An opening reception for Expedition will be held on October 8, 2023 at the 705 West Printshop + Gallery in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, where these prints and poems can be seen in person until November 19. For more information about the prints in this series, visit deborahfries.net.
The monotypes, collages and narrative/lyric poems in EXPEDITION came into being concurrently in 2023 and have been combined to reflect the human chemistry that can be accessed even in the most barren of emotional landscapes.
The expedition narrative is imaginary and metaphorical, but as I wrote the poems, I researched 19th-century arctic expeditions—most of which ended badly—as well as current conditions within the Arctic Circle. Every new relationship is a venture into the unknown, into challenging terrain. Deep cold, permafrost, and melting glaciers seemed right to me.
The original prints and collaged prints in this collection are not literal, but atmospheric interpretations of places that may beckon or repel, depending on the viewer.
A week before departure, you must complete
the Intent to Explore submission by overnight mail
or diary entry, a kind of pre-dawn pledge to sever
preconceptions from the ordinary passage of time,
to hold your lover harmless from being too or less
important. Your packing list circumvents certainty.
And accepting this—the long or short daylight,
the badass moments that may, may not imitate
existential glee—you will also need to submit
the 201.b Certificate of Compliance. That’s it.
The last paperwork you’ll sign will open a cold
portal to the train or seaplane or sled that will not
take but bring you to the edge of the village, where
you will trade cognition for feelings, a fast thaw
that begins with pink shadows beneath the snow.
To join this expedition, the flyer reads, you must consent to an examination of your resiliency core. Not the same
as strength, this ability to skate over ponds that have begun
to thaw has always been there, even when you couldn’t do
a single sit-up. If anything has atrophied from lack of use,
you will be asked to remember the lighting and weather
on the last day it was touched. Your legs will lengthen.
Your eyes will return to their birth color. You will accept
and be accepted in dark and light and your scars will fade,
even as others’ become more beautiful. Answer no. No,
you have never wanted to be part of an arctic expedition,
to allow your blood to freeze and thaw, to monitor rising
levels of dopamine. And yes, you will be able to ignore
all that goes on in warmer rooms, to separate your time
from time they spend with others. To sleep without dark.
Because you did not see the caution inked on his wrist,
rigid terms that ran along a tendon shaft, you felt betrayed
when he was replaced by the new guide, a seasoned scout
who knew nothing of your fears or passions. Starving bears,
the heft of their ragged marches into town, thrashing small
pets and pressing snouts against glass. And the tall wolves.
How one stalker becomes a leggy pack, a chorus of prints
in new snow in the morning, wild rank smells left in your sheets.
New Guide jumped into your trip. Said he knew nuanced terrain,
how, alpha and authentic, he could detect changes in light and
tone and temperature. Okay. Probably. But you wanted the trek
that had been promised, how you’d learn to survive in dark or
dim, feel safe inside the thinnest shelter, have big trust. Sit here,
new guide says, patting the cot. He passes you his itinerary
and you read it, again and again, beneath the birch bark lamps.
There’s a reason each expeditioner gets a Moleskine pad
and set of fine point gel pens that freeze before thoughts
can crystalize. Point of view. Yours. His. Hers. Say you
capture sky in all its colored iterations. Beyond blue or black,
all possible grays. Pinkish moments that don’t last. Oblique
gold of a twilight found only through excursion. Your book
fills with sky notes until one day, you’ll see their water-stained
pages covered in sketches of lichens or dainty birds’ claws.
You thought they were sky lovers, too, captives of mare’s tails,
the hard green line of an approaching gale. But no. It was
something else that cold-wired their attentions, each mind
slugging over permafrost, seeking that thing. You didn’t
even know how they documented the day, what muddy
track you’d missed, the vermillion red tern’s beak you
didn’t notice. Yet you were both there, documenting.
The cook, who is both sous chef and sensei,
has asked what you brought that he can use,
but because you missed the fine print, thinking
all meals would be provided, you tease and tell him
you brought a masala, herbs Provence, a za’atar,
expecting faux disappointment, clanging pots. But no, he understands all you have to offer is spice,
no substantive provisions for a deep, deep cold.
You should have known more was expected, felt
what others might need. Did you bring vodka? Rice?
Lard? Understand that here we share, gather
everything we have, that there is no I in camp, but
there is a feast. We sense what others want. Like you, he says. You want tiramisu and attention. No, you say. I want wine and euphoria.
Just sidestep blue holes in the ice, those spheres of missing
data you want filled and frozen hard before base camp, ahead
of dark and goldwarm lanterns, eiderdown and flannel. By night
you may not know how solid the shore must be to hold so much,
support the armature of stories inked across his back, weight
of an arm draped over your hip, mass of unruly attraction. Feel
a new terrain devoid of jumpy detective work. On tundra, without
background checks or body language, you can forfeit research,
learn to read hoof and mitt prints, discern scents of hides and furs.
You’ll understand that without intel, instinct will give you footing.
You will feel the ground shudder before a reindeer stampede,
know how to hold the gaze of the largest wolf. Wildness, Cold
and Uncertainty will begin to feel like home. When you see venison
hung in a spruce for owls, it will seem ordinary. In this territory,
trust is bloodwarm, pleasure a frost quake that cannot kill.
You could not pack your weight in eiderdown.
Have no adaptor to access power. Know the on-off
of thermal layering is existential mime. We pretend
we can find our comfort zone when it’s finally time
to embrace the cold, befriend it, that patient yeti who’s
been waiting in the fallen trees. Let him approach.
Remove your balaclava, grab breathsnow in your
gloveless hands, let your eyelashes freeze shut, feel
its come hither through frostbite and gale. In Barcelona
or Milan the gender of the cold is masculine, but here,
in your sub-zero fate, cold is neuter, it is abstinence,
whitesheets that remain cool and taut. Unwrinkled.
You needed to walk far into cold with a blank journal
to understand how ink freezes, paper flakes. Look.
You needed this to feel the fleshy heat of discovery.
You may feel that the dark, which arrives late in this lat,
is the only place where you can sleep, even after hours
of snow glare and report writing and thin soups made
with ice harvested from a splitting glacier—locked in
that lack of nourishment, abundance of light and tasks,
this expedition leaving no room for restoration, yet you
wanted adventure, the long hike and bright sun of him.
Canada goose down and a soft blindfold may feign dark
but white nights, inevitable, and after he leaves your
hut and you can’t sleep, remember how you craved all
this, were willing to give up sleep and normal light days
to feel a snowshoe hare of small touches, gigantic wolf
of interminable connection. I’m not going to make it you think. You need the black-out drapes of normal
to quiet thought, to block the brightness of the body.
You will see dead things on this trek. Mammals and birds, large
fish. Some of what you see on ice, in mud, half-buried in snow,
will make you sad. The dead puffin won’t look like the stuffed bird
in the airport gift shop. But each carcass will remind you of the now
you must inhabit, of the life still in your chest and breast and legs,
the heart and brain that will insist on engagement. The windy
present. And when you think of those who perished on this same
glacier or slid into a crevasse of shame and despair, you’ll remember
the struggle of Eros and Thanatos, the need for insulation, wool,
fur and blood. You want Eros to win. Because there will always be
bones and feathers and scales on your path. But at night. His hand
finding you in the dark, beneath three quilts. Your warm and wet
defiance of death, refusal to become carrion before your party
reaches its destination, that thing beyond the blizzard, shiny ice
castle or small, thawing mammoth. The shape that awaits you.
You have been thinking of Mexico, of fabrics and fanciful
carved animals, the embroidered flowers and black clay pots
you loved in Oaxaca, vitality of high desert air, symmetrical
rows of agave. There is none of that here—no color or vibrance,
no heat of midday, pulse of the zócalo. Huddled beneath
an armor of skins and feathers and polyesters, you may be
tempted to return to the known world, with its hilly streets,
pink stucco and mezcal. It’s not a failing to want heat
and festivity, all served up in the sun. But on this cold plain,
where heat is a hallucination, Mexico a shimmer in a desert,
you chose to seek rather than visit. You want him to know the
limits of the body on permafrost, without spirits, pigments. Just be with me, he says, so sure that skin on skin will flint fire,
make hues appear in your head, convince you that heat is
kindled in the mind, no matter the terrain or thick, white cold.
It could have happened in a whiteout or in starless dark,
even in the short stretch heading to mess, with floodlights
illuminating your path toward scents of bacon and toast.
Inevitably lost, your sense that there is a north star or sky.
No horizon, moral compass, roulette wheel of risky options.
Without bearings, you are a pillar of snow who looked back
and now cannot move, unable to discern building from bear,
glacier from gorge. He knows you are out there somewhere.
He’s waiting for you to find the waist-high rope that will lead
you back to camp, to brush your hand against it, be found.
As if the rope would be enough. There is still the left-right
decision, drifts that swallow the visible cord, wind that ices
the cornea, depressions of false tracks. Tricksters. Even
sounds are no help in this place. Chatter that travels through
snow is a two-way radio or colony of common murres.
The sled dogs eat lard and fish boiled in snow, huge chunks
of frozen chicken, kibble, mixed. They howl during the mixing,
then silence. That is what you’ll remember after the expedition—
the loud wanting followed by quiet. Wine. Rum. The first party.
He brought out chocolate bars and dried fruit and the explorers
became dancers and huggers and some one of you wanted the
aurora, begged to see neon curtains pulled back again and again. Feast. You told him this was a feast of lights and cacao, electric
banquet of howls and fish heads, small cups of Jordan almonds.
His room a William Merritt Chase still life, limp fish falling out
of a copper kettle. Highlighted flesh on a dark field. That cold
devour of the moment, the seconds when the aurora was over
you, its green tingle a flash of transcendence. You will recall
waxy chocolate, dried apricots, Hudson’s Bay fleece. A sense
of celebration, how eagerly you danced and dined in the dark.
Deborah Fries is an editorial board member and longtime contributor to Terrain.org. She is a poet, writer, editor, and printmaker who lives in the East Falls section of Philadelphia. She is the author of two books of poetry published by Kore Press and a chapbook published by Seven Kitchens Press. Her online chapbook, Expedition, published by Terrain.org, combines her love of words and images.