Elizabeth Bradfield

Thoughts on Early Arctic Explorers and Your Time in Churchill

Come back safely with all your gloves
intact and your rolls of slide film finished.
Come back with your glasses unbroken, my love,
your desire for ice and ringed seal quenched.
You’ve pointed out enough ptarmigan,
hidden but for their black eyes in the drifts.
You’ve lectured enough to the curious, let them
go to the library for information, lift
excuses for travel from others’ tales
of what I learned in chasing restlessness,
in staring at a cub in snow, its pale
fur whorled and mussed, imagination pointless.
They’ve paid your way to see freeze-up
on Hudson Bay, the limestone pools inset
with Precambrian shell, the traps laid out to nab
bears that stray too close to town for comfort.
You’ve treated frost nip, suggested shutter speeds.
You’ve given them enough. Return to me.
Enough. Think of the historic hardships.
Cold, tired, fruit a distant memory—
and the body’s envelope loosens, skin sloughing
from the face’s planes. This is the grip
of the poles. It pulls apart your layers,
the glues that make you whole. The white of it,
the chill, the silence that’s so strangely lit
by the oscillating sun—all failures
here are dramatic. Those of light
of body or of will. The vast cold
isolates your small, red pulse
and runs thoughts wild as dogs at night,
tricks your flesh into quitting. Fingers, earlobes
only the first of you to become useless.
First, be stoic. Take the chill between
your teeth and grip it. Frame each mirage
with logic, and if rendered blind don’t seethe,
just pack your sockets with cocaine to assuage
the sharp ache. Document your madness.
Take the brunt of the sled’s weight even when
you are exhausted. Quote Keats into the relentless
wind. Blake to your companions in the thin
shell of your tent. Devonshire, yes, and Surrey.
These are real places to which you can return.
Not the odd, directionless roads you follow, asplay
across the tundra, unmapped, unplanned, lain
by glacial river. Even on the ice
you are yourself. Raised to venture and return.
You return having learned terms like Krummholz Effect
trees scoured to the weather side, not a limb
pointing north to the wind’s source. Flimsy
twigs reach east and west. And the horizon
is wide and shimmering, without scale, your eyes
unused to such long twilight, its scrim
across the day. Gore-Tex, Thinsulate, skin
under engineered layers. Zeiss,
Nikon, Olympus. Glass eyes held before
your eyes in attempts to safely truncate
distances, make them closer, more
familiar. To bring back something polar.
Of course no film can translate the cold, light,
or bone-deep sense of supervised terror.


Elizabeth Bradfield