Answers on a Postcard: Here in the Place I Happen Not to Be

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Approaching Ice, Banjo




Answers on a Postcard: Here in the Place I Happen Not to Be by Lytton Smith

To the Arctic in search of poetry

June 21st, 2013 reset - +

“SO YOU MUST BE USED to cold?” I say to the man on my left, who is fending off our blustery spring downpour with an umbrella more inclined to fold than deflect. I am lost for conversation topics, intimidated.

“People think that,” he responds, “but we were never cold there — you were so wrapped up, in the right kind of gear for the climate, you didn’t feel cold.” British rain, damp and insistent, troubles him more.

There is the Antarctic, and I’m intimidated because I’m en route to a dinner where seven of the 11 guests, my companion included, are artists who have been resident at the South Pole for up to four months. (The Antarctic Artists and Writers Programme, run by the British Antarctic Survey, sent two fellows at a time to join the scientists researching there between 2001 and 2009.) These artists, whose works were curated in a show, Landscapes of Exploration, by Liz Wells, offer glimpses into an unvisited vista. In the video projection “Seals,” Simon Faithfull’s cameras catch polar mammals commandeering an abandoned whaling station. Anne Brodie’s blown glass flasks, curated to house mementos from researchers and artists based on the continent. Chris Dobrowolski has recreated Sir Robert Scott’s polar sled out of picture frame segments. I found myself wondering what poetry had to offer in the face of such three-dimensional artifacts and real-time imagery. Can poetry match Craig Vear’s audio compositions, which allow us a directly acoustic experience of the South Pole? Or Layla Curtis’s “polar wanderings,” recording her 27,856-mile-route towards and around the continent, webcam stills offering the scene itself?

These people are strangers not just because they’re unfamiliar to me but because they’ve experienced a place so different — alien — that I feel their strangeness. To be in the presence of one person, never mind seven, who have lived on the southernmost continent, breathed its singular air, heard its noisy silence, is unsettling. What on earth does one say to them? You can’t talk about the weather, that old British fallback (though I naïvely try). The best stories from one’s holidays, from travelling, pale in comparison. These artists have been marked by the Antarctic, altered by that blankest of canvases, farthest-off of places — or so it seemed to my poetic imagination. Starstruck, snowstruck, I struck out, one of dozens of normal folk, non-Antarctic folk, left to dully ask these artists about the cold there.

Words failed me — but perhaps the failure was mine. After all, it was poetry that brought me there, to that dinner: lines from poems about the South Pole, about exploration, about that problematic thirst for going, that had taken me as far as these seven isolatoes. A haunting dramatic monologue, purportedly Apsley Cherry-Garrard, by British poet Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, opens “More than the company of girls / I missed colour until my hyacinth bulbs // bloomed blue in a basin of sawdust.” In American poet Liz Bradfield’s “On the Longing of Early Explorers,” I read of “the despair that itched / beneath their powdered wigs, their longing to touch / the unspoiled, their sense that the world was already ruined.” Wallace Stevens famously wrote that “One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs” — we cannot experience the world until we think ourselves into it. Is that why poetry ends up at the dinner table with the visual artists, the sculptors, the mixed-media chameleons? Might it take us further, even, beyond the rain-drenched streets of Plymouth to where we have not been?

This notion of the poem as a mode of transport isn’t new-fangled, hypertextual, an offshoot of interactive narrative. Sir Henry Blount’s 1634 travel narrative, Voyage into the Levant, told the English of far-off places including how he’d come across the first Starbucks, encountering “another drink not good at meat, called Cauphe, made of a Berry as big as a small Bean, dried in a Furnace, and beat to Pouder of a Soote-colour.” His prose narrative, though, is less interesting to me than a response it aroused from his friend, Bishop Henry King, who wrote a long praise poem to Blount. In it, King styles himself as a couch potato:

I have had strong and oft desires to tread
Some of those voyages which I have read.
Yet still so fruitless have my wishes proved,
That from my Countreys smoke I never mov’d

For King, words move him, but not quite enough: having brought him news of new places, and having made him eager to do some voyaging of his own, they fail to get him beyond the big smoke.

Yet King’s critique belies a sneaky defense of language’s power to move us in ways that are physical as much as emotional. His choice of phrasing — “the wandrings of my mind” — suggests that travel is as much about the imagination as it is about movement: we need “wit to understand” other places, as if to relegate actual travel below mental wondering. King’s rhyme on “tread” and “read” is particularly elegant: with “read” buried inside “tread,” we get the impression that treading has all along been an act of reading, not of walking.

King does acknowledge the adventurers and cartographers whose words and drawings allowed him to travel without leaving his house:

Thus by Ortelius and Mercators aid
Through most of the discover’d world I strai’d.
I could with ease double the Southern Cape
And in my passage Affricks wonders take
Then with a speed proportion’d to the Scale
Northward again

Yet in thanking these cartographers in his carefully handled meters, King suggests that they merely “aid” him. Reducing them to a supporting role, he implies that it’s actually poetry itself that offers us the experience of travel; his implicit argument is that poetry can go one better than Blount’s narrative and exploring. King’s nod to Ortelius and to Mercator is actually a way to show off poetry’s ability to mimic movement through rhythm. The languid monosyllables, hardly stressed at all, of “I could with ease” suddenly give way to the ebullience of “double the Southern Cape” as King believes himself to be rounding Africa. Gone are those he claims as influence: instead, it’s his own passage of words that lets him go abroad, his grasp of poetic language means he can move about the world “with a speed proportion’d to the Scale.” Soon all pretense of a debt to others has disappeared, and King’s home, his “Countreys smoke,” has been forgotten: “And here all wrapt in pity and amaze / I stand, whil’st I upon the Sultan gaze.” King’s poem has placed him in the Levant himself, somewhere he has not been.

The fineries and thriving harbors of the imperial Levant might seem a far cry from bleak, largely uninhabited polar spaces, but the sense of poetry as exploration that King describes and enacts holds for the Antarctic. Liz Bradfield’s Approaching Ice (2010) tells of key polar heroes and heroines, some quite unlikely; she begins with Hollow Earth theorist John Cleve Symmes in 1820, passes through the famous names of Shackleton and Scott, and ends with former champion swimmer Lynne Cox in 2002. (Full disclosure: I found this book, and its ways of allowing me to explore the polar, while working at Persea Books, who published it and for whom I did the interior design, wandering through its lines letter by letter.)

At times, Approaching Ice offers us a poetic history of polar exploration, recording the names and fates of Scott’s ponies and the claim genius mathematician John Forbes Nash, he of A Beautiful Mind fame, made: that he was the “Emperor of Antarctica.” As such, the poem’s reader could be thought of a sedentary student; indeed, in one poem, Bradfield depicts an audience at a polar lecture: “all wondering the same things / in this darkened room, the ship not enduring / after all, the men enduring despite: / How do the trials of our lives compare?” Yet it’s precisely that act of comparison that makes Approaching Ice more than sedentary, more than a factual history or a poetic retelling of feats and foibles. Instead, Bradfield offers a vicarious experience for her readers, allowing us a polar mind, to adapt Stevens’ adage.

Aristotle contended, in his Poetics, that poetry is not history: even if we put Herodotus’s histories into meter, we’d still only have history. Poetry is poetry not just because of its form but because of its philosophical ends, its interest in something larger and more universal than the immediate details. Time and again we see that philosophical dimension to Bradfield’s poems, and it’s thus we find ourselves taken beyond where we are now to where we happen not to be. “Why They Went” opens:

Frost bitten. Snow blind. Hungry. Craving
fresh pie and hot toddies, a whole roasted
unflippered thing to carve.

For all the displacement of the first two sentences, we’re soon back with the familiar, back with (apple) pie, which adds to the jarring quality of our roast being not a pork shoulder but an “unflippered thing.” Bradfield admits these explorers’ difference from us — “The air from their warm mouths became diamonds” — but never forgets what we share with them. Here we’re still caught up in the scene, allowed to believe our experiences aren’t totally disparate from these distant figures’ findings.

Bradfield’s aim in Approaching Ice is not just to catalogue polar explorers but to allow us to imagine ourselves among them. As we watch Robert Falcon Scott in 1912, we’re weighed down in language, hearing “Each icefall and massif he’d search for a touch” as a heavy trudge of “ch” endings. This line isn’t an analogy for polar exhaustion, but it certainly has a labored struggle to it. When Bradfield writes of English physician Edward Wilson aboard the Terra Nova trying to dissect specimens, we feel the sleight of the scientist’s struggling hands in her control of the poetic line:

a rhythm of slice and pause timed
to the ship's lurch, bright flash
of metal in his chill hand conducted
by wave and ice against the hull.

We mistakenly assume that onomatopoeic writing — the use of a sound that seems to match the thing described — works by direct correspondence, as if there’s something slippery and snake-like about the sibilant “s.” In reality, language eludes us more than that, slips away, but as with any symphony the way a poet muscles and hushes her sounds through a poem can offer us the vibrations of that experience. The “rhythm of slice” belongs to poet and scientist alike, and as we experience the ship with Wilson, we have been transported.

Towards the end of her poetic account of Scott’s death, Bradfield offers an apostrophe, “think of Shelley lost to suspect drowning, Byron / slain by passion’s fever.” These poets’ lines have worked on Scott’s romantic imagination, as Bradfield tells it. She’s less castigating Scott, though, than acknowledging that through the poetic imagination we access experiences and places we have not been, as though poetry is itself an exploratory act. You’re there in the moment Frank Hurley “slipped a small Kodak into his pocket / with thirty eight more chances to curate what history / would be made in the unmapped time before him.” You’re there, right there, to “take the chill between / your teeth and grip it.” This cold that’s stolen in has an Antarctic tinge to it, a metallic taste here (there) where “the air is constantly aluminum with snow.”

Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch similarly turns to polar exploration Banjo (2013), a book that offers reflections on the hidden lives of objects, and which largely devotes its second half to a series called “Erratics,” poems about Antarctic adventurers. The title Banjo refers to the meteorologist on Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, Leonard Hussey, who brought along his banjo at Shackleton’s insistence; the latter called it “vital mental medicine.”

Wynne-Rhydderch’s contention throughout Banjo is that objects reveal human tendencies, buried stories. In “The Piano,” she writes of a grand piano taken to the Antarctic by Scott’s team: “In a jangle of harnesses she arrived late / at the quayside, so we left her out on deck / for a week with the ice picks and coal sacks.” The grand’s inglorious fate involves being cut in two with a meat saw (she wouldn’t otherwise fit into the wardroom). But Wynne-Rhydderch is able to take what could have been merely a curious anecdote and turn it into a way to place us at the scene:

                          Later we were all over her
for a minstrelsy, blacked up in burnt cork

until a squall rolled the vessel thirty degrees.
We trampled the camp stools of our mock stalls
in red cummerbunds and oakum wigs
in the rush to take in the top-gallants.

Here we have the make-believe the piano represents: the explorers’ fold-up “camp stools” have become “mock stalls,” a delightful use of rhyme in which the stools haven’t had to change a bit sonically to become theatrical seats in which the explorers sit, dressed in evening finery or, troublingly to today’s reader-explorer, blackface.

When the ship suddenly pitches — the way a theater never would — the theatrical pleasure has to be abandoned, the “mock stalls” now less like the theater than a mocking reminder of how far from home we are. Yet that beautiful nautical term, “topgallant” (pronounced t’gallant) works on our eyes and our ears to try to keep the make-believe alive: the sails seem less like sails and more like gallant theatergoers, still in their theater best. We’re caught comparing two worlds, not because of the events, but because of the way Wynne-Rhydderch puts them to poetry.

In interweaving the urgency of the voyage out and the pleasures of entertainment back home, telling the tale of the vain attempt to fuse them, the poem engages in that act of juxtaposition that may, more than anything, define poetry. As divergent experience and elements abut one another, they produce new ideas, new understandings of existing ideas. As the musical instrument becomes a feminised companion — “her hitch pins visible, her struts jumpy” — her presence reveals the masculine world of these explorers — “we were all over her” — and the social customs (pawings?) of the world back home. At the poem’s pitching, uncertain ending, with the image of “her back tense against my cabin door,” we see those two worlds, exploration and home, literally collide. We’re right there to witness it: all along we’ve been among the “we” who saw the piano brought on board, who turned our camp stools into mock stalls. The poem, in Wynne-Rhydderch’s hands, is a site, not an act of hindsight.  

It’s precisely because we ultimately expect language to behave itself, to make neat sense — even though time and again the world doesn’t — that poetry, which plays with language, gets to settle us into something and then pull the rug from under our feet, by line-break, by sonic echo, by image-shift. In “My Year Out,” Cherry-Garrard (also featured, like most of these figures, in Approaching Ice), re-experiences Scott’s death, how he won’t:

forget the day we heard a crack

like a shot: Scott’s arm breaking
as Atch freed his diary. It was only back

in the developing tank in the darkroom
that we saw our companions

swim towards us from the Pole, blink
in its milky light, walk from the stiff

chrysalis of film that had lain
eight months beside their indigo skin.

What this poem does beyond describe Cherry-Garrard’s experience (which he termed “the worst journey in the world,” the title of his 1922 travel narrative), is capture something of the polar mind-set, its sonic patterns and deviations a gesture towards Cherry-Garrard’s sense of loss and return. As the explorer looks at his dead friends resurfacing through photographic negatives, “blink” recalls “back,” sharing its “b” and “k” bookends, while “back” riffs on “breaking” from the line before. Sonically, we keep returning to the familiar, to unforgettable polar events, impossible to leave behind. Indeed, the poem concludes with a series of “k” words strung through its last lines: back, tank, darkroom, blink, milky, walk, skin. The effect is that we’re constantly back at the place (and sound) we’ve just tried to head away from. It’s a well-judged match to the way the literal development of images brings the dead explorers to form on the photographic paper and suggests ghostly memories emerging in the narrator’s mind, and in the reader’s, like recurrent consonants or developing negatives.

What such sonic play allows the poem, in ways that the visual and plastic arts might not always be able to achieve, is a blurring of temporal experience, of the moment when something happens. The poem’s final image, the “stiff // chrysalis of film that had lain / eight months beside their indigo skin” places us with the frozen bodies of the three dead explorers in the tent: we’re there at the scene. While the poem cannot have us feel the explorers’ bodily sensations — the limit of empathy is that it remains imaginative, and so fictive — the poem can put us on site. Layering two temporal moments, neither of which is our contemporary moment, the poem wants us to forget, in ways Cherry-Garrard cannot, where we are now, and to find ourselves somewhere else, remote yet right in front of us.

Of course, any poem’s ability to transport us depends, in part, on our wish to be transported, our willingness to suspend our disbelief and forget about the chair that now molds itself around us. It’s as if the poem doesn’t want us to too easily imagine ourselves moved elsewhere, for part of the poem’s remit is to unsettle us, to make us think in different ways. If we too easily succumb to the illusion, we cease to be; we have ourselves become imaginary.

Indeed, Liz Bradfield’s poem “Tourists in Antarctica” offers one final way to see the connection between poetry and exploration, to see the ways we can be in two places at once even as we must remember that we’re somewhere else “remotely.” The poem opens in an indeterminate geography as an unknown group set out “To strain for communion,” with each other and with a landscape where it is “impossible to wander off / and find some proxy-tree / to dally underneath.” Such “wandering off,” as Bishop Henry King pointed out, is as much imaginative (reading) as physical (treading) — or better put, reading has always been a physical activity.

While the opening half of the poem allows us to believe we’re among the “tourists in Antarctica” straining to commune, such willfully imaginative effort is balanced by the second half of the poem which uses the second person address — “you understand, of course” — to remind us of our distance from its events:

But you’ve grown to love the orange
suit you clamber into daily, the firm
hold of goggles on your skull,
halogen lights in the long, long twilight.
You understand, of course, dissatisfaction and yearning
for its opposite are what this place
has always held.

Finally, we have to admit that it’s not us addressed here; we’re not even tourists in Antarctica. Most of us haven’t clambered daily into orange polar suits and braved the expanse. It’s simply not us who’ve seen “halogen lights in the long, long twilight.” Indeed, even as the repetition of ‘light’ and the long vowel sounds of “halogen” try to cast that lengthening light for us, remotely, the repetition of “long, long” suggests we’ve only words, and as much as we want those words to transport us, they have their limits.

And that is what I’d have the poem do: make me believe I’m in the Antarctic, but not leave me with that lie. “You understand, of course, dissatisfaction and yearning / for its opposite are what this place / has always held”: we want to agree, “of course” we understand, we’ve tasted the aluminum air, been there with the sawed-in-half piano on board ship, watched our departed comrades swim back to us through developing chemicals on photographic paper. Of course we understand Antarctica, the longing for opposites that defines it — and we understand, too, the limits of knowledge, the need to go on searching. Can we ever say we know a place, that we can fairly tell of it to others? As close as we come through poetry, we’re still at a remove.

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