Category Archives: Arctic poems

History (i)

I imagine the dry crack,
unremarkable;

no one to observe the fissure,
all but invisible, on the distant face

of the glacier; impossibly slow
the slide of white on white;

the roar of descent, the splash
of the berg unheard –

their echoes yet to be born
at such a latitude, such a longitude:

this is how history is launched:
a frozen chunk of past drifting

blindly, with deadly precision,
into the future.

 

15 April 2012 – centenary of the Titanic sinking


Polar explorations

Our lives are lazy polar explorations.
Our kit is safely stowed; the trade winds blow,
and so we’re swept towards our destination.

Adventure’s guaranteed. No deprivations:
warm tents, down sleeping bags; cook fires glow.
Our lives are lazy polar explorations:

we botanize, sketch, study rock formations;
swig beer, sport beards and watch the lichen grow;
and on we’re swept towards our destination.

Our routes are mapped. No room for deviation:
we’re headed north, relax, go with the flow.
Our lives are lazy polar explorations

until the compass whispers transformation,
a world of wind and ice and things below,
and down we’re swept towards our destination:

fear, disbelief, rage, hacked off limbs, starvation –
And now as white turns black at last we know…
Our lives are lazy polar explorations –
and so we’re swept towards our destination.


Going outside

“I am just going outside and may be some time.”
Cpt. Titus Oates

He never was the one
to go in search of sunny beaches.
He never took that Caribbean cruise
at Christmas – would rather
stay at home, confined inside
as cold winds rattled windowpanes
and snow fell on the garden.
He didn’t want a tan, the busyness
of southern market places,
the babble of vacation crowds.
He liked the cold, the quiet, night.

On winter evenings
he embarked on polar explorations.
He set his armchair up below decks
on the Erebus, and watched
John Franklin vanish into myth;
returned, a lone survivor,
from the kitchen with a mug of tea,
to strike out for the North Pole
on the Fram. Thwarted by southern drift
he turned the page, and tried his luck
with Shackleton and the Endurance.

He didn’t change much when
the diagnosis was confirmed:
sat still and watched his garden
slowly fill with snow; took up
a book and trudged with Scott
and Oates across the bleak expanse
of endless ice. Just sometimes,
after dark, suspended in his pool of light
behind the glass, he would wonder
if he’d ever find the courage to go out
– or if he’d rather stay some time –


Waiting

14/4/1912

piano music drips down the stairwells
sharp splinters of laughter

I imagine the tinkling chandeliers
glowing couples whirling across the floor

and I sit

when the great clock is ready
the jolt is unspectacular

I know these flickering lights and
the stillness before time resumes

and the music strikes up
and the dancing goes on

while I wait

for the hurrying footsteps and
echoing voices past my room

a book slides off a table
the dance speeds up

while I wait

till it bursts through the door
as cold and black as I knew it would be

now the running has stopped
the voices are stilled in great ship’s sigh

and I sit

why should I run
I have always been here


February Nights

All through the night the glow of orange snow.
We cannot leave the world to black and white;
someone might reach out to the dark, and go.

Exhausted ski lifts drop their freight, and low
on fading mountains lies departing light.
All through the night the glow of orange snow

battles the deepening shadows; but although
we double-lock our doors we know tonight
someone might reach out to the dark, and go ­–

a ship caught in the Arctic undertow
that’s lost her north and given up the fight.
All through the night the glow of orange snow:

the Northern Lights coldly observe her slow
descent below the ice, and out of sight.
Someone might reach out to the dark, and go –

tune out of life as of a tedious show
he’s watched too long. Too noisy, busy, bright.
All through the night the glow of orange snow…
Someone might reach out to the dark – and go.


A word of advice

When continents of
black ice close in

and, pressed against the wall
of your cave, you succumb

to the darkening embrace
of your very own Ice Age:

hibernate.

Hibernate.

Hold on till a ray
of the newborn old sun

slants in at the mouth of the cave
and, like a latter-day Stanley,

shakes your pale hand with a smile
of triumphant exhaustion.

Relief, it will say, is at hand
just around the next berg.

But, hey – watch it
as you stumble half-blind into thin light:

the polar bears are famished
and you don’t know where

beneath that smooth white expanse
the abyss is getting ready

to pounce.