Jane Routh’s pamphlet ‘The White Silence’ focuses on the C19th explorer Sir John Franklin’s failed attempt to find a north west passage through Arctic ice. Her poems dwell more on what’s not known than what is and feel to have grown out of a strong interest in the subject, an empathetic imagination and a sense of how history evolves.
The poem I’ve chosen is one of the longer pieces in the pamphlet. I particularly like this one because of its ability to sympathetically re-create the practicalities and emotions of being ice-bound.
Imagine a ship held fast all winter long.
Start again: you have to remember
it’s an Arctic winter: no daylight.
How to picture such darkness?
You have to imagine the body.
Hammocks below decks, close quarters,
feet, sweat, farts: a sort of warmth.
The grip of ice knocking on the hull.
Creaking – not as of timbers riding seas:
as of strangulation.
No one ever seems to mention
(Only Lowenstein, a century later, reports
the Inupiak’s 50-gallon drums of slops
rolled out – frozen, remember, odourless –
for summer’s melt to swallow whole.)
You have to imagine the tedium.
(Collingwood carved a table for his crew
from polished ice
and taught them billiards:
they would not miss, he said, the baize,
never having known it.)
Months, dark and cold. Waiting for moons.
It might even have been relief to be on watch.
Suppose Francis Pocock has not yet died
and, staring south, thinks he makes out a flare.
He’s heard talk of mirage, shuts his eyes,
opens. Then he’s sure: a bright curve
– imagine the shout that goes up.
Warmth, and more tomorrow. And then full sun.
Relief at the return even of short days.
To be on the move. Busyness, preparation, anticipation.
Imagine days lengthening, days
the sun does not set –
and still the ice does not let go.
Imagine the sun dipping again
below the horizon, and still
the ice has not let go.
From the start I’m drawn in by the slightly imperative but conversational tone. The second stanza with its ‘Start again’ seems to reflect the poet’s own struggle in recreating the scene faithfully before ‘below decks’ reality is evoked. Then, with the sound of ice and that shocking word ‘strangulation’ I’m no longer listening to someone’s imagined account. I’m there, held fast.
And immediately the tone backs off from the dramatic, having made its point, to consider sanitary arrangements and tedium, with references to later explorers, Collingwood’s ice billiard table offering an apparently casual but telling comment on hierarchy and morale in such circumstances.
The device of supposing ‘Francis Pocock has not yet died’ and placing him on watch I find an intriguing comment on the whole business of conjecture in the poem. The subsequent descriptions of the lengthening light and warmth are spare but sufficient to convey the sense of relief on board, but like the sun itself move on with an awful inevitability. At the end of the poem I’m still slightly stunned to have travelled so far and yet remained exactly where I was.