Why They Went

Elizabeth Bradfield
that men might learn what the world is like at the spot where the sun does not decline in the heavens.
—Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Frost bitten. Snow blind. Hungry. Craving
fresh pie and hot toddies, a whole roasted
unflippered thing to carve. Craving a bed
that had, an hour before entering,
been warmed with a stone from the hearth.
 
Always back to Eden—to the time when we knew
with certainty that something watched and loved us. 
That the very air was miraculous and ours.
That all we had to do was show up.

The sun rolled along the horizon. The light never left them.
The air from their warm mouths became diamonds.
And they longed for everything they did not have.
And they came home and longed again.

More by Elizabeth Bradfield

Pursuit

for Arctic Explorer Donald B. MacMillan
Provincetown, September


All summer, town kids pose at the edge
of the pier named after you

and leap. I’ve just flown home from Baffin,
Mac. A month of spotting polar bears,

lecturing on tundra as raw wind shrugged us off,
then winter chased us down the coast.

But it’s still season here, and so I’m at the gangway
loading a boat to look for whales. 

Boys dash between pickups. Girls strut
the edge, do the same. No one throws coins for them,

but I know you jumped for the bright glint
tourists threw, and (I’m sure) for the thrill

of being watched do it. These kids leap
to break the hot September days and because tonight

they might find themselves midair, recorded
by some out-of-towner’s gadget and posted online

for view-count and comment, their currency. Would I
have strutted, have jumped at their age, yours then? I can’t decide.

At high tide, their knees are eye level from my place
on the finger pier. One girl wears a silver bikini. 

It shines like ice on the horizon. I can’t help but stare.
Suddenly, I see it is desire

that links us, that galvanizes
the thin substance of our ambitions.

Learning to Swim

after Bob Hicok & Aracelis Girmay

Now forty-five, having outlasted some of
myself, I must reflect: what if I hadn’t been held
by my mom in the YWCA basement
pool, her white hands slick under

my almost-toddler armpits, her thumbs
and fingers firm around my ribs (which
is to say lungs), held gently as a liverwurst
sandwich and pulled, kindly, under?

What if I hadn’t been taught to trust
water might safely erase me those years
I longed to erase or at least abandon care of
my disoriented, disdained body? I might have

drowned instead of just ebbed, never slid
from given embankments into this other
course. 
             Drift and abundance in what
she offered. The wider, indifferent ocean
of trade and dark passage not yet

mine to reckon. And so now, sharp tang
of other waters known, I am afloat, skin-
chilled, core-warm, aware of what lurks
and grateful to trust and delight
in our improbable buoyancy.
 

Lesson VIII: Map of North America

redacted from Smith’s Quarto, or Second Book in Geography, 1848, p. 17

     division

     division

                           general divisions

                  opposite
cluster     clusters         What considerable number

 

Where is
                           Where is Cape Farewell?

 

What sound leads into            the largest

         What  What  What  What

Boundaries  Bound United      Bound
          the    New    ?       Bound      possessions?

        What  What  What  What

prevails

        What  What  What  What

races  What   race    ?

Related Poems

The Cremation of Sam McGee

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee,
where the cotton blooms and blows
Why he left his home in the South to roam
'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold but the land of gold
seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way
that he'd sooner live in Hell.

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way
over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold
it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze
till sometimes we couldn't see,
It wasn't much fun, but the only one
to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight
in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead
were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and "Cap", says he,
"I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you
won't refuse my last request."

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no;
then he says with a sort of moan,
"It's the cursed cold, and it's got right hold
till I'm chilled clean through to the bone
Yet 'taint being dead-it's my awful dread
of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair,
you'll cremate my last remains.

A pal's last need is a thing to heed,
so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn
but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day
of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all
that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death,
and I hurried, horror-driven
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid,
because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say.
"You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it's up to you
to cremate these last remains".

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid,
and the trail has its own stern code,
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb
in my heart how I cursed that load!
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight,
while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows--
Oh God, how I loathed the thing!

And every day that quiet clay
seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent
and the grub was getting low.
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad,
but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing,
and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge,
and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice
it was called the Alice May,
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit,
and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here", said I, with a sudden cry, "is my
cre-ma-tor-eum"!

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor
and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around,
and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared
such a blaze you seldom see,
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal,
and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn't like
to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled,
and the wind began to blow,
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled
down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak
went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow
I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about
ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said,
"I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked".
Then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm,
in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile,
and he said, "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear
you'll let in the cold and storm--
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee,
it's the first time I've been warm".

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.