The shanties sing of the Southern ocean, cold
As eternal, dominant in the oceans’ swells,
Living and malevolent – or perhaps only uncaring
In the way a star cares not for the children it warms.
He is their foe – no Spaniard, no pox or wound,
No wind can depend on hatred like that sea.
I’ve read of Horners, explorers, sailors,
Lives lived and courses rigged in spite of that sea
Where the swells turn with the world unstoppably
And the albatross floats ineffably, mockingly,
And Providence calls men sparingly
To survive that awful sea.
In everything epitome or peak
Serves like a shorthand, pinning thoughts on deeds
And so allows our mind to bear the strain
Of multiplicitous experience,
Becoming our defence from all we fear
As Englishmen – raw feel of awe or hate
Or wonder great or passing desire – those things
That overcome us when we’re struck by life.
So we parcel up suffering in the closed-mouth Somme
And we know ambition by Marlowe’s mighty line
And gallantry in flying blue lives on.
You know the story of Scott – we measure our resolve
By milliscotts – by asking lots of times ‘Could I?
Have I the heart? The balls? The dare?’
Well, this story stands a risk to become
Another such repeated phrase – ‘Like Scott’,
‘Like Cook’, ‘Like Shackleton’ and so I’m writing
To try to make you see it – to try to douse you
In that sea that cares not whether we
Survive – to rub you raw with repeated tries.
Let waves break on us, start the seams and threaten,
Whet and wetten, stir and bring us back to see
That we are in an ocean and if we will,
We’ll sail against its careless hatred,
Suffer but still stand and say
‘Against these tides I have made way,
By Providence, who implored
Has flung me on a barren shore
I can still worth, to know it moves
Not.’ I’ll tell the tale that proves
The beauty of a principle of love.
Come to the shore. See this photograph.
We drew it in my class – my children broke
Their charcoals, griped and tried and scratched away
And seemed to gather something. Perhaps some day
When older, they will see that shot
And know those lines, those rocks, from what
They drew and tried to draw. I can hope no more.
That is the investment I like to make at school –
To plant some seed, not caring if I see
Her flower, but anticipating that
For one in ten, in thirty, maybe when
That child is grown, she will be readier yet
To read the meanings of a shot like that,
Not let it pass her by – as waves cannot,
But bend you to their course, will or nil.
I’ll make the world a wave, piece by piece,
Until the thirty cannot help but say
‘I know this. I was sure that it would come
Without knowing I was sure.’ Hearts speak.
So look close at the little boat about
To breach another wave stern-on.
Name those men – Worsley, Crean, McNeish
And Vincent, Macarty in the stern.
The Boss would wait his turn
Not boarding yet, but when
He’d spent last minutes with his men.
Is that water cold to you? Make it cold!
Launch! Out-go, for knife-edge need, a balance
Of hope and desperate trial. Only six go
Leaving beneath the boats the ragged men
With amputated toes and rough spirit,
To live a winter with the elephants,
Eat their flesh and watch the ice-scudded sea.
But launched they sail and vow to rescue when
They have some craft that can deliver all.
For all is Shackleton’s solemn promise –
He will not make a bargain with the sea
And trade one life for many, two for more.
He’ll risk his own but endure all, knowing
That on his back are twenty-eight men’s souls.
Finished with the sixties, and beating North
Against the veering stream of air – from where?
Where can the wind commence? A legend told
Within a legend told me of a god,
A young god, yawning in a cave, in love,
But sighs of slumbering satisfaction might
Begin to puff a feather on the roll,
Perhaps aloft a bird trying to take flight –
But what long cave, what storehouse, barn or yard
Would serve a living breath that stretches out
Across the breadth of continents and seas?
A wind that can continue, rushing past
A boat or island, rushing past for days,
At miles an hour, scores of miles, for scores
Of hours? The creature has become as vast
As living nations, powerful and cold.
The wind was blowing from the Horn –
Blasted Horn – and brought besides
Two tangled swamps of wreckage chewed
From ships that dared to pass the point.
Some omen – telling us aboard
That if a clipper, iron-hulled,
Four-masted, insured and worthy
Might disappear so lightly, then
A speck like us could be swallowed
And Lloyds of London would not know,
Simply posting ‘missing’, reckoning
In a year or two some word might be heard
And a castaway wash up, a barrel stamped
And named, a figurehead be found adrift
Or bartered by a common man for tools
Or jury-rigged the ship appear again
A hemisphere away, limping, pumping,
Barely floating on the wicked sea.
So easily might we be swamped and sunk
And with us hope of rescue for the men.
The fifth day we began to know the swells
That ring the world – the broadest, longest,
Highest, deepest, certainly strongest –
The waves that grow when a whole oceans swims
Against the shelving continents beneath,
Against the mountain ranges far below,
And every roughage is transmitted up
Through the column of water, up until
The surface rips and piles and breaks for miles,
Swells that becalm a little boat like ours
As they becalm the greatest liner,
Swells that tumble icebergs big as cities,
As they tumble any craft unwise
To cross them at an angle unapproved
Or try to twist and make a way despite
The oceans’ thoughtless decision. They roll
And with them we did roll. In gales they rush
In every-way conflicting passages,
Catching up each other, shifting pattern,
And becoming a different prospect
With little warning – but in fine weather
They will swill serenely on and fill horizons,
Fall horizons till the rolling, tilting world
That has become your dwelling is all ill.
With them, the current and the Northern gale
We made so little way that, disheartened,
Pain and injuries that our weak bodies
Had hidden from ourselves awoke and broke
Resolve to work. Surely the wind must change.
The wind did change – a West-South-West –
And then proceeded to swing round a point
And then a second, and the temperature
Alone would tell the origin of this wind.
We had fled the frozen ocean as it crushed
And ground weak trial but still the pack was close,
Colding the air nearby, so we furled sail
And dragged them down, not to have them drag us
Down shrouded with the salt ice of the sea.
Our oars – the precious limbs to bring us in
Against the wind, to turn our oil-fed strength
Into furious lengths across the wave-break –
Were thick with ice, rounded like glassy thighs,
And unable to bring them in, we threw
Two to join the sleek water gentlemen,
Penguins three hundred miles from land,
Quite indifferent to the breaking water,
So that we envied their peripheries.
Some May Day contrast your dances
With scurried graspings on the deck
Awash with freezing slush, she leaps
And kicks beneath you like a horse,
You hack a foothold in the shield
Of solid water, pressing deep
The pin-head flotsam in the deep,
You hack a kneehold, taking care
To balance as best may and chop
The puny hatchet against the ice.
Compare that, our fevered, frozen daytime,
With cavorting in the spring’s warm air.
When the painter we were using
For a sea anchor to hold us
Against the swell fell off and sank,
All chafed and loaded with the spray,
We feared to be capsized and raised the jib
Upon the mainmast, shaking off the frost,
With no affordance but to run before
The blowing gale, forty-eight hours blowing.
Running before the wind we carried on
All day and night, taking turns, not resting,
And just after midnight on the ninth long day
A line of pallid light appeared.
‘It’s clearing, boys!’ cries the boss –
And for a moment up springs hope
That better weather may be near –
Until we see that line of white
Is no horizon free of cloud
But the crest of some colossal breaking sea
Sweeping all the waves that were before it,
Lifting them and rolling them over, up
Over its shoulders like a whale the water,
Roaring in, above, around, and then
Within – filling our fetid den, our bags,
Our shingle stolen from the island shore
Was tossed and roiled within the bilge.
Shackleton held her into the wind’s eye
And like men mad we pushed and scooped and bailed
And flung the water away, entirely
Unsure – was life about to leave? It seemed
Like desperation now was life,
Life itself this lonely grasping at a
Liquid running through the strakes, the bilges,
And deep into the water far below.
So sudden and so vast, so totally wild
Was that wave that it must have been the child
Of the capsizing of a great iceberg,
Its calamity hidden by the gale,
The wind, the darkness, all conspired. But then,
By noon the wind had changed again and for
A few hours we sailed on reflected sun.
The wind wore round to South-East. By the night
We steered North-East with the wind abeam.
But too long we’d been saturated, steeped
In salt. One case of biscuit, tight within
Against the forepeak beneath the whaleback
Alone had kept its natural savour
And everything else, all the hot hoosh,
The milk and chocolate, the strips of meat,
Were seasoned to Neptune’s savage liking.
Pickled, our lips and skins were cracked and sore,
Beneath the stiff and often-torn, mended
Gabardines, worn for seven months of toil,
Our thighs were raw with chafing, ankles raw
With salt-water boils, wrists with seeping cuts
The ocean medicated with a douse
And eyes bloodshot, rime-rimmed, blinking, peering,
Spent with hours of straining at the glimmer
Of the breaking waves. But when we opened
The second cask we found the water brack,
Savoury, unsweet, unable to clean
Our throats, relieve our bitter stomach cramps.
On loading it had been snatched from the grasp
Of towing lines and cracked against the rocks
Of Elephant Island’s East-facing bay.
Salt-water had seeped in and spoilt the rest
Like doubt and panic creeps into a crew
Just managing to maintain their spirit
By working with one aim, until some sharp
Accident creates a wound and in seep
Tendrils, feeling infections of worry,
Selfishness, regret and criticism.
When short before the master had held sway
And all the party’s confidence was bound
In something greater than the sum of parts,
An army’s spirit, a celebration,
These seeping threats had seemed so unlikely.
But after just one knock the foundation
Can just be cut away – don’t be surprised!
For sand is cut by ice or wave or just
The tread of passing boot. To build lasting
Walls, sturdy houses, find some sort of rock
Given to man to build upon. Back on
Elephant Island twenty-two patients
Had to hope that their faith was properly
Placed in Shackleton. Otherwise their lot
If not relieved by the closing winter,
November, they had their orders to sail
For Deception Island – who wanted that?
In enervated state, with supplies gone,
To make against the wind for some island
Where the whalers might be waiting – or not!
A chapel was supposed to have been built,
A prospect not to serve for worshipping
But to provide the timbers for a boat
To make another voyage! But the tools,
The carpenter, navigator, captain,
Had already sailed. It was no prospect
For Wild and all the other tired men.
Their hope instead, on every ice-free day,
Was to pack up their meagre belongings,
‘Perhaps the Boss’ll come today! Prepare
The beacon, make sure there is fuel enough
To make a ruddy light, pillar of smoke,
And readiness to rush aboard the ship
He’ll come to fetch us in!’ No, we had worst,
For by some grace and lovely guidance
On the Island there was no crack,
No seeping in, no water’s lack.
But on the Caird we began to know thirst –
To know thirst, not simply be acquainted
With a desire, soon fulfilled,
But to know thirst, to know the stages, like
The swelling of the tongue, the rationing
Of swallowing, to prevent the rough pain
Of dry tissue on dry gullet muscle,
Feeling every crack and lineation
In your own throat, feeling your hair’s tussle
As scratches from a wire creation
Roughly crowned upon an unwilling scalp,
Feeling the rolls of eyeballs in sockets,
The momentary ecstasy as splash
Cracks your skin, then drives in the salt again
And ecstasy gives way to suffering.
When rowing with the boats from off the ice
We’d known this thirst and tried to slake it with
The nuts of ice remaining in the bilge
From drunk ice-floes we had chipped and loaded,
Then when they were gone, with raw bloody flesh
From seals, but after a minute’s satisfaction,
Thirst had returned, strengthened by minerals
Dissolved in the rich blood. Now we recalled
The streams of icy water running down
The slick rocks above the shingle beaches
All over Elephant Island.
We had no appetite to eat the dry
And uncooked rations, beef fat, pounded meat,
That gave us strength to haul upon the lines
Of tiller-yoke, or the mainsheet barely,
And would have cried if our eyes had water.
McNeish was nearly fifty, old for this,
Vincent was losing his strength through frostbite,
Unpeaceful rest and exhaustion’s slow toll.
But while the wind was fair somehow Crean sang,
Or groaned beneath a throat thick with swelling,
Songs of Irish childhood while he held her,
Navigating by the swell we crossed,
By the wind on his cheek, for pennant
That had fluttered at the masthead was pale,
Disintegrated by the ripping gales.
We had made seven hundred miles and soon
Could hope to find the land, if Worsley’s art
And science, taking momentary sight
Of the recalcitrant sun, while kneeling
On the icy deck, held both sides by men
Half-jammed within the cockpit, half-without,
All soaked by over-coaming waves,
And then the subsequent accounts
With sodden almanac and log
And guesses, estimates of speed
And space born from a life at sea
Had not just been the plucking of a man
At figures from the heavens at random
But in fact a skipper’s strange power
To break through veil of earth-shrouding cloud
And pierce the universe of time, to see
The rings and loops of celestial dance.
Then might our thirsts be broken, finding land.
A mat of kelp with two black shags
Resolved itself from bleary dot
To silhouette, to tiny proof
That soon South Georgia would be seen.
The shag is barely off the coast
And keeps a nest on steep cliff-edge,
Commuting, playing at fishing,
Unlike those albatrosses who had flown
Beside us in the darkest storm of night,
Unlike those Snow Petrels, sweet ice-fairies
That sometimes reach the polar cap and soar
Across an ocean or inlet easy.
Black shag, hooked beak, shrugged shoulders, you
Were proof of a world beyond our ice-world.
This was the second year we had been out
And had no company, no proof of men
Or trees or green life living anywhere,
Only memories. Our days were grey, blue,
Bleak and unadorned except by Nature –
Except by sunrise or sunset,
Except by moonrise or a net of stars.
Sore and thirsty, we blessed the perching birds
A thousand times and sailed towards the land.
Through a rift in the cloud McCarthy saw cliffs
And we believed him. He was not strongest,
Tallest, youngest, but McCarthy was glad
And strengthened by happiness – so the Boss
Had chosen him to be in this small boat
To make the crossing – and while we had pained
And cried he remained a happy man.
Perhaps there was some terror in his past
By which all present sorrows paled?
Perhaps there was some future hope reserved
That purposed every minute past?
Perhaps. It isn’t right to envy those
Who somehow retain joy,
Who live in innocence,
Who stay as children are,
If we are not. There is no even weight
In gifts from Providence – not to our minds!
Comparing is a wholly waste labour
Only bound to underestimate life
And put a price on men, free men, live men.
How I hate it – this petty regard
For parity! How I feel it in me
And try to dig it out, but it must root
Like dock and bugloss, for it arises
Almost every morning woken.
But peace. My blessings are not weighed against
Another’s blessings, weighed against
Another’s blessings. I have myself
And live alone, the prototype of me.
I am not Shackleton, or Worsley, but
If still I know not what I’ll be
There is no need to fear and cast about
For model. Christ’s shape is wholly surprise
And has a thousand faces, Hopkins said.
Have peace, take rest, fear not. The words are true
But storm approaches nonetheless,
The waters of the world mock readiness,
The toying winds care no more or less
And come in their own time. I hesitate
To think them, scribe them, shape them in my thought
Knowing now that they are lifeless minions,
Of un-life, death-in-life, imprisonment,
They are despair and self-hatred and rage
And shame, regret – waters that fly and freeze
And cover the ocean’s surface whitening
Cerulean blue to filthy pallor.
The swells deepen and drop,
The boat floats and then stops
And falls into the void.
We were desperate to stay off the shore
After all these days of straining to cross
A maze of wakes, washes, swells and breakers.
After pressing ourselves across the sea
We had reached the mouth of a narrow bay
And feared to trespass, try a landing where
No-one had charted, measured or leaded.
Sure that come morning the ground would welcome
Its terrestrial children from his sister,
We had happily stood off to gain room.
So we invited two day’s battle more,
For standing off the wind began to cry
And soon the surface was layered with spume
And flying curtains, a second surface,
Our tiny shell floating on the lower top
Become submarine beside rescue craft.
It grew to hurricane – to hurricane
Unlike another Worsley knew
Or any man in all his past sailing.
It shrieked down from the North-West, bent
On rushing us against the cliffs.
But now, beneath the influence
Of the mountain spine, all jagged,
Fretted, tumbling, scooped, the howling
Swooped around in crazy eddies,
Blowing back against the sails,
Knocking the Caird onto its beams,
And as the night wore we felt the miles slip
And knew behind us in the dark
Came Annewkow Island, somewhere,
We had to weather it, for to pass through
The channel leeside we had no knowledge
Of rocks or shoals, sure to be thrown
Into a stony sea from a split boat
After so much spent toil. Caution’s demand –
Our lives being not our own – had us bear
South as best we could, a scrap of canvas
To tug us out despite that mighty breath –
And sure enough, the island came astern,
Already to windward, it seemed,
But leaning out the cockpit, praying to catch
Another ounce of power from the wind,
A current rushing unobserved beneath
Swept us towards the island’s sharpened prow.
Hundreds of feet it loomed, the shadow-sense
Of its presence heavy on our drenched necks
And barely turning to bear to watch it
We weathered the island. Black slick towers
Racing up like the weapons of a god
In a battle all ignorant of men
For a moment gave us respite.
That day we left our hopes to Providence
For no willpower or clever sailing lore,
Experience or skill or mighty hand
Could save us from the storm. We knew, like those
Left trusting on the shingle beach,
Surely also suffering hurricane,
Our lives to live or die were not our own.
That moment in the backwash, as the waves
Sucked and slopped and drew away to batter,
We felt the end was very near.
The wind came round. We had enough
To make an offing in the falling gale.
The water long finished, except a pint
Of filthy, hairy stuff – the rotten bags
Had shed their reindeer hair into the boat –
So strained through a scrap of medical gauze
That had to suffice for six. In the storm
Our desperation was enough to hide
Our thirst, but longing for the dawn
Any risk would be run, if only we could land.
So then imagine after all these feats
And so many soaking torrents, each cold,
And all the long grey mornings when the sun
Only glowed throbbingly behind wet clouds,
After two boxes of matches, eked out,
Every one a life-saver, and short meals
Of barely varied diet – and then thirst –
And hurricane – after weeks’ more wearing
Of those stinking, patched and filthy costumes
And after days of feet so numb and sopped
That the skin and nails have begun to rot –
When now we were such approximations
Of human shape, wet where we should be dry,
Dry where we should be wet, weak in limb but
Still fixed and clear-eyed in resolution,
The dawn was breaking over land at last.
Only turn in towards the open sleeve,
The sound, King Haakon Bay, though a long fjord.
But it could not be simple. Heeling over,
The boat weighted with three weakened below
Lying on grinding ballast, weakening,
We felt the katabatic blast come down
From off the island’s ice-sheets. We’d not wait –
We could not wait and try again , again –
But bid to tack between teeth of the reef
And the abrupt cliff foot, enter the bay
And find some cove to beach the tired boat.
Come about – seeming to see land retreat –
As if we’d decline any dry welcome!
Come about – and will the boat a few yards
Closer to the mouth, nearer to the teeth
Of the foamed and coursing reef-toppers.
Come about – again toward the cliff-foot
Perversely sailing into harm, it seemed,
Until we judge we’re windward as may be
For a small boat under two sails. About!
And sharply or feel a shuddering jar
That sailors dream of, waken from their dreams
And sigh in breathless relief, that dreams are!
Closer again to the reef, but somehow
See that we have made a few precious yards
And one more tack should see us through. About!
The final tack – even into the wind,
Even against the chop, the groaning frame,
We can see that we have clear, free water
Into the sound – onto the land – to beach!
And in that moment, as she rights herself
And begins to run true through the water
A vast pulsation of sense clarifies
The silhouettes of outcrops against the snow,
The running patterns of the rippling wakes,
The shredded clouds, the biting, biting wind,
The scrape of salt-caked clothing on your skin.
What efforts were those tuggings and hauling
To turn the little boat, when all your thoughts
Were of water, and every hand’s surface
Though caught by the sea’s splashings, felt so dry,
And when the new ache of pulling a line
Ran over the old ache, pulling before,
And the day before and the day before,
So that arms and shoulders feel like pistons
Somehow welded to you, mechanical
And hard. Each grip bit into fingertips
And left new scars in skin barely held on.
All that ache and grating suffering, now
Repays with blotting release – here is land
And on that shingle we will stand
Or crawl, or drag ourselves on knees.
On that last long tack we had enough way
To make a cove, just inside the fjord’s mouth
And hear the sound of sand under the keel.
Falling overboard into the white surf
We scrambled up the beach and found a stream
Running vertically down the green rocks
Put there express for mariners to drink
And let it run into our mouths.
We needed to drag the boat up the beach,
But when we tried to do it, found we had
Not half the strength of setting out and so
A thankless, sleepless task was set for one
To cling onto the scrap of alpine rope
The painter had been replaced by, to sit
Or half-stand at the water’s edge and fend
Our life-ship from stoving on the round stones.
He took it – Shackleton claimed the honour –
Of going first without rest, first night watch.
We readied a cave low beneath the cliff
For five to sleep and a tiny fire
Shrouded from the waters of the long fjord
By icicles, eight feet long, and sail-cloth
Battened by our oars. A few driftwood sticks
We all we dared to burn, though off the sea
We did not know how much we’d yet to need
The boat, that had been lightly built, ordered
To a careful design by the skipper
Back in London dock. It would be reckless
Already to remove McNeish’s deck
And so the fire was small, but very dear.
To reach the help we knew would be supplied
By the brotherhood of mariners
Who hunted right whales, sperm whales, ocean fish,
From Stromness on the island’s other coast
We could not sail now. Vincent and McNeish
Were far too weak to board, defy the waves,
Resist the wind again. Better by far
For a smaller party to take the risk
Of walking on their own, injured feet,
To cross the island at its narrowest,
Some places only three miles side to side
Like where King Haakon bay met its glacier.
For two days of rest we stayed in the cave
And those who could, Shackleton, Crean, Worsely,
Upon the steep tumbling grass covered hill.
What stuff it is that lines hollows, gullies,
Breasts and flanks of living earth, and enswathes
Any ground available, sweet and clean.
There is a wonderful resilience,
A marching when the wind tussles it,
A liveliness when spring sun warms it,
A cloth-like softness to our human feet.
And this grass was the vegetable life
We had not seen for twenty months!
To walk upon the sward – never pass it!
Never miss a chance to revel in it
Or give it life by treading upon it,
For every broke and cut leaf has a child
That slowly pushes through the earth
And enriches the empire of the lawn –
Even a rough, tussocky lawn like this –
And on the tussocks, pale, unaware,
Great albatross chicks stood in grassy nests.
Picture a whole society of birds,
Orphans while their parents scour the ocean,
White as skittles, fat and fluff-dressed,
Talking from one nest to another nest
With loud sailor’s voices from great beaks.
Their childhood is out of scale with bird-life
As we imagine its brevity,
Its flickering. Stay ten months fattening
And darkening on a grassy hillside
Before, all sudden, the idea arrives
That you are born to fly, and wings unfold
And the fat and ugly chicks tumble off,
Try to open up their wingspan,
Make a run-up after run-up,
Turn and flap and try again,
Trip on tussock, collide,
But made as they are, persevering,
Gain the sky and the play of the sea.
These birds – their parents – had been companions
To the ship before she sank, to the crew
When in the boats, to the six all voyage,
And now we needed them for meat.
It is not hard to kill an albatross –
You can hit the chicks on the heads with stones.
It is not hard to cook or eat –
The bones barely made and good to chew –
But it is hard to think of killing now.
All our time in the Antarctic
Life was only possible for us
In the slaughter of innocents,
Fat, blubbery creatures who kept us warm
With skin or fur or fat or meat.
The penguins, crabeaters, elephant seals
And now albatrosses, necessary
Fuel to the burning exploration fire,
The human heart, could not avoid a strange
Participation in our plans.
But eating fresh meat, drinking fresh water,
Sores already started healing on us,
Even only two days ashore and dry.
A little reconnoitring had revealed
The bay beyond us piled with wreckage, spars,
Stove-in crates and casks, so the fire increased.
We planned to row up the fjord, to the end
Where a shuddering ice-wall met the sea
And the island narrowed, skeletally
And the mountains bared their roots, beckoning
A final desperate-hopeful trial.
And so we left the boat upturned and high,
Shelter for another hopeful party,
A little quiet echo of our men
Also under boats a long voyage away –
Eight hundred miles West-South-West and waiting –
We made another promise to return.
So three went walking. Shackleton and Crean,
The gentlest of giants, and Frank Worsley,
If ever a soft man on his sailors
Certainly a man with heavenly guidance,
Somehow tied to the turn of glassy orbs
And able to hold a tiny whaleboat
True across the wakes and crossing waters,
Feeling wood and water, feeling passage
And allowance as two materials
Somehow related, can make allowance
And each bend for the other. The first time
I heard that knots in trees were springs of wind,
Wound and tightened by the whirling branches,
I wondered, knowing then that grain can tell
The past hurricane or breeze, tell all winds.
But even cut, wood springs and stretches out,
Twists and bends and lives. Even burnt it lives.
Worsley’s hands were hard as bark, but his heart
Was oak, wasn’t it? Now he and his Boss
And favoured faithful Crean were to traverse
Another wilderness, still of water
But frozen by time into ice mountains,
Ice waves, sastrugi, crevasses, ledges,
Plateaus, false fields, great scooped-out corries,
Sheer-sided split-rock scattered screes and sides
Of fretted, sharpened natural rock.
The plan was first to drag a sledge,
But the snow was far too soft,
The runners dug and ploughed along.
They left it after half a mile.
All of their shoes had screws banged through
For crampons, since there were no boots.
They wore their tunic gabardines,
They carried one thin alpine rope
And trod in steady, determined hope
To cross the island before they froze
Before the weather changed like those
Awful gusting, changing bearings
Transparent of the wind’s true comings.
They started up the slope and trod
Like walking on the hand of God.
It was an early start to make the day
Long for marching, even breathed with resting
Every quarter-hour, for fatigue was all.
Soon reaching the slope of the saddle
A frozen lake shone under moon-glow
Through the split and swirling mist. A puzzle,
So to see no puddle or tarn
Until as dawn rosed the pallid prospect
The lake grew and stretched right to the horizon.
It was the sea – Possession Bay –
And since the coast was broken up and steep
There was no other choice – retreat, return,
Retrace our steps, bear East as best as scree
And snowy slope allowed. The upland reared
And slid to sheer out-breaking crags,
These nunataks like fingers of a hand,
A frozen, shattered hand perhaps,
With passes through each pair – steep but short
And sure to lead us close to where we hoped
We’d find other men. The right looked lowest,
So Shackleton resolved to tread that path.
But see the sight – a world of solitude,
Of purity beneath, below – and cold
Cleanliness of an untouched world.
The only sound was the crunch of crisp snow
And the swish of the rope as it stroked the ground,
Occasionally conversant crystal hiss
As snow fell beneath us in collapse
And left us floundering in the lovely cold.
The first gap was reached but promised no way.
It ended in a tumbling mess of ice,
Of split and thaw-cut rock, so we returned
In our tracks, down the slope, around the flanks
Of the up-thrust crags. The second was worse,
Again we descended back, returned West,
But climbing once again on the cold coat –
A great skin over all the slumbering land –
The peaks shaded our ascent, we lost sense
And cold feet seemed frostbitten, all checked shoes,
Those scraps of hide or canvas treasured like
Tattered relics. Neither did this way present
A trusted descent and we had to bear
Our weary search, resolve to test the last.
All day all four – all three – had staggered on,
Only meeting when a rest was due
And otherwise strung out in a file –
Looking at the snow beneath their feet,
About to try that spot for hold and grip,
About to test that snow for depth, and glance
Ahead – for sure to see the man ahead
Also choosing a route of least peril –
Sometimes a comrade’s glance over shoulder
To check that they were together.
But while the greater part of intellect –
Such intellects after such exhaustion –
Was set on finding footing in the snow
A little part was counting: the Boss,
And two behind – and then the counter? Or:
Myself, the two ahead, and then there’s him.
Look and check – where am I in the line?
In the line of men I am not first –
Nor am I last. While walking none of them –
Three – would admit they kept on counting four.
And when they stopped to breathe they each felt warmth
Of two opposite and one beside them.
Three tired men – perhaps – three lonely men
At the end of their rope, in desperate hope,
Walking not for glory but to rescue,
Accompanied by one who knew the way.
Not before the falling darkness followed
Our late shadows on the slopes we mounted
Upon the fourth, the final razor’s edge,
With sea-fog rising from the coast behind
And all our tracks obscured and quite dissolved
The way ahead impossible to see
A wild playful idea formed in us.
Did the slope ease out onto level ground
As we suspected from our earlier glimpse?
Could we survive a sledging slide,
With rope coiled under to create a mat?
Three lonely men high on a bleak mountain
Cling together, legs astride, little packs
Clutched like animal pouches to bellies.
Shackleton, of course, at the front,
Crean with the adze as a brake.
Suddenly, made the decision
And off into the darkness,
Down ice cold mountain,
Sailing on snowfall,
Glissading in free-fall,
Laughing and gasping and so very near
The edge of our lives with unashamed fear,
But rocketing down by the fathom, the furlong,
The slope shallowed out and we fell in a snowdrift.
Laughing and gasping, we shook all around,
Clasped hands, felt quite pleased to survive.
Our clothes were in rags but spirits renewed –
And when after a hoosh break we were joined by the moon
We marched through the night to an Antarctic tune,
The sound of the wind on the snow.
Early in the morning after long slopes,
Retracing steps, rough ground and friendly lies
To make a minute’s sleep seem like an hour,
At last we reached a pass where we could see
The waters of Fortuna Bay,
And beyond that lower ridge,
A glimpse of Stromness Bay in the calm sun.
We left the moon entangled in the rocks
And grasp of the mountains. The air was clear
And after hoosh, a sugar-lump or two,
We listened for the whistle from the bay.
And sure at seven came a blast – we knew
We could continue – must walk on.
The final obstacles were not the wind,
The ice or cold, our thirst or broken feet,
They were the few equipments we had used.
So after that last meal we ditched our stove,
And when we reached a waterfall threw down
The pot and clambered down the rope
And left that too frozen into its place
As though another walker held the end.
Our shoes had worn the screws into short nubs,
And after falling Crean gave up the adze –
He left it lying on the ice we trod.
The three of us came strolling to the station
Nothing in hand, end of our strengths,
Ragged and filthy and cut by the stones,
Our beards were matted and greasy and black,
But somehow we were healthy and hard.
No worry had captured us – somehow the Boss
Had kept all that fear from enveloping us.
Only the perils of momentary threat –
Steep slopes, slick ice, high waves – no regret.
We had conquered the mountains – we had travelled the sea.
Now tell me if the children in my class
Are old enough to understand this tale.
To understand! Do you or I? And still
We try to build our houses with the bricks
That we have made ourselves, not trusting rocks
Far firmer, native-found, lying open
Upon the snouts of glaciers of time.
Why understand before we seek to share?
Control the wind before we bid it blow?
Do so and risk becoming quite becalmed,
Marooned, abandoned on a lonely isle,
And without bosses to go fetch our hope
We’d be quite lost to history or to life.
I feel – and let that justify my deed.
I dream – and let that be my ground of hope.
I love – so let that be the sea on which
The tiny cockleshells of daily tasks
And vasty liners float alike, aswamp
When rushing whales shoulder through the waves,
In hazardous position when the ice
That tore away from distant shelves and flows
Decides to bear down direct on our joys.
The love of sea, of sky, of wood, of flesh,
Of food, of life, of all created things,
And of creator, generous and close
Will be the waters that buoy up – and sink.
If all my plans are gone awry and torn
By gales, other wicked schemes, or sunk
Then I will not complain if they did float
For a short while on the mighty sea,
The Southern ocean cold and far away.