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Thoughts on Early Arctic Explorers and Your Time in Churchill

Come back safely with all your gloves

intact and your rolls of slide film finished.

Come back with your glasses unbroken, my love,

your desire for ice and ringed seal quenched.

You’ve pointed out enough ptarmigan,

hidden but for their black eyes in the drifts.

You’ve lectured enough to the curious, let them

go to the library for information, lift

excuses for travel from others’ tales

of what I learned in chasing restlessness,

in staring at a cub in snow, its pale

fur whorled and mussed, imagination pointless.

They’ve paid your way to see freeze-up

on Hudson Bay, the limestone pools inset

with Precambrian shell, the traps laid out to nab

bears that stray too close to town for comfort.

You’ve treated frost nip, suggested shutter speeds.

You’ve given them enough. Return to me.

Enough. Think of the historic hardships.

Cold, tired, fruit a distant memory—

and the body’s envelope loosens, skin sloughing

from the face’s planes. This is the grip

of the poles. It pulls apart your layers,

the glues that make you whole. The white of it,

the chill, the silence that’s so strangely lit

by the oscillating sun—all failures

here are dramatic. Those of light

of body or of will. The vast cold

isolates your small, red pulse

and runs thoughts wild as dogs at night,

tricks your flesh into quitting. Fingers, earlobes

only the first of you to become useless.

First, be stoic. Take the chill between

your teeth and grip it. Frame each mirage

with logic, and if rendered blind don’t seethe,

just pack your sockets with cocaine to assuage

the sharp ache. Document your madness.

Take the brunt of the sled’s weight even when

you are exhausted. Quote Keats into the relentless

wind. Blake to your companions in the thin

shell of your tent. Devonshire, yes, and Surrey.

These are real places to which you can return.

Not the odd, directionless roads you follow, asplay

across the tundra, unmapped, unplanned, lain

by glacial river. Even on the ice

you are yourself. Raised to venture and return.

You return having learned terms like Krummholz Effect—

trees scoured to the weather side, not a limb

pointing north to the wind’s source. Flimsy

twigs reach east and west. And the horizon

is wide and shimmering, without scale, your eyes

unused to such long twilight, its scrim

across the day. Gore- Tex, Thinsulate, skin

under engineered layers. Zeiss,

Nikon, Olympus. Glass eyes held before

your eyes in attempts to safely truncate

distances, make them closer, more

familiar. To bring back something polar.

Of course no film can translate the cold, light,

or bone-deep sense of supervised terror.

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.