Ice House

Selection from The Wide White Page: Writers Imagine Antarctica, edited by Bill Manhire. This poem is in the voice of the sculptor Kathleen Scott, widow of Antarctic explorer Robert F. Scott.

ICE HOUSE
– Anne Michaels


“I regret nothing but his suffering.”
-Kathleen Scott

Wherever we cry,
it’s far from home.

*

At Sandwich, our son pointed
persistently to sea.
I followed his infant gaze,
expecting a bird or a boat
but there was nothing.
How unnerving,
as if he could see you
on the horizon,
knew where you were
exactly:
at the edge of the world.

*

You unloaded the ship at Lyttelton
and repacked her:

“thirty-five dogs
five tons of dog food
fifteen ponies
thirty-two tons of pony fodder
three motor-sledges
four hundred and sixty tons of coal
collapsible huts
an acetylene plant
thirty-five thousand cigars
one guinea pig
one fantail pigeon
three rabbits
one cat with its own hammock, blanket and pillow
one hundred and sixty-two carcasses of mutton and
an ice house.”

*

Men returned from war
without faces, with noses lost
discretely as antique statues.
accurately as if eaten by frostbite.
In clay I shaped their
flesh, sometimes
retrieving a likeness
from photographs.
Then the surgeons copied
nose, ears, jaw
with molten wax and metal plates
and horsehair stiches;
with borrowed cartilage,
from the soldiers’ own ribs,
leftovers stored under the skin
of the abdomen. I held the men down
until the morphia
slid into them.
I was only sick
afterwards.

Working the clay, I remembered
mornings in Rodin’s studio,
his drawfuls of tiny hands and feet,
like a mechanic’s tool box.
I imagined my mother in her blindness
before she died, touching my face,
as if she still could
build me with her body,.

At night, in the studio
I took your face in my hands and your fine
arms and long legs, your small waist,
and loved you into stone.

The men returned from France
to Ellerman’s Hospital.
Their courage was beautiful.
I understood the work at once:
To use scar tissue to advantage.
To construct through art,
one’s face to the world.
Sculpt what’s missing.

*

You reached furthest south,
then you went futher.

In neither of those forsaken places
did you forsake us.

*

At Lyttelton the hills unrolled,
a Japanese scroll painting;
we opened the landscape with our bare feet.

So much learned by observation.
We took in brainfuls of New Zealand air
on the blue climb over the falls.

Our last night together we slept
not in the big house but
in the Kinsey’s garden.
Belonging only to each other.
Guests of the earth.

*

Mid sea, a month out of range
of the wireless;
on my way to you. Floating
between landfalls,
between one hemisphere and another.
Between the words
“wife” and “widow.”

*

Newspapers, politicians
scavenged your journals.

But your words
never lost their way.

*

We mourn in a place no one knows;
it’s right that our grief be unseen.

I love you as if you’ll return
after years of absence.
As if we’d invented
moonlight.

*

Still I dream of your arrival.

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