The North Pole
90° N

Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
The world—my world spins on this final point
     Of cold and wretchedness
                                                               Randall Jarrell


B
ut that first morning, I thought it was inside outside.

Behind the streetlamps (so dim) another wall.

I’ve gotten used to it now, twelve years in the same
apartment, my daughter a senior in college, white lights on
the Christmas tree.

She says, This is my last vacation.


In the post-historical period, there will be drugs and
alcohol and crime, there will be radiation.

My mother sitting at the kitchen window.

I draw circles with my pencil above the ice-white paper,
stirring the air the way the finger does a pretty scotch
and soda.

There’s a moment between when the light comes back and the
ice breaks up.

Make a run for it.

Waters of chaos frozen two meters thick, thousands of
nuclear waste containers trapped in the Barents Sea.

Two Chernobyls’ worth of radioactivity.
 

Imagine gorgeous bleakness, beautiful blankness.

At sea, midnight, 79° N, sky appears darker over open water:
water sky.

In my cabin, pictures: my daughter and me in Nairobi, me
and my father at the North Cape, Lionel at home in New York
City.

Midsummer.

Blue icebergs, glaciers pink with algae, black basalt
island, fog lowering, three dimensions shutting down to
two.

Like paper.

Following channels through the ice called leads.

Ivory gulls, like memory, at the edge of vision.

My mother on the lawn laughing up at me drying my eyes.

 

Twenty-five hundred people having stood at the North Pole.

Not my two brothers.

Not John Franklin, finding no passage.

Not my father.

Not Fridtjof Nansen, testing polar drift.

In the whole history of the planet.

Not Frederick Cook, reporting land masses.

Out of the how many billions of people.

 

First polar map imagined a rock: magnetic, black, irresistible.

Land of Four Rivers. Like Eden, like home.

Arctic Expeditions!
See the North Pole Now!
While You Still Can!

Playing Willie Nelson on the old P.A.

      For the result of eating snow is death.

Ice so blue it’s frozen sky lit from within, above, below.

      The older the ice, the purer the melt.

Spray off the bow is ice instead of water.

Ladies and gents, I et it.

Entrepreneurs like Red Morgan are breaking up 10,000 year old icebergs into “the world’s purest ice cubes,” melting them into “Alaskan Paradise” bottled water, and using them to distill “Last Wilderness” Alaskan vodka. Because of their density and purity, pieces of Alaskan icebergs have a bluish tint; they’re being sold like diamonds in little refrigerated boxes. Says Peter Parrish, “If we break up the icebergs now for our own consumption, we’ll no longer have to be concerned about the melting effects of global warming down the road. This is a public-spirited as well as an effort that will create jobs and help the economy of this great state.”

Letty Griswold is testing a line of “Ice Queen” hair products she hopes will appeal to both men and women. Sales have already topped $1 million a year, in Alaska alone. Letty says, “We’ve been in business 4 months, and we’re going crazy with orders. I hope it goes on like this forever. We’re hoping to hit the Fortune 500 one day, buy a Lear jet, move to San Diego.”


In August 1888, Robert Peary married. On his
honeymoon he went with his wife and his mother to the
Jersey shore.

Inveriam viam aut faciam, his motto: I will find a way
or make one.

When Matthew Henson peeled off Peary’s sealskin boots
several of Peary’s frozen toes snapped off like
pencils.

Farthest north.

North, meaning strong. Due north meaning neat. Too far
north
meaning hopelessly drunk.


Island of blue ice no human being nor anyone else has
likely ever stood upon before.

We take pictures: our homely Russian nuclear icebreaker,
crazy red dot on a white map.

I thought you were opposed to nuclear power, says my
brother.


Dog-headed men, sea-monsters, hippogriffs, giants,
elephants, green giraffes.

Plus imaginary creatures so as to leave no blanks.

Maps read: Here be dragons.
 

Pink saxifrage, tiny yellow Arctic poppy, black lichen,
wood gone stone.

Moss so green it should beat, moss green as home.

Don’t walk on the tundra, footsteps last the half-life of
plutonium.
 

Pleistocene ice age 2.5 million years old. Glaciation
fifteen or twenty times in 100,000 year cycles.

Last glaciation peaked 18-20,000 years ago. The so-called
Wisconsin glaciation extended in North America south to the
Great Lakes and Missouri River.

We are 10,000 years into the Holocene Interglacial.

Global warming is not a problem in geological time.

Our age but a brief (romantic) interlude.

Nevertheless.

Midwest Real Estate!
Oceanfront Property!
For Sale! Buy Now!
Before the Rush!

At sea: awakened by a great crash of ice against the hull.

On the P.A. Belafonte singing Day-O.


Peary is said to have assaulted the Pole.

Those lines on the map where he may have walked off-
course like a man blind-drunk or delirious with fever.

Three rivulets in a delta that does not meet the sea.

Fizzle out in whiteness, desert, desolate blank paper,
three little nerve, little never endings.

And what has one achieved when one achieves this grand abstraction?

White men call Great Nail.

A Spherical Miracle

A revolutionary jigsaw puzzle that assembles into a free-standing sphere which requires no interior support! When pieces are correctly placed the puzzle actually curves skyward! And about that last piece: the North Pole piece has a trap door cut into it allowing the last piece to be snapped into place and resealed. Of course, you have to get through the other 529 pieces first! Comes with a collar stand for display. 9 1/2" diameter. #33227E. $27.50


Sinatra at 88° N.

Pitching and rolling as if on water, grinding as if through
rock.

He never took astronomical readings.

His chronometer ten minutes fast.

Several pages are blank.

The entry for April 6, 1909, says nothing about
reaching the Pole.

Only a loose piece of paper stuck in: The Pole at
last!!!


Three exclamation points.

On the bridge, everyone watches the instruments, the ship
shoving up, over one last pressure ridge.

How many degrees, how many minutes, how many units of
glare.

89° 59.993'.

We know from a satellite radio beam, like a finger of
light: YOU ARE HERE.

Overture to Gotterdamerung.
 

He probably didn’t make it. Or else it didn’t matter.

After all the determination, all the desire.

That it was something still farther, more frozen,
whiter.
 

His father died when he was two. His mother raised
him as though he were a girl.

Perhaps he recognized the shape of Arctic night, the
earth unsteady on its tilted axis.

His mother moved with him when he went to college.

His wife begged him not to go north again.

Will I ever be interested in a man who’s not a mama’s boy?
 

The Captain says he came out of the water wanting to shout
for joy, but couldn’t.

I came up wanting to shout: Get me out of here!

Five kms. deep, 3°(F) below freezing.

Cold as childhood.

 

Feeling that the time had come, I ungloved my
right hand and sent forward to congratulate him
on the success of our eighteen years of effort,
but a gust of wind blew something in his eye, or
else the burning pain caused by his prolonged
look at the reflection of the limb of the sun
forced him to turn aside...
 

Having reckoned he was near the Pole, he insisted
on going the rest of the way alone.

Meaning not without his Eskimo guides.

Meaning not without shame.

Meaning without his only witness.

Then he walked in a circle, he turned round, he passed
through all the degrees.

He was axis. He was home. He would live forever.

Sun rolling like a silver ball in a roulette wheel.

One last piece snapped perfectly into place.

And still it seemed like inside outside.

 

One hundred warm-blooded human creatures.

Red down jackets eating hamburgers rare and french fries
iced with tomato ketchup.

Taking each other’s living pictures by a flagpole on a
shroud of moving ice.

Armed guards walking the invisible perimeter.

Rod Stewart singing to the bent horizon, polar bears sniff
the vast, reverberated air.

 

Trap door, coffin lid, going under thrill.

Breath, such a balmy 32°(F) the other side of nowhere.

Oh, Pole of Relative Inaccessibility, most distant point
from fatherland, motherwater.

India converging on Asia, Himalayas rising, Red Sea a rift, a rift California, Australia colliding with Korea.

Well, did you ever! What a swell party this is!

Medieval mappa mundi, island huddled in a world of chaotic
seas.

Anachronistic, accurate, remembered.

Before the separation. Before the glare.

Words on random scraps of paper, fleeting, stuck in, April
ice.

Ladies and gents, I did shout it!

 



Notes

Turn as I please... "90 North,”  The Complete Poems.

Imagine gorgeous bleakness... Matthew Henson, A Black Explorer at the North Pole.

Land of Four Rivers... reported by English monk Nicholas of Lynn, who claimed to have seen them.

For the result... Matthew Henson, A Black Explorer at the North Pole.

Entrepreneurs... New York Times.

The Pole at last!!!... quoted by Wally Herbert, National Geographic, September 1988.

as though he were a girl... Wally Herbert, National Geographic, September 1988.

Feeling that the time had come... Matthew Henson, A Black Explorer at the North Pole.

Well, did you ever... Cole Porter, "High Society."

 


Laurel Blossom’s most recent book of poetry is Vanishing Point: New and Selected Poems (Ridgeway Press, 2004). Earlier books include The Papers Said, What’s Wrong, and Any Minute. Her work has appeared in a number of anthologies, and in national journals including Poetry, The American Poetry Review, and The Paris Review, among others. She has recently completed a book-length poem, Degrees of Latitude, exploring the geography of a woman’s life. She serves on the editorial board of Heliotrope: a journal of poetry. Blossom has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, and Harris Manchester College, Oxford University, where she serves on the Board of Regents. She co-founded the esteemed writing residency and workshop program The Writers Community, and now serves as chair of the Writers Community Committee of the YMCA National Writer’s Voice. She recently moved to rural South Carolina.


I was at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in 1989 when these poems were born; as a result of my fellowship at ACA, I began a daily journal, which I kept for two years thereafter. That was the beginning of the long and tortuous evolution in form and content of a book called Degrees of Latitude, of which these three poems form sections.

Then one day, a few years later, I turned 50. I gave myself an adventure, to prove I wasn’t going to die: I went to the North Pole! Standing on the vast ice stretching as far as the eye could see, I realized to my surprise that I had come to the top of the world not to defy death, but to find my life; not just to get to the ends of the earth, but to find my home. I was drawing a map of myself, my identity. I wanted to know where I ended and the world began. But more than that. I began to see myself as representative, as a kind of Everywoman, and my psyche as co-terminus with earth. Not that my circumstances (or Circumference, to invoke Emily Dickinson) are like another’s, necessarily, but that my longings, my losses, my language and its redemptions are.

So the map became a metaphor for exploration and the journey became an epic. A woman’s epic, in which travel is as much emotional as physical, the past is everpresent, and the quest is for a spiritual self at home in the world as it is.

The only direction to go from the North Pole is south; at the South Pole the only way is north again. The world and all that’s in it goes around. As the Queen (Mary of Scots) and then the poet (T.S. of Eliot) said, In my end is my beginning. Or, to quote myself at the end of Degrees of Latitude, “We have reached, at last, the starting point.”

Everyplace is the starting point. For some time in the process of working on Degrees of Latitude, I wanted the reader to be able to read the sections, if not the individual lines themselves, in any order, at will. In the end, that idea proved too chaotic; but I’ve tried to preserve a certain amount of randomness to the text, a kind of associational progression that mimics how the restless mind of this one representative woman works.


 


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