Toward Antarctica

Red Hen/Boreal Books, 2019
$19.95, 155 pages.

 

“CAN’T JUST GO. Can’t, more to the point, just arrive, land. You must prepare yourself,” writes the poet Elizabeth Bradfield, in Toward Antarctica, a marvelous book of prose, poems, and photographs that document her tenure as a naturalist there. More precisely, the book traces Bradfield’s circumnavigation of a polar place that’s hard to linger in, impossible to inhabit, and whose majesties can be glimpsed in partial ways, no matter what longing they inspire before or after.

Bradfield should know: she’s been studying Antarctica for decades and was twice able to work as a guide on boats leading others on ecotourism cruises to see it. She’s forged poems out of her notes from the 2011–12 and 2016–17 seasons. The result weaves between prose, rough notes, lists, haiku, and even footnotes, as if Bradfield is weighing how to capture, hold, or mill the ore of such experience. Amid this cornucopia, Bradfield interleaves sidelong photographs, which range from to-be-expected shots of penguins, glaciers, and soaring Antarctic terns to more unexpected vistas — a peeling picture of Jayne Mansfield from a base at Port Lockroy; the corroded image of a Union Jack; and a shot of the statue of explorer Luis Pardo’s bronze toe. Bradfield stumbles over ghosts of travelers past, pointing out once introduced and now acclimated reindeer, and noting the moment she’s too bone-tired to pay a pilgrimage to explorer Ernest Shackleton’s grave.

As she moves, Bradfield’s Antarctica also shifts behind veils of human longing — whether of explorers who sought it, nations who divvied it, or of herself and her fellow travelers in the present day. In a book that captures vastness and beauty, Bradfield has a charmingly wry touch with the prosaic hem of tourist practicalities: we visit the “rat eradication” lectures of field biologists and sterile yellowish showers where visitors attempt to scrub themselves clean enough of planetary spores and seeds to set foot on the Antarctic continent without disturbing it. (One list-poem even notes: “No snacks allowed ashore.”) Bradfield the poet is drawn to the paradoxical impossibility of ever really denuding ourselves: she knows that every visit disrupts; that as she travels, she’s mere “voyeur and witness”; that ultimately the “unoccupied interior” evades. Even so, she’s fascinated by what we bring, what we just can’t help but leave behind.

In the seventeenth century, while journeying on Japan’s newly finished footpaths, the poet Basho created a poetic travelogue studded with haiku and prose, which was ultimately illustrated with paintings by Yosa Buson. Basho-’s remarkable classic, a crowning achievement of the Japanese tradition haibun, was called Narrow Road to the Deep North. Bradfield, on her long sail to the deepest south, has created a contemporary haibun with great skill to chart the narrow path of Antarctic travelers. As we voyage with her to this extreme, we’re called to note our own fragile role as visitors on the earth, and also of our too-commanding presence here. We’re ultimately reminded of the ambivalent force of even our own most earnest longing to see. Nevertheless, amid snippets of prose poem and prosaic detail, Bradfield’s verses shine. “Dissolve, dissolve / what the water offers / what I’d like to take it up on,” she writes. Another fragment, called “Intertidal,” reads:

brittle star, krill, salp, weed

               what’s left by ebb or flung

another story beneath / along

                our floated, floating stories 

“Nature must be experienced through feeling,” writes Bradfield in one footnote, quoting Alexander von Humboldt, who once also sailed through southern Chile. In circling feeling, and in naming the longed-for world from so many angles, Bradfield offers us a way into the full, messy richness of our hunger to belong.

Tess Taylor is the author of five collections of poetry, including Rift Zone and Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange, both released in 2020.

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