Elizabeth Bradfield’s Toward Antarctica: An Exploration
Reviewed by Holly J. Hughes
Boreal Books / Red Hen Press | 2019 | 160 pages
Reading poet Elizabeth Bradfield’s latest collection, Toward Antarctica: An Exploration, may not be as dramatic as actually visiting the continent, but it will likely be as close as many of us will get. Thanks to Bradfield’s diverse skills as poet, photographer, and naturalist, we gain unique vantage to the elusive continent as she gives us not just an adventure epic but a revealing, complex meditation, a portrait of the “lost continent” that is elegiac, wide-ranging, and intimate.
Divided into four sections and illustrated with 48 stunning color photographs, this beautifully produced collection from Red Hen Press’s Boreal Books imprint mirrors a sea voyage itself. Together we travel “Down the Coast (Getting There),” arrive at “South Georgia (More There Than There),” explore “The Peninsula, Etc. (There & Back, There & Back: Repeat),” and too soon find ourselves “Heading Home.” Along the way, we’re provided extensive notes filled with fascinating research, and at the end, when we’re hooked, we’re given a list of resources to “Get Engaged,” including links to nonprofit organizations that are working to protect Antarctica’s ecosystems.
Bradfield, who has worked on small ecotourism expedition ships since 2004, is also the author of Approaching Ice, a 2010 poetry collection that investigates the “golden age” of exploration by explorers such as Shackleton and Scott. Fascinated by the continent since she discovered a copy of Alfred Lansing’s Endurance in 1997, Bradfield has sailed just twice to Antarctica: in 2011-12 and 2016-17. She describes how these expeditions inform her poems by observing that her relative lack of experience “demands a reckoning with what it means to travel to and through a dreamed-of place… and what happens when a dreamed-of place becomes overwritten with tasks and routines—when work and all its systems, dynamics, economics, and complications come into play.” Therefore, despite its time-honored (and some might say clichéd) tradition, she explains that she made a deliberate choice against the travelogue, choosing not to reveal the name of the ship or her shipmates, so it could be “any ship, any crew,” and she could more freely explore her dreamed-of continent and what it means to her—and to us.
It’s fitting that Bradfield resurrects the hybrid haibun form that Bashō was believed to have originated in 17th-century Japan to chronicle his travels to the north of Japan. In this form, he combines journal-like observations with haiku verse, allowing the poet to chronicle both the outer landscape and inner reflections. In Bradfield’s hands, the haibun works well: prose passages serve as an intimate travel narrative, while her poems’ vivid sensory images drop us into the experience itself.
Bradfield’s first poem, “Upon,” sets up one of the threads that runs through the collection: the inevitable chasm between what we see and our felt experience of it. In the last line, she writes: “I have been there / I have not even come close.” As the journey progresses, she shares how this tension develops, especially as she balances being a guide for 100 other people with her desire to experience the raw land on its and her own terms. In the prose poem “First Landing: Brown Bluff,” she concludes by invoking Bashō as she enjoys shore leave alone: “Off again. I want to be not competent or knowledgeable. Not watched as a guide. Raw. Responsive. Sentimental. A pilgrim. Bashō at his shrine alone with Sora, a cricket cricketing under an old helmet.”
As the journey continues, Bradfield acknowledges the challenge of coming up with new metaphors to express the full dimension of the Antarctic experience. In “Patagonia: Pio XI Glacier,” she writes, “Usual metaphors for blue fumbled as ice pops and groans. Glad to fumble them anew.” Yet, she succeeds in finding fresh ways to describe what she’s seeing and hearing. For example, in “Salisbury Plains,” she writes: “Wind through tussac and rising up rising up calls (like washrags swept across window screens) of penguins.”
Not surprisingly, it’s in the poems that Bradfield often captures the “wonder or delight” most effectively. In this haiku, she lets her syntax reflect the held breathlessness of watching ten sei whales in the Straits of Magellan:
breath held, expelled they rise we surge toward looking toward what can’t yet be seen
Thanks to Bradfield’s voracious appetite for accounts of sea exploration, we don’t sail alone. Along the way we find ourselves in the company of those who’ve gone before. We meet Darwin on the Beagle, encounter a found haiku from Melville’s Moby Dick, hear Coleridge’s haunting refrain from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Neruda makes a cameo appearance, commenting on the “vast, irate sea,” and Elizabeth Bishop shows up with an excerpt from her poem “The Imaginary Iceberg.” But it’s Alexander Van Humboldt, who explored South America, whose words seem to most closely approximate Bradfield’s mission: “Nature must be experienced through feeling,” a sentiment rarely expressed by naturalists of that era in their steadfast quest for objectivity, and a sentiment that Bradfield confesses to wrestling with at times.
The second section, “More There Than There,” moves us into a more complicated relationship with the land. Here we visit Stromness, where “20 years of whales were rendered (175,250 whales).” Once again, Bradfield’s prose probes the limits of language: “Where? What? Loss. (Is there a telling others use to make this not yet another grim tale? Subvert my new supposition, reroute me from woe),” while the final image haunts:
unhatched shell cracked, extracted more empty cupped in upturned palm
Bradfield’s choice to include photographs is apt, given the history of chronicling polar expeditions, and her fine eye offers a powerful counternarrative, deepening the emotional impact of the poems. Like the haiku, Bradfield’s photos transport the reader with her sidelong glances, her unexpectedly intimate images. For example, in “Gerlache Small Type B,” she describes a sighting of orcas. An accompanying photo shows just the tip of the orca’s dorsal fin above water, the markings of the orca visible, ghost-like below. Other powerful images are as disparate as the watery reflection of an emperor penguin, a dumpster in the Falkland Islands, and a close-up of the whiskers and flipper of a Weddell seal as he scratches his chin, an ordinary, endearing gesture that brings his vulnerability home to us.
In the third section, “The Peninsula: There & Back, There & Back: Repeat,” there’s a shift in the poet’s voice as Bradfield expresses the dichotomies she’s faithfully observed and lets the voyages inform each other to reach an uneasy peace with her role as naturalist guide. In “The Fossil Whale,” she writes lyrically in response to a found poem created from words in Melville’s chapter 104 of Moby Dick: “We expand. Are changed by passage and place. I, too. Have scrawled on this ship, cracked the speckled shell of job title to suck the rich, strange stuff that might become words shared. Thus this. Here.”
It’s when we reach the powerful prose poem “Neko Redux” that Bradfield describes most compellingly what draws her to this lost land: “A gift. This. Unfair to claim & there were others and yet this gift: a minke exhales, unseen but heard. Spot its dorsal fin sharp among ice, in calm-silk water. Then along and under (under) my boat, eye skyward. Sea-warbled but clear. Open. Met. Calm water. Flank gold with diatoms. Still. Chunks of ice. Enough time enough weather enough whale enough boats for all on ship to muster, seek, find and not crowd. To drift as it circles, approaches, finds us approachable, re-approached. All balance, all sense recalibrated.”
In section four, “Heading Home,” Bradfield enlarges the context of her journey again, exploring not just the tension between her personal and professional relationships but the reality of what it means to be observing climate change. In “Five Year Check-Up, 2017,” she wrestles with how to respond: “We gawk at tabular bergs, awed, unsure if it’s ok to find them beautiful. The big picture? We chug along. I’m no gauge, my stick too short to measure true. But I’ve seen the colorful maps. Why do you need me to say it? It’s red where we sail. I don’t know if our presence is benign.”
I admire this collection, and that while it could, it doesn’t stop with natural history: it also reveals the complex relationships on the ship, suggesting the ship is a microcosm of the world with its class distinctions (which anyone who sails on a cruise ship can’t help but notice). As Bradfield observes, “All the maids are Filipino, ditto bartenders, deckhands, some engineers. Officers Eastern European, Scandinavian. Butlers Indian. South African hairdresser.” Later, she acknowledges the paradox that here “we converge. Here on this all-owned land. Here on this unbridled ocean. Here on this world unto itself.”
In “Epilogue: A Letter Home,” which I first read as a “Letter to America” in Terrain.org in March 2017, Bradfield sums up the voyage, reminding us that these contradictions and chasms may always exist, both in that wild landscape and in our own lives. While I admire Bradfield’s honest reflection throughout, I especially appreciate here how she acknowledges that she, too, embodies many of our modern American contradictions,” such as “my certainty that wild spaces are necessary and my chugging toward them in a diesel-powered boat.” It’s by acknowledging openly these contradictions that we might have a shot at preserving wild spaces and their inhabitants.
In the last few lines, Bradfield returns to the ship and its diverse crew, reminding us ultimately, in a haunting closing question, that like the ship, we’re in this together, and her message enlarges again to embrace not just Antarctica or America, but our increasingly threatened planet:
“But then, one fragile hull holds us all, doesn’t it, America?”