Charting the sublime, Kim Griggs

The Wide White Page: Writers Imagine Antarctica
ed Bill Manhire
Victoria University Press, $34.95,
ISBN 0864734859

When the explorers in John Martin Leahy’s “In Amundsen’s Tent” scrambled into the tent the Norwegian left after his foray to the South Pole, they found an unspeakable horror, an otherworldly beast that then tracked and mercilessly killed the three adventurers as they fled.

The only time I went into a polar tent during a visit to Antarctica in 2001, the horror that awaited me was a bucket of frozen poo with a small plank across it that served as a seat. Believe me, even when excrement is frozen, the smell seems to linger within canvas walls.

In modern Antarctica, it is the trials of toileting, rather than any possibility of alien horrors, that is one of the first-time visitor’s preoccupations. In some parts of our vast neighbour you can’t leave anything at all behind, so your personal waste has to be packaged up and returned to your home base. For women there are other challenges: when it’s 25 below, you don’t want to be disrobing to pee, so all women visitors to Antarctica are given a handy little plastic contraption that enables one to do it standing up (the trick, if you ever need to know, is to wait until you are really, really bursting). And even back at the comforts of Base you can’t quite leave toileting alone: checking the colour of your pee (clear is good, tea-coloured bad) is crucial to find out if you have been drinking enough water in the dry atmosphere of Antarctica.

For newcomers to Antarctica, coping with the corporeal is quite enough to contend with. Expecting to be able to unfetter the imagination is probably asking too much of those confronting the coldest, driest, windiest place on earth.

This is probably why so few of the authors selected by Bill Manhire for his anthology The Wide White Page: Writers Imagine Antarctica have visited the continent; he no doubt wanted to keep his readers out of the poo tent. Rather, his selection of Antarctic writing offers us a journey through the centuries and the genres, from Dante’s account of Ulysses’ last ocean voyage, to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to Ursula Le Guin’s story of South American women who made it to the Pole first, to Monty Python’s skit about “Scott of the Sahara”. The book ends with Manhire’s own quirky culling of the comments he read in the visitor’s book at Shackleton’s hut.

Those writers who are free to unleash their imagination seem to conjure up many an unearthly and unseen horror. We are treated to the mysterious end of Edgar Allan Poe’s first book-length work of prose fiction, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. The next entry (from “An Antarctic Mystery” by Jules Verne) provides one possible solution to Poe’s mystery, while the cry “Tekeli-li, Tekeli-li of the “daemoniac shoggoths” in H P Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness also harks back to Poe’s story. Manhire includes two selections from contemporary science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson: one comes from his novel Antarctica, while in the other, “Michel in Antarctica”, Antarctica is the setting for a camp to winnow out the first would-be settlers on Mars. Another gem is the story by German poet and short story writer Georg Heym, translated especially for this anthology, about a trio of South Pole explorers who, unlike Ernest Shackleton, decide to carry on to the Pole when they know they have no hope of making it back.

The poetry in the anthology also sweeps us along from the grandeur of Dante’s “The Death of Ulysses” to the banal comments of those privileged few who each year visit Shackleton’s hut. In between we find explorer Edward Wilson’s description of “The Barrier Silence” (“deep with a breath like sleep”), while Derek Mahon’s “Antarctica” and Glyn Maxwell’s “Edward Wilson” relate the death of the polar party. “Antarctic Stones” by Pablo Neruda depicts the physical grandeur of Antarctica. US poet Melinda Mueller writes of Shackleton’s failed attempt to cross Antarctica, and Henry Hart’s “Byrd in Antarctica” highlights American explorer Richard Byrd’s near death from carbon monoxide poisoning. Two poems by Chris Orsman (who in 1998 with Manhire and painter Nigel Brown were Antarctica New Zealand’s first Artists to Antarctica), and a poem from James Brown’s Go Round Power Please are also included.

New Zealanders are, unsurprisingly, well represented in the anthology. But the nationality of the editor aside, New Zealand has had a long association with Antarctica: Scott and Shackleton used, and the United States continue to use, New Zealand as a staging post to Antarctica. Since 1923 we have claimed a large tranche of the continent, the Ross Dependency, and, since 1957, New Zealand has had its own enclave, Scott Base, on Ross Island. Also, unforgettably, on 27 November, 1979, an Air New Zealand DC-10 slammed into the side of the world’s most southerly active volcano, Mt Erebus, giving New Zealand the dismal record for the most Antarctic dead. Along with Orsman and Brown, New Zealand poets include expatriate Douglas Stewart, Manhire and Denis Glover though not, surprisingly, the late Bill Sewell, whose 1999 collection Erebus: A Poem offers an extended meditation on the Erebus disaster and its ramifications. Laurence Fearnley and Owen Marshall contribute short stories. Fearnley’s “The Piper and the Penguin” looks at the disintegration of a relationship between Kathleen (incidentally the name of Robert Scott’s wife) and her lover, the composer Max, after the latter goes to Antarctica. Marshall’s gem, “The Frozen Continents”, describes the dismantling of an Antarctic exhibition by two men on an employment scheme.

For those unused to the wiles of Antarctica the publishers have created a stunning cover, the pale blue edge of the Barne Glacier. On the back cover, designer Sarah Maxey has created a beautiful, but weird snow storm. Inside, the text is leavened by a few pictures with an Antarctic link, but, the gorgeous cover aside, there are no heroic Antarctic photos here (although the end photo of Manhire’s own visit to the South Pole might qualify).

The most intriguing visual image, “A Gawrey Extended for Flight”, is that of a flying woman, taken from a 1751 novel by Robert Paltock. Paltock’s eponymous hero, sailor Peter Wilkins, meets and marries his Gawrey after being shipwrecked near the South Pole. In my next life, I’d definitely like to come back as a Gawrey, whose wings can also be reconfigured to form a boat. Sounds perfect for surviving the Antarctic, a continent which, according to Michael Chabon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is “trying, at every moment you remain[] on it, to kill you.” Equally fanciful is Ern Malley’s “The Creation of Antarctic Light”, “Ern Malley” being the creation of Stewart and James McCauley in one of Australia’s most celebrated literary hoaxes.

An added bonus in this anthology is the detailed end notes which not only explain the provenance of each of Manhire’s selections but also allow us to share some of his prodigious knowledge of Antarctica, the result of a lifelong fascination with the continent. The notes enable Manhire to tease out the history of Antarctica which has been woven through his selections. For instance, the note to Fearnley’s “The Piper and the Penguin” gives details of the actual composers who have been south, the note to Owen Marshall’s “The Frozen Continents” lists the many and varied international Antarctic museums and sites, while the note to the extract from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay explains a long-ago Nazi threat to the continent. Manhire uses the note to Derek Mahon’s villanelle “Antarctica” to include another (McGonagallesque) poem, “Commander Scott, R.N., at the South Pole”, a nod perhaps to some of the truly awful pieces he must have had to wade through in his search.

Interestingly, amid all the grand imagined adventures, it is not the tragic last words of the man who had his own epic, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, that Manhire selects. Rather it is a much more hopeful diary entry from a year earlier, when Scott was recording his “Impressions on the March”. Here Scott gently evokes the details – “The small green tent and the great white road” – of the overwhelmingly large Antarctica, which doubles in size each year when the seas surrounding it freeze.

These writers, who in the main have never been there, manage to capture the conundrum that is Antarctica. The continent is technically a desert, but its ice-cap holds 90 per cent of the world’s fresh water. It is owned by no one but, as a visitor you never legally leave New Zealand. On Ross Island, home to the New Zealand and American bases, you live life on Kiwi time, but drive on the American right. As Derek Mahon so memorably puts it: “At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.”


Kim Griggs’s On Blue Ice: A Not Very Brave Journey to Antartica was published by Random House in 2003.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Poetry, Review, Short stories
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