Skip to content →

Category archive for: Elizabeth Bradfield

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.

It Began with Reading of Antarctic Adventures

Half an hour with coffee

marking up a book—a check

to note sense, exclamation mark at astonishment

or disbelief, pages heavy on my knees.

And then a day of my own

work-related hazards. Tempestuous

blizzard of keys, avalanche of

email. Eye strain at the screen’s glare. Chair creak

like something about to give way.

Snow fell. The street was plowed and salted.

My dreams were white and treacherous.

I walked as if the pavement’s grooves

were signs of where it could collapse.

I wanted it to.

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.

Wilson’s Specimens

Quickly, he learned the art of flensing,

of peeling back the strange skins

from the swimming birds that streaked beneath

the Terra Nova’s prow,
learned

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 hull.

And so the skins piled up—became his plenty

as onions dwindled in the barrels and flour sacks

sagged from full and the taste of his own mouth

became foreign to him.
Black and white pelts

feathered, sleek, unqualified by gray. His diary

of the journey. His best calendar of days

—moldy, cramped in their salted boxes—

but, once home, exotic, redolent

of all he found he could not say.

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.

Polar Explorer Capt. John Cleves Symmes (1820)

Outside his Cincinnati windows, a street game in full swing.

Some kid shouts Safe! Another jeers Symmes’ hole!

A fight breaks out. Inside, Symmes keeps pressing

his human face against the frozen wall of what

is known, not seeing through but melting into it

his own features, his own strange form. He wanted

explanations for the plenty at the poles:

caribou twice the size of white-tailed deer,

white bears dwarfing black, schools of herring

that return each year fat and flashing, more fish

than ever could fit into an ice-choked ocean.

Shouldn’t the north be barren? Wouldn’t the cold…

Hope effervesced in him, bubbled toward utopia. Americus,

he’d say to his son, there is more to discover

and we’ll be patron to it. It could almost pass

for science—the icy ring and sloping verge

that he proposed, a concavity, a hole four thousand

miles across at the globe’s north end, and,

for symmetry, six thousand at the south, another earth

within our earth, more perfect, richer, the borealis

streaming from it like a neon sign.

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.

A Grim Place for Ponies: South Pole Expedition, 1910

The men wrap burlap over splitting hooves

and rig wide shoes to fool the ice. The men

fill diaries with haunch and hoof,

quirks and favorites. With frostbit hands

the men brush their ponies twice daily.

Stroke and groom.

Punch, Nobby, Guts, Blücher, Blossom,

Jimmy Pigg, Weary Willie, Uncle Bill

Nightly, the men hack shelters in snow

to protect them. Which are nightly

bucked down
then rebuilt as tents fray.

I must say that the abandoning of the ponies

was the one thing that had never entered my head.

Their implicit trust in us was touching to behold.

Misplaced, mis-engineered and miscast

as steeds for these knights—or so

the men imagine themselves, trudging

toward a goal found only by magic,

lodestone bowing to earth’s nadir—

it’s the ponies that pull this tale,

make these blusterers attendants:

The poor beast was barely able to struggle out

of the holes it made as it plunged forward.

Choose only white ones, Scott ordered.

But what do ponies know of Empire and the National

Effort? Of stiff upper lip and steely jaw?

Guts himself had gone, and a dark streak of water alone

showed the place where the ice had opened under him.

Braided tails brittle with ice. Tack tattering

in katabatic winds. Ideas of care were rent.

Poor trustful creatures! Getting the pick I struck

where Titus told me.

Feed bag now lining boots. Flank meat

for stew. A mound of snow

blown over the remains.

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.

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.

In the Polar Regions

Long from home. Glaciers capping the hills

like false teeth. It’s not just the odd meat

we’re carving, clawed flippers and flightless

wings, or the long-churned distance to any news of home,

any first-born or failing parent. There

are other signs this place is foreign. The ship

converses with ice packed around it, groans

and squeaks, an occasional outraged crack.

It takes a particular man for this, you know,

able to be short-sighted for months on end.

The air is constantly aluminum with snow,

and my mouth, too, tastes of metal. Salt

of iron seeping from my weakened gums.

Each morning, I pack drift around my tongue

to freeze the soft flesh holding my teeth.

It all goes to slush—ground underneath

our tents, my mouth, the knack for conversation.

Walking west, five of us have fallen

to dangle alongside cliffs of ice, the thin crust

breaking into chasm easily, as if such sudden transformations

were to be expected and we’re the fools to be surprised.

Only a thin rope holds us to the surface. Hanging,

there’s nothing to do but stare at the blue contours of freeze

and tongue our loosening teeth, test the stringy roots

that hold them, wait for a tug from the ones left above.

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.

Notes on Bowditch

ice. Frozen water, the solid form of H2O.
Basic. Describing nothing of its colors. Nothing of its cold. Of its different densities and the hard process of freezing. But perhaps a good beginning.

ice anchor. An anchor designed for securing a vessel to ice.
Treachery inherent in the dig of metal flukes, the initial crack of contact.Uncertain mooring that could be drifting,
that could break

into drift.

ice atlas. A publication containing a series of ice charts showing geographic distribution of ice, usually by seasons or months.
Not a bad idea. Can they make one for the climate of the heart?

ice-blink. A whitish glare on low clouds above an accumulation of distant ice.
Endless metaphor, this state, for love or destiny, I’d be no good at spotting this. Each time, I’d convince myself the pale was imagined. That my eyes, blinking to clear, were playing tricks. That the horizon was free of impediments.

ice-bound. Adj. Pertaining to a harbor, inlet, etc. when entry or exit is prevented by ice, except possibly with the assistance of an ice-breaker.
There are always crashing exceptions. Here, each revved-up push leaves a bit of paint, flaked toxin, maybe a weakening of steel in exchange. There is never only one thing being hit.

ice boundary. The demarcation at any given time between fast ice and pack ice or between areas of pack ice of different concentrations. See also ice edge.
Any boundary wanders, sweetheart. Definition to definition.

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.

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.