LEFT BEHIND, MACK’S SIXTH DAY ON THE ANTARCTIC ICE, 1915
What is that noise?
The wind under the door.
What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?
Nothing again nothing.
–T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
Delirious, alone, Mack bleeds
from his bowels, his legs are black,
bent by scurvy which destroys
tissue, loosens teeth. Mack rouses
to a shrieking wind. He calls out,
believing he hears his wife’s voice –
Gladys, dear, is that you? His eye
shifts. His ears strain, listening
for the return of Joyce.
What is that noise?
My God! Shackleton?
I am more than pleased you’re here!
Mack’s hands slap the floor,
searching. Where are my sticks?
The winds pause, the tent walls
relax. Utter stillness. Then, a roar
and the canvas balloons taut, snaps
inward like cheeks sucked hollow,
inflates again, and tears open for
the wind under the door.
Snow scours in and Mack
struggles to make a rough repair.
He feels his blistered hands going
numb. His mind unspools, haunted
by India. The indigo plantation.
Elephants like ships. Mother moving
the children back to England. He wrote
often to his father, who saved every letter,
unopened. Memory is confusing.
What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?
He calls out, Who’s there?
The tent is a speck in a vast, white
void; frail shelter pitched in stunning
isolation. The phantom voices quiet.
Mack crawls from his reindeer bag
and hobbles outside clutching
his sticks. He squints, scans the far
distance for a smudge on the ice,
any sign that his men are coming.
Nothing again nothing.
BEYOND THE NARWHAL GATE
And the blind eye creates
the empty forms between the ivory gates
–T.S. Eliot, “Ash-Wednesday”
Cape Evans, Antarctic Winter 1915
Aeneas Macintosh settles onto Capt. Scott’s
old bed wishing again for the services
of an intermediary, a first officer
who would call the men into line.
He removes his glass eye, shuts and shelves
its leather box and falls into a dream
of glittering ice, the teeth in a crevasse’s gullet.
dropping through sapphire, through cobalt, down
and down to the indigo netherworld.
An earthy stench. Decay. The scent
of burnt blubber
the plantation where he was born.
Blistering heat. Scythes.
Blue-limbed men waist deep in great vats
beat and stir, froth green water into blue.
Women with blue-black hair and larkspur hands
hoist sodden sheaves
from the steeping tanks, cut indigo into cakes.
Silhouetted by glare, his father, seated high
on a horse, points a riding crop
to an immense gate made of narwhal tusks,
a colossal archway.
Remember who you are named for.
Stunning brightness dissolves
to shifting scrims of snow.
Beyond the narwhal gate distant figures loom
familiar to his mind –
how many? Six? Three? Yes, three
falter forward, stumble, fall in the snow.
Aeneas lurches toward them,
his legs plowing powdery drifts,
drifts rising to calf, now thigh,
now hip deep. He fights on, knowing
this is fated. Shackleton is coming
and Aeneas will save him.
FIVE IN A THREE-MAN TENT, TWENTY-EIGHT BELOW ZERO
Twenty Miles from Hut Point, Antarctica, 1916
Spencer-Smith finds the opium,
swallows a tablet.
This time he dreams
he’s punting at Cambridge,
following a curve in the river.
His pole finds bottom and he
presses forward. Autumn leaves
float and turn on the sun-spangled
water. So much sparkles, quickening.
Trees bluster, a fluster of ducks
flurry skyward, a swan hammers
against the punt. I say, Rich,
he calls out, if your heart’s behaving
funny, what’s the best thing to do,
sit up or lie down?
Richards replies that he doesn’t know
but thinks it best to lie still.
Spencer-Smith imagines himself
fastening his black cassock,
fingering its thirty-nine buttons
for the Articles of Faith.
Two hours later ice crystals glitter
on his eyelashes and beard.
The men claw a shallow depression
in the ice. Too weak to lift the Padre,
they roll his body in, cover him
with a snow cairn. The cross made
of bamboo poles becomes a slight
smudge, then vanishes against
the white void behind them.
Cape Evans, Antarctica, January 10, 1917
Richards saw it first.
It seemed to resolve from the mist
as he held the glasses to his eyes
scanning for seals. A drifting berg,
he thought, until a curl of smoke
rose from it into the northern sky.
At the breakfast table he passed
a quiet word to Joyce, who went
to the high window. Standing on a box,
Joyce peered across the frozen Sound
to the spot nine miles off. Blinked.
Then he shouted
A clatter of crockery, scraped chairs,
cries and calls, backs clapped,
a confusion of what to grab first,
so they grabbed each other, quaking,
gripped hands and shook hard.
The outline of the ship sharpened
as they dashed toward it with dogs
and loaded sledges. It couldn’t be.
It was! They whooped their joy
recognizing the Aurora.
Joyce beamed with the binoculars
held tight to his eyes. A mile or so
across the ice three small figures
like penguins materialized,
came toward them and he knew,
was dead sure, one of the figures
walked exactly like Shackleton.
Joyce, old man. I am more than pleased to see you.
And here he was, the Boss, large as life,
standing there, hand extended.
In such a moment perhaps nothing seems
quite real, but the mind may just crack
open enough to allow a narrow glimpse
of something warm. Something clean.
The men were filthy. They’d worn the same
clothes for more than two years. The stench
of their bodies was fierce. Wild-eyed, manic,
they burbled, blurted a frenzy of words.
Hooted. Wept. Jack had been too overcome
to leave the hut and remained fluttering
inside, fussing, petting his things.
How many men have we lost?
Once the Boss was told about Mackintosh
and Hayward, about Spencer-Smith,
Shackleton sent the prearranged signal
to Captain John King Davis on the Aurora,
who instantly understood three had perished
when Shackleton and his two shipmates moved
apart and all three lay down flat on the ice.
These four poems are part of a full-length manuscript I am writing about the extraordinary experience of the Ross Sea Party in Antarctica during the years 1915-1917. I have been obsessed with their story for over fifteen years.
I first learned about the men of the Ross Sea Party after reading about Shackleton’s survival when his ship, the Endurance, was crushed and sunk in the ice pack surrounding Antarctica. While that epic struggle is one of the great survival stories, there is little attention paid to his support team, the Ross Sea Party, who were on the opposite side of Antarctica.
Led by Aeneas Macintosh, the Ross Sea Party was also marooned when their ship, the Aurora, was swept away leaving them without proper equipment, food, and supplies. With only the clothes on their backs, duty bound, they continued to sledge more than 1,500 miles in horrific weather laying food depots necessary for Shackleton’s crossing. They suffered starvation, scurvy, snow blindness, and extreme frostbite. Three of the ten men died. And, of course, Shackleton never crossed the continent, so the food depots remained unused in the ice.
My poetry writing has evolved so that I prefer writing a full-length collection that tells a larger story. My first full-length collection cohered around several themes and while many of the poems were personal, a good number of them were persona poems. I found myself more drawn to that form. Persona poems allow me to expand creatively and inhabit personalities and situations that are far more fascinating than my own straight-forward life.
I moved into writing entirely in the voice of whimsical personas for my book Composing the Rain, experimenting with an imaginary world. I was weary of dystopian fiction and decided to create a world of characters who were charged with bringing beauty back into a fallen world by composing the perfect music. I discovered it was extremely satisfying to write poems for a single extended story. The larger framework made poems easier to invent. My job was to simply keep the story moving.
And then, ancestry research led me to discover a secret my grandmother kept for her entire life. This discovery led to a series of others and I wound up traveling to Norfolk, England where I was surrounded by relatives I had never known. My grandparent’s people are still there and have lived there for generations growing reed for thatched roofs, milling grain, fishing, and farming. I became entranced by the dialect and the industry of herring fishing in the North Sea and my book The Sea Was Never Far was born. In it I take on the personas of the fishermen, the net menders, basket weavers, millers, farmers, sailors, and the Scots girls who did the herring gutting.
Persona poems and a love for research continue to make me the poet that I have become. I enjoy finding the right diction, information about the period, the customs and information and vocabulary related to jobs to invest a completely different world into my poetry. While writing about Antarctica, for instance, I discovered a full glossary of more than 80 different terms for kinds of ice.
Writing poems for the Antarctic expeditionary group is challenging because though I am telling their story I want it to be a poetry collection. To accomplish this I have written several the poems in form. For instance, “Left Behind, Mack’s Sixth Day on the Antarctic Ice, 1915” is a glossa. I also use sonnets, a sonnet crown, and the pantoum, sestina, cento, golden shovel, and triolet forms to speak for the expeditionary men in Antarctica.
Another challenge of this collection was to find a way to break a narrative dominated by men’s’ voices. As a counterbalance, I have written lyrical poems in the voice of Antarctica. Hers is a feminine voice unaware of and unconcerned with the men on her continent.
I approach writing poetry differently from when I began. I think in terms building a larger project which becomes my fund for inspiration. This way I don’t have to think, “what will I write about today?” For me, that’s such a help. I become completely invested in the lives of the characters, in the larger narrative. I don’t know what will come next, but I think about that often, casting about for my next obsession.
Marion Starling Boyer has published four poetry collections. Poetry from The Sea Was Never Far (Main Street Rag) won recognition as a finalist in The Atlanta Review’s 2019 International Poetry Competition and by The Tishman Review for “Best of the Net.” She has also published, The Clock of the Long Now (Mayapple Press), Green (Finishing Line Press), and Composing the Rain which won the Grayson Press 2014 Chapbook Competition. Boyer lives near Cleveland, Ohio and teaches workshops for Lit Cleveland and Lit Youngstown. Information about Boyer and her work is available at https://www.marionstarlingboyer.com/.