“Full of fear and joy and gratitude”: The Equilibrium Line

The Equilibrium Line by David Wilson is the only UK-published title in 2019 to be honoured in both of the world’s most prestigious mountain literature awards: The Equilibrium Line has won the BANFF Mountain Poetry and Fiction Award 2019, and was shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Award 2019. Poet Ian Duhig describes The Equilibrium Line as a “tremendous debut”. In this article we take a closer look at The Equilibrium Line and the way it explores the relationship between poetry and climbing.

Why climb? And where do you draw the line? These questions pervade David Wilson’s incisive book, The Equilibrium Line, a collection of poems that explore climbing in all its forms, from the plastic crimps of indoor climbing walls, to rock faces hundreds of millions of years old, and days-old icefalls that, now, increasingly never form at all.

The Equilibrium Line by David Wilson
Available here.

For poetry readers this book opens a window into the world of climbing, its joys, perils and motivations. For climbers it showcases poetry’s power to express and explore why we climb. These poems examine ambition, failure, risk and where to draw the line when climbing. David Wilson is fascinated by climbers who test the limit and where their motivation comes from – whether they are people who make their living from climbing or weekend warriors weighing risk against responsibility. ‘Decision time,’ writes Wilson in his poem ‘In the Balance’:

Weigh the following:
an abseil retreat to blankets, pasta, beer;
the taste in your mouth if you bottle out;
November at work without a fix;
a glimpse of where the pitch might ease;
her face at a window, Dad come home

David was led to poetry by a chance encounter with a stunning poem (Midsummer, Tobago by Derek Walcott) on the wall of a hospital waiting room. ‘Poetry is a form particularly suited to writing about the climbing experience,’ says David, ‘as both share a focus on line, space and rhythm.’ David’s debut pamphlet Slope was published in 2016, and was described by Climb Magazine as showing that ‘great climbing poetry is not only possible, but that it is very much alive and well in the UK today.’

The collection’s title, The Equilibrium Line, refers to the altitude on an alpine glacier where snow gained (accumulation) is equal to ice lost (ablation). ‘I chose this title because these poems are preoccupied with what it means to find balance: on rock and ice, within ourselves, and within threatened mountain environments that are melting in front of our eyes,’ says David. 

“We all know rock faces can be hard to read. But – sadly? happily? – human faces can be far harder. We may have unlocked the crux sequence on that gritstone headpoint, but can we decipher the enigmatic look in our lover’s eyes? Throughout The Equilibrium Line, Wilson makes telling use of climbing as metaphor to illuminate situations that any human will recognise, as we grope for balance throughout our lives.”

Jon Waterman, Climber magazine (Nov 2019)

The Equilibrium Line also explores what the draw of climbing might be in wider contexts, such the aftermath of war, or in the face of environmental and personal loss. These poems weigh each line, balancing risk against love, the latter realised in some of the most moving poetry I have read in recent years’ (Ian Duhig).

David Wilson lives in North Yorkshire, UK. He has climbed extensively in the UK, Alps and further afield.  For a few years in his youth he climbed at a high standard, but then settled comfortably into the middle grades.

As well as poetry, David has written short stories and a novel praised by The Times as a ‘tour de force’.

David Wilson’s lyric poems are beautifully-crafted, heartfelt, and extremely relatable. They chart a lifetime’s fascination with rock climbing and mountaineering, and pay homage to presiding spirits in the climbing world. Each poem is like a first climb – full of fear and joy and gratitude.

Helen Mort, 2019 Book Competition Jury, Banff Mountain Book Competition 2019

An outstanding second collection by the poet and novelist examining ambition, failure, risk and where to draw the line in settings ranging from the gritstone crags to the Alps and further afield.

Roger Hubank, Chair of Judges, Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature 2019

David Wilson is a poet I admire who has become as sure-footed on the page as on the rock face. He weighs each line, balancing risk against love, the latter realised in some of the most moving poetry I have read in recent years. Technically adept with a great emotional range plus real engagement with and for this world, Wilson’s first book is a tremendous debut.

Ian Duhig

[A] collection intent on expanding poetry’s province is David Wilson’s The Equilibrium Line. Shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker award for mountain literature, these precise, neat poems explore climbing in all its forms, from the “three hundred million year old long slab” of “Gritstone Solo”, to a tattoo of TS Eliot, spotted “between Jo’s shoulder blades” at the indoor wall. Wilson has an eye for the vivid image, allowing him to bring distant landscapes into sharp focus: “the single bivouac light / on the black mass of Argentière Wall, / its tiny flame in a mineral world.” He is also able to shed light on climbing’s unusual appeal, when “held in place / by drystone walls / green fields bring / my mind to order”.

from the Guardian, January 2020