Enduring Conquest



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.