Frozen contemplation, Bill Sewell

South: An Antarctic Journey
Chris Orsman
Victoria University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0 86473 312 7

Recently, I flew across the North Atlantic from Frankfurt to Los Angeles. Our route took us north over Iceland, Greenland and the frozen wastes of Canada. After overflying what must have been the Shetland Islands, we lost sight of sea and land under a sheet of cloud. There was, I think, a glimpse of Iceland, then the cloud closed over again, definitively, it seemed. But an hour or so later, I suddenly realised that the uniform expanse of white we had been traversing for some time was not cloud but the Greenland icecap. It was the texture which gave it away: a crinkling too solid for cloud, caused by pressure of the ice. Not long after, the icecap yielded to messy glacial moraine and then to the coast.

This landscape was uniform, desolate, and — from that altitude — totally devoid of life; yet utterly fascinating. I could have watched it for hours. And in this fascination I was merely responding, as so many had before me, to the earth’s extremities, Arctic or Antarctic. These extremities have lured the explorers and adventurers, of course: Franklin, Nansen, Peary, Cook, Amundsen and Scott — and, more recently, even Billy Connelly. But, as Francis Spufford in his recent study, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, shows, the polar regions as “an arena for the imagination” have also lured artists and most particularly writers: Coleridge, Wilkie Collins, Dickens, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe. In New Zealand, Graham Billing has tapped into that tradition in his novel, Forbush and the Penguins; Bill Manhire is rumoured to be working on an Antarctic anthology; and now Chris Orsman with his second book, South: An Antarctic Journey, has made the Antarctic the subject of a long poem.

There is no indication that Orsman has ever visited the Antarctic. But his fascination with it seems to be genetically programmed. His poem is introduced by a prose piece which describes a trip his grandfather took as a 12-year-old to Dunedin in 1910 to claim his prize (won in the Polar Raffle) of a short voyage on Scott’s vessel, the Terra Nova. It concludes with a description of his grandfather’s library which boasted a copy of The Great White South by Herbert Ponting, Scott’s cameraman, the book which provides all the plates in South.

Orsman’s title adds another dimension of fascination for me. The term “South” has a literary resonance from the poetry of Pablo Neruda, evoking the harsh, unpeopled landscape of Patagonia. It inspired me some years ago to write a short sequence of my own entitled El Sur, which (on the South American model) celebrates the southern part of New Zealand. South, then, was the kind of poem I might have wanted to write myself and for this reason I was particularly well-disposed in advance towards Orsman’s new book.

There were other reasons. Orsman’s first book of poems, Ornamental Gorse (1994), is unusually compromising for a publication in the Victoria University Press poetry list. Its title poem deserves to become an anthology piece, since it cleverly makes a national icon of an ugly and vicious imported plant:

It’s ornamental where it’s been
self-sown across the hogback,

obsequious and buttery,
cocking a snook at scars,

yellowing our quaint history
of occupation and reprise.

 

Many of the poems show great wit and inventiveness. More than that, they sound good: Orsman knows how to find memorable phrases, how to manipulate syntax to bring about the correct timing and how to conclude his poems with a satisfying ring. I am less enthusiastic about his plundering of family history as material for many of the poems. The result can be a little forced. And occasionally his use of adjectives and abstractions can be ponderous. But Ornamental Gorse signalled that this was a poet to look out for.

Already in his first book Orsman had touched on the polar theme, in two poems, “Ice Age”, which appears to have an allegorical, political function, and “A Prologue to Antarctica”, which records his family connection with the Southern Continent. Then, in early 1995 Orsman published a sequence of 12 poems entitled “The Ice Navigator” in Sport 14. This may be viewed as a dry run at South, since all but one of the poems reappear in the later work — but in different versions which in years to come may exercise the skills of textual scholars.

South, as might be expected with a long poem, is essentially in narrative form. It tells the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole of 1910-12 and falls into five parts: “Getting There”, “Landing”, “The First Winter”, “South” and “Heading for Home”. But the narrative is not continuous: rather it has to be divined from the 44 pieces which make up the book, many of which are triggered by photographs from Ponting’s book. In fact, the point-of-view of the cameraman is commonly used in this poem, from the very beginning:

History’s a flammable nitrate
the cameraman gathers in

with a sweeping roll-call
— a sixty-second pan

across the decks, the docks,
the crowd’s mouthing cheer.

“A Colonial Farewell”

 

The effect, of course, is to provide an immediate distancing, for the camera creates another filter over and above the removal from the reader in space and time. And yet the presence of the camera somehow intensifies the poignancy. For the silent banter and horseplay and jollity of the crew, which the camera records, contrast starkly with our know-ledge that all of them were to endure considerable hardships and that five not only lost the race to the Pole but their lives as well. The irony is, of course, that, in the tradition of great British losers, Scott seems almost to have a more secure place in history than the eventual winner, the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen.

The story of Scott (and Amundsen) is dramatic enough in itself. It has been told before, most notably in Scott’s diaries and even a debunker of the Scott legend like Roland Huntford concedes that Scott’s way with words gave him a PR profile which the coldly efficient Amundsen could never rival. Moreover, even in this cynical age many are still moved, for instance, by Captain Oates’s laconic exit into the storm; and Orsman doesn’t overlook that tableau, capturing it in this brief, ironical piece:

A masterly silence was called for
as he tried to put on his footgear.

He opened the tent flaps, still in his socks.
He said something else, but we forgot.

“Post Script”

 

But if Orsman had contented himself merely with a re-telling of the Scott story in poetic form, he need not have bothered. There is a deeper purpose to his poem.

The key is to be found in the subtitle: “An Antarctic Journey”. While there is no doubt that the Antarctic itself exerts a fascination on Orsman, equally fascinating is the notion of the journey, a journey which takes place not only in the physical sense, but also in the spirit. What occurs in the course of this journey is a kind of reductio ad absurdum, a descent to a nil-point from which a return is somehow spiritually and imaginatively reviving.

One image in particular gives eloquent support to such a reading: a navigational image which alludes to the imaginary lines of latitude and longitude on the globe. Early in the poem we read of approaching “the imaginative boundary / of the south” (“The Ice Navigator”), and in the next piece, “Kinematographing in the Pack”, of “crossing the Antarctic Circle, / as the circles narrow”. Such imagery recurs towards the end in two of the climactic pieces of the poem, “The Pole” and “South”. In the first, the explorer wonders

… where
exactly the lines

collided.
It was not

as he once dreamed it
piercing his heart.

 

In the second, “the last circle of the Antarctic / collapses to a pinpoint”. This then is that reductio ad absurdum, the nil-point, and the notion of the circles gives the poem something of a Dantean flavour.

The arrival at the Pole is a bitter disappointment, the return journey a nightmare. However, in “Turning Back”, the descent is reversed: “Something stirs out on the plateau // beyond the infinitesimal widening / of the earth’s circles”; and as the party trudges back towards its members’ deaths some sort of transformation occurs. “Delirium” relates a vision which makes “the explorers stand aside on ground / solid and weighed upon / — imagined”, while the final poem, “The Last Tent”, concludes with an upbeat lyrical burst:

Before the blizzard struck

he saw skuas in clustered flight,
scattering, reforming, far inland

from their native haunts.
He heard the providential cry

from that scant shoreline civilisation,
smelt the wrack of a lightening coast,

the colonies preserved in beloved capes
for which he must soon be bound.

 

The philosophy is not new: it is T S Eliot by way of Heraclitus and Dante. But in an Antarctic setting it is new. Nevertheless, in spite of many fine moments, the poem as a whole does not quite come off.

The reason has to do, I believe, with the fact that in South Orsman has chosen to rely on a single form — the free-flowing, unrhymed couplet which occurs in all but four of the pieces. It is a form which Orsman uses with great skill and which features prominently (though not with such dominance) in Ornamental Gorse. Here, there is both an advantage and a major disadvantage to resorting to the one form. The advantage is that it gives the whole work a uniformity which creates a formal counterpart to the uniformity of the icy environment. The disadvantage is that such uniformity can turn into a monotony which robs the work of much of its dramatic tension.

It is also a question of literary development. Where Virgil, Dante, Milton and Wordsworth — in however masterly a way — could safely slot into a single form, the late twentieth-century poet cannot. We live in a more complex and fragmented world which needs to be reflected in more complex and fragmented way.

A contemporary long poem with which South may be compared and to which New Zealand audiences were introduced earlier in the year is Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s The Sinking of the Titanic. It shares the technique of revisiting a twentieth-century event which has passed into mythology and extracting new meaning from it; it also shares the background of the ice. Enzensberger makes of that shipping disaster and our response to it a metaphor for modern civilisation and he uses a variety of means to project that civilisation and to keep the reader alert: a menu, extracts from hymns, autobiographical elements, news reports, statistics. The result is a mélange of voices which creates a dramatic tension of its own and a corresponding complexity.

In South, by contrast, the voice is overwhelmingly authorial, even though the point of view shifts from that of the cameraman to that of the explorers and ultimately to that of Scott himself (although this is never made entirely clear). It is a voice, the tone of which tends — it must be said — towards the over-solemn and the portentous, as in this couplet: “…the valedictory waves / eat at the heart’s thin strand”.  Perhaps such writing is intended to be some kind of pastiche of the language used by Scott and his contemporaries and, if so, it is skilfully done. But in the end the reader wearies of it and looks for greater variety of form, voice and tone.

The history of the poem’s composition suggests that Orsman had some difficulty arriving at the final shape of South. He was clearly not satisfied with the earlier 12-piece version. We can only speculate why he had such difficulty. But one of the most arresting images in South is that of a cold of such intensity that “the emotions / freeze on [the explorers’] faces”. Could it be that contemplation of the Antarctic and of the ice for so long also locked up a part of the poet’s imagination?

Bill Sewell is a Wellington poet. 

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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