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Polar Explorer James Weddell (1822)

When the year’s new ice is four inches thin,

their long incisors cut toward air. By spring the walls rise up

six feet, almost their length. Leptonychotes weddellii. Furthest south

of any seal to pup, they use the frozen sea itself

as nursery, chewing holes to move from suckle to hunt.

Put your ear to ice and you’ll hear their improbable,

space-age trilling. Their songs of claim.

How is legacy achieved? Weddell named nothing

after himself, not sea, not the seal which barely registers

in his accounts. The sea, now his, he called George IV.

A spawning ground for polar ice,

it crushed de Gerlache’s Antarctic. Crushed

the famed Endurance. All winter it grinds clockwise,

seizing and milling what’s trapped, releasing

tabular bergs large enough—the size of Rhode Island!—

to make news even here. And why did Weddell venture

there? The profit of seals hauled out

on the rocky Orkneys and Shetlands but also this:

a hazed set of dots seen once in 1762

and never again—the Aurora Islands.

They are still undiscovered. But Weddell

found his strange fame. One hundred years,

he held the title furthest south and held it

without tragedy. Turning back before turning back was faint

hope or escape thrilling and legend.

He died as many of the southbound did:

in the city he launched from, poor and alone.

And the sea keeps cracking, keeps circling

its confines, creating more ephemeral islands

perforated by the breath holes of sleek-headed

seals, which were never worth much and so never

hunted to dramatic loss, and so less known.

We’ve tried to bring them north

for education, for entertainment, but

they chew into the concrete walls that hold them

and die of infected teeth.

from Approaching IceFind it in the library

Copyright © Persea Books 2010
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of Persea Books.

Published in Elizabeth Bradfield Poems

This program is supported in part by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council, a State-based program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this (publication, website, exhibit, etc.) do not necessarily represent those of the Idaho Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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