Katharine Coles’ fifth poetry collection, The Earth Is Not Flat (Red Hen 2013), was written under the auspices of the NSF’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. In 2009-10, she served as the Inaugural Director of the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute. She is a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow for 2012-13.
1. To pore over maps for months in advance. The ones I prefer, centuries out of date, know nothing useful.
2. To take notes on the maps’ imaginative fillips, monsters stretching out along their borders waiting to charm.
3. To learn the names of charted harbors and islands and their relative locations from a birds-eye view though I am not a bird, as if sitting at my kitchen table with paper spread before me will have been the same as rising and falling on wind or water, caught between cold sky and drowning.
4. To close my eyes, here at my table, and imagine cold sky, drowning, wings that carry a body between. My imagination, like my observation, relies on inaccuracy, approximation, desire.
5. To read journals and letters and notebooks by those who have gone before. I will learn what it might have felt like to be the first, to cross ice on foot pulling a sledge, ride the sea’s extravagant curl in a small boat using my shirt as a sail, butcher and eat my dogs, which I may or may not have learned to love for something more than usefulness.
6. I promise to accept I will never be first and have little chance of doing half those other things either. I will never be an engineer or learn how to rig useful devices from what I carry in my handbag—wire and tape, a battery, stray parts from Radio Shack. Still, I will commit myself to practical details, attend to sleeping arrangements and rigging and keeping small flames alive.
7. To prove I am worthy, I will let machines read my heart and run until my breath fails or the monitor gets tired of me, whichever comes first. I will let the vials have as much blood as they can hold.
8. I will fill out forms and acquire hats and gloves and waterproof trousers.
9. When I get there at last, someone will look over my supplies clucking his tongue. Someone will provide pencils and a notebook that takes the lead even when wet, the pages of which won’t be erased by weather or doubt. Someone—maybe you?—will issue canvas overalls, second-hand long johns, flannel shirts, a suit to keep me afloat if I go overboard. From these, I will learn how small I really am, even by human scale, and that my shirt will never fly. I will imagine the other scales a body might live on, extra-extra-extra-large and also so minute I will never see them. I will belt the pants and roll my cuffs to ankle and wrist.
10. From within my smallness within the future, I will study land and water as they lie or shift on a given day, where the glacier hides its crevasses, which islands hold emergency caches and how to pitch the tents and light the stoves those caches contain, even in a gale.
11. I will learn not to call a smart breeze a gale. I will learn to fix an outboard motor and how to use it to spin a Zodiac backward in giddy pirouette. I will steer through brash ice and floes, will mount the swell and ride it down. I will learn the physics of all of this.
12. No matter where I am, I will stay ahead of myself, becoming a hitchhiker, riding every boat and iceberg that stops for me.
13. I will cross the line on the map. I will prove the fanciful creatures and invent new ones. If I can get close enough I will feed them, placing my palm under their noses, feeling the warm graze of breath then teeth as they lip my tender morsels into their mouths. Doing so will violate treaties among nations, among worlds.
14. Of course, I promise to obey all treaties.
15. I propose to save myself. To make lists. To carry dry socks at all times.
16. I will get close enough. To what I can’t yet say. Already, I’m full of glee.
17. At some point, I promise, I will begin.
“It was as if they had suddenly emerged into infinity.”
Endurance, Alfred Lansing
Our ship carries fifty souls, no more,
Keeping bodies together over
Rollicking sea. Behind us all is light
And ice melting
Stone into vapor into air. We see the sun
But where is it? Ahead, water
Leaps to meet the sky, and you might wonder
Which hard grey would draw us
Farther into the cold. The astronomer
Says one thing, the sailor another
Who drives his hull over a surface
Looking on a day like this
As far as the eye can see hard as metal,
Uneasy as rock thrust upward by forces
His instruments fathom. Last night,
The first time in weeks, darkness fell
Across my porthole, and I knew I am
Traveling into winter. Having sailed for days
I’ll fly from the longest day of the year
Over the equator’s moonstruck
Flowers through flurries of twilight
And emerge body and soul
Shaking snow from my hair, into
The shortest day, asking the time.
The Laurence M. Gould, Drake Passage
Antarctica, December 21, 2010