, where the breath catches and is held in white space:

once after my brother ran
he placed my hand on his heart

Alvarez’s language is most chaotic and unmoored when we hear from Tony, the father, whose ‘own hands must do something’. His confusion and possessiveness seem fuelled by a profound detachment – of his self from his body and from others. If there is any summary of his motivation to be found, Alvarez provides it negatively, as Tony states: ‘there is no explanation for me’; ‘Real things seem untouchable to me’; ‘I pass for someone ordinary/someone who looks like me’ (‘Tony’). Near the end of the book, we spend quite some time in his mind, which is populated by familiar and archetypal metaphors of ‘red’, ‘hunting’ and ‘dark’, yet also with surreal and unexpected images, such as ‘dust that skims/across your eyeballs’, ‘the subdermal itch’, ‘rank/bin juice’, and an account of the aerodynamics of golf balls. These bring us closer to a kind of visceral intimacy, rather than understanding.

The one poem which I am still ambivalent about is ‘See Jane Run’. Here, the central murderous event of the book is depicted through the truncated sentences and simple language of the iconic children’s characters, Dick and Jane. While only two-thirds of a page and in short paragraphs, this prose-poem seems to be Alvarez’s way of conveying, through parody, the unconveyable horror. It’s an undeniably affecting poem, but one that I am not drawn to read again.

By contrast, ‘Disturbance’ compellingly revolves around a black hole at its core – the mundanity of evil and the seeming inevitability of violence. And the short poem that opens the book, ‘Inquest’ signals silence as a response to inexplicability:

Members of the family wept
as the coroner read out
her pleas for help.

Nothing softened as they cried.
The wood in the room stayed hard
and square.

The windows clear.
The stenographer impassive.
The spider under the bench
intent on its fly.

I say ‘seeming inevitability’, because while there is an echo of a kind of ‘natural’ hunter and prey in the poem’s chilling conclusion, and while the wood stays ‘hard/and square’, the reader is constantly drawn into a state of empathy and resistance. These events, condensed into black text with such articulate and meticulous white space around them, are given to us in all their horror as artefacts, made things, which can conceivably be unmade. It is Alvarez’s great talent to frustrate us, to refuse to provide easy explanations. The only possible response is outside the book.

– Andy Jackson

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09/09/2014 - 11:44
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