Missions: then and now

by gillian harding-russell

gillian harding-russell has published three poetry collections and several chapbooks. Her work has come out most recently in I Found It At The Movies, ed. Ruth Roach Pierson (Guernica, 2014), and will soon come out in the sports anthology Between the Lines, eds. Dwayne Brenna and Lacey Thiessen (University of Saskatchewan Press, 2014). A series on Fafard is also coming out in Descant, two poems in The Antigonish Review and individual poems in Fieldstone and Freefall.

 

I

The passageways through the archipelago
always existed, so logically were they there
in a puzzle of land   fitting together
waiting to be pieced

apart    between their severed edges, but so
impenetrable, packed with icebergs
rising   giants   among men
who lost their lives

through time, their ghosts
dissipating among the rocks and lichen
on present-day islands where the ice has melted and
evaporated into the air and a dream
of what ice and snow so beautiful to look at
once might have been.

 

II

After the burial of the three ship’s boys
on Beechey Island, the proper headstones
angled out of the still frozen ground
and prayers sonorously read
into the north wind

we blamed Goldner’s unscrupulous canning practices
and the scurvy plague of the North, the numbing
cold, the fevers and amputations
not all before they were too late, but
here it was another spring

everlasting crepuscular light
when the day is the same as the night
an opaque sun half mast in the pastel dusk
and the straight passage is not always possible
to follow, and progress during this odyssey
becomes an indistinct thing    now
the Erebus creaks         inside an armlock

of Arctic pack-ice amid
the whine pitched on a tremulous string of wind
that whirls around the still-frozen strait, and back
to the ice-blocked ship’s black hull
fastening to the cheek of an iceberg, retracting
screws to pull it forwards, and the Terror a shadow
not far behind, ice pinnacles
rising ghostly shoulders
around leaden heavy waters only
a shade darker than the skies …

 

III

The Inuit reported seeing a ship full of madmen
followed by another great tub with deflated sails
like a vast, crippled bird laden with corpses
lapping at the feet of King William’s Island
when the once portly captain threw up his eyes
and died, righteousness impossible
with such a crew unable to sleep
with the gnaw in the guts and the bitteroot
of cold that leaves an ache like the wind
an incessant wick inside your head
and growing pain before numbness
has set in, and being awake becomes
an ethereal thing, riding the backwash
of shadow thoughts
and a delirium
with the lucid dream of a sunny pasture back
home dissolving when controlling thought can no longer
be a constructive thing in Starvation Cove
something as leaden in the veins slowing
like the pack ice along the inlet, Hunger huge
in the face of extinction—Terror Bay

when one of the infernal
glacial shapes looms alive, Ursus Arcturus
or a man that steps forward, with decapitating jaws
to eat what’s left of the increasing white patches
of one’s mind becoming a part of
the landscape …

 

IV

Today …
the huskies scare off
the angular polars from the garbage dumps
and the pizzlies—polar pelts piss-yellow
from having mated with grizzlies—
have come south to the wooded settlements
for food now the pack-ice is gone
and ice-hunting
without a keyhole through eternity
impossible …

There is still the terror of a white bear following you
through the long polar night
to your very doorstep …

There is still the terror of the white (piss-yellow) bear following
you through the everlasting transparency
of summer light

with a patch of ice shrinking as you stand on it
straight as a motley Jackpine in winter-worn jacket
to face the white, booming emptiness of the Middle Ice
(under which lies the black-gold under Lomonosov Ridge
like a fountain and mine of Pandora
waiting to be excavated

and barrelled). And so we invent
the foundation for another nightmare, intricate
with tunnels and drill holes out of

consideration of the land and ourselves
that will always there and we know
will always support our feet.

 

 

*In this poem I dramatize some scenes from Franklin’s fateful journey to discover the Northwest passage. “Goldner” was the name of the canning company that has been blamed for the men’s lead poisoning.

* Grolars are bears whose dominant characteristics are polar but still mixed with grizzly.

 


gillian harding-russell has published three poetry collections and several chapbooks. Her work has come out most recently in I Found It At The Movies, ed. Ruth Roach Pierson (Guernica, 2014), and will soon come out in the sports anthology Between the Lines, eds. Dwayne Brenna and Lacey Thiessen (University of Saskatchewan Press, 2014). A series on Fafard is also coming out in Descant, two poems in The Antigonish Review and individual poems in Fieldstone and Freefall.

☝ BACK TO TOP