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.



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