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Review: Climbing Mountains in the Dark by Cate Jacobs - disability arts online
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2 December 2009

By Colin Hambrook

image of a series of autumn leaves with red ribbon

Book cover of Climbing Mountaints in the Dark by Cate Jacobs

A strength of disability arts has always been its power to convey life experience at the fragile, unpredictable end of the life journey. Going through extremes can force us to look at life through an oblique lens.

Pain and imminent death make the need to look for meaning more urgent in the struggle to keep going in states of being ‘other’ and ‘out-of-the-ordinary.’

Reading Cate Jacobs’ poetry made me reflect on how we find the will to carry on through impossible situations. Cate Jacobs title tells you that you are in for a dangerous read. I felt impelled to finish it in one sitting, through silent tears. Climbing Mountains in  the Dark took me back to the dying times of the 1980s, when HIV was very much seen as the ‘Gay and Lesbian’ disease.

Everyone I knew at that time was touched, in some way, by not only the lethal side of AIDs, but the persecutory prejudice and discrimination that hit gay and lesbian culture. I knew men who died in the most terrifying of circumstances.

Robert Bell was a friend who was studying Live Art at Reading University when he contracted HIV. Shortly before he died in 1982, he performed a piece called A Breathe of Spring – a call for dignity against the tide of recrimination that swept through the media at that time.

Climbing Mountains in  the Dark follows the poets journey from a diagnosis with HIV, through bereavement, new love, becoming a grandmother and bringing us up to the present day. In an HIV haiku she says quite simply: “How did you get it? / I was careless – it’s corny / but I fell in love.”

The poetry refers over and again to discrimination. The opening poem ‘The Key to Your Heart’ begins with a salutary warning from the health authorities: “They told you … to be careful who you told, not to expect love.” Later we here about the new neighbours erecting a fence: “to mark the boundary line between us and them.”

The title poem uses a climb up Orrest Head in the Lake District on a new years’ eve - as an allegory of how living with disability affected the poets’ relationship with her partner. “We didn’t hold hands / and you forgot to kiss me / when the clock struck twelve; / I was on your blind side / slipping on black ice.”

The poetry evokes recognition through a crafted telling of the turbulent excursion through the emotional rigors of daily life. Cut into Jacobs’ clear lines are lists of memories and places, everyday events tinged with reflection; sometimes melancholic, sometimes angry, sometimes resigned. The poetry offers a gift of a woman looking for the inner resources to come to terms with illness and loss. It places a heart in your hand and gives you the opportunity to examine it, feel it, and reflect on how your own heart sits in comparison.

Daylight Savings offers a reflection on bereavement that reads like someone searching gently for acceptance in a dark house where fragments lie scattered in random photographs, bits of furniture and household utensils. “I opened an account / and began to deposit moments from days / I wanted to remember. Banked memories / accumulating interest for the rainy days / of forgetfulness and grey hair; of drawing / my pension and riding the bus for free. / I deposited: / the sunrise on an ice cold mountain / a cloud of frozen breath and the snow angels / we made side by side. / My father’s voice reading me a bedtime story. / The day my first child was born, / the new smell of him warm and milky / like cinnamon and earth after rain / and you singing him happy birthday.”

The technique of using lists to make poetry out of the mundane, reminded me of the celebrated poet Julia Darling whose last two collections Sudden Collapses in Public Places and Apology for Absence, charted her own journey to the end, through cancer. It is a technique for evoking an emotional response using simple everyday things as metaphor.

A quote from Holly Johnson on the back cover sums up some of my own feelings about this fine collection: Cate Jacobs’ decision to be seen as a poet living with HIV deserves all the support we can give her. The more people who live openly the better… the social stigma of HIV and AIDS should be consigned to the past.

Climbing Mountains in the Dark is available from Headland Publications.

ISBN 978-1-902096-52-0. Price £7.95