Elizabeth Bradfield

Polar Explorer Matthew Henson, Assistant to Admiral Peary (1909)

Muttered in bunks, bent to the capstan’s spokes,
nightly whispered after exchange of course and speed
at watch-shift, What will he look like frostbit? Son
of the tropics, how will his dark blood

But once on the ice, once
our hoods were drawn and hoar had coweled
our features, once my broad nose was hid and Peary’s
blue stare shaded—O twilight world we traveled through
again together, all shadow and shadow in the short season
between the constant darkness and the breaking of the frozen sea.
They’ll say that, of all his followers, he brought me
to the pole because I could not challenge the fix
he made, bent over a bright pan of mercury, sextant
toward the low, red sun. Or they’ll say he wanted
all glory within the parlors. But who can separate
a shadow from what casts it?
Twenty years my shadow
traveled behind his, and on that last march toward the world’s
last goal, mine alone of the crew
though behind me,
it is almost forgotten, were Egingwah, Seeglo,
Ooqneah, and Ootah, whose words I tongued
as no others of the crew learned to, whose hunts
I joined and dogs I kicked. Let me tell
you, once, far from the iced-in hull, we slew
a bear. And the skin beneath that yellow-white fur was black.
Tell me what is loyalty, what ambition. Tell me how
to best judge a suitable man. Forgotten once the ship
came home, returned to the dim of my life
on cobblestones. Named on certificates, yes,
dutifully, but not invited.
Eighty years
before I am dug from my plot in Bronx’s Woodlawn and reinterred
in the privileged swales of Arlington, lain beside him
whose burdens I carried those many ventures.
But even as we trudged north
that final time, yoked to our goal, a related story
was beginning: two boys named Anaukaq
ran the tundra, flinging rocks at birds. One with eyes
like winter water, one with hair curled wild beneath his hood, and each
aware of his difference from his brothers.

Elizabeth Bradfield
“Polar Explorer Matthew Henson, Assistant to Admiral Peary (1909)” first appeared in Radical Society, 2006, Vol. 32, No. 1.