I have been thinking a lot about this, and I’m almost sure: the best thing for poems to be about is polar exploration.
Lately, I find that I will read almost any poem about brave people setting out on to the ice for no reason at all. This might have something to do with the fact that it’s mid-January and I don’t remember what being warm felt like. This might have something to do with feeling, always, like I’m setting out into some unmapped territory.
(This is partly, I think, the way my life is always chaos; and partly how everyone feels in a new year.)
This week’s poem, Last Love Poem For Ernest Shackleton by Christina Olson, is probably my favourite polar poem. You can read it here.
Don’t let the form scare you: it’s written like a triptych, but you can read it like a regular poem, straight across, too. I have spent a lot of time thinking about why it’s written like a triptych, and I’m still not sure; all I know is that I love it and it works for me.
It’s something to do, maybe, with the way the triptych breaks the whole into fragments like a haiku, or a dream. If you read only the columns you get things like afraid of ice. / I would not / teach me the blues or ...Tobacco. / flowers, a woman. / Glaciers loom.
Every love is its own thing: baffling and strange and scary and uncharted and full of unforeseen sacrifices
The images stack up and slide across each other, sort of like the way sheets of ice do, the way glaciers form. I love this, too. It’s a love poem, like the title says, but it’s a love poem with so many layers – a love poem that starts with the impossibility of love at all.
When you died, your wife / shipped your bones / back to South Georgia leaves no room for the kind of romantic relationship we imagine in love poems, and I think I love the possibility of that. I love the idea of love poems to things that are gone, things that you never knew; people you never met and never will. I love the idea of love as something beautiful and mad and strange. I love the idea that you can love things you never knew, only read about, dreamed, imagined. I love the idea, maybe, that love is not limited to the world you live in. I love the idea that love is not limited by the constraints we apply to it.
This is a love poem about all kinds of love. There’s the love of the wife, of course, sending her husband’s bones back to the Antarctic, there’s your man Wild / interred at your side / as in life / as at sea. There’s this strange, moving love that is Shackleton shooting his dogs, and weeping. And there’s this love for a man long dead, and a love for a place, and a time, and a sense of wonder at the natural world. ...with you / I would not / be afraid of the ice, she says, because that’s another kind of love again – almost like being a kid with a parent. I love this poem because it’s a love poem to one man which ends up feeling like a love poem to love itself; to all the variety and richness and wonder of love and the world, and a belief, I think, that all these kinds of love can (and should!) coexist together.
Love is always an unmapped territory. You can read every book ever written; watch a thousand romcoms; plan, and study, and try to know what it’s going to be like; but you never know before you get there, and every love is different. Every love is its own thing: baffling and strange and scary and uncharted and full of unforeseen sacrifices. So is life, and so was the Antarctic (in the days before drones and satellites and science). And all you can do is go in, open-hearted, and do the best you can. Sit with me a bit, / teach me the blues / and grays and white [...] Your hand is barely / cold at my temple. / The sun does not set.