Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 3, 2011

What I’m Reading: Approaching Ice by Elizabeth Bradfield

Approaching Ice by Elizabeth Bradfield (Persea Books) is a wonderful collection of poems about exploration of the polar regions from past to present, and reflections on why some are drawn to ice, danger, or spareness. You get a taste of one answer in the poem below, which focuses on some of what was saved when Ernest Shackleton failed to reach the South Pole, but, after ice destroyed his ship, heroically found a way to keep all the men alive. I like the range of explorers mentioned, and a poem about waiting wives, which includes the poet, and “Vicarious,” which is addressed to her absent partner: “You’re not worried/ about frostbite, snow/ glare, or crevasse. Not/ about a leopard seal/ beneath the ice you walk,/ stalking. Not madness.”

Exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic is a great subject for poems because of the mystery of both the ice and why people feel compelled to cross it, the themes of paring down, arrivals, and turnings back, and a rich often scientific vocabulary, which Elizabeth Bradfield beautifully explores. Here’s a taste:

Frank Hurley, Photographer on Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition—1915

One by one he lay the glass negatives on ice 

and squinted through their reversals. This one, 

saved aside to be soldered into its tin box. 

This one, smashed on the hard, white ground, 

misgivings and reconsiderations 

scattered and winking.

Yesterday, he’d broken into the cracking hull, 

plunged shirtless into the slushy hold and fished out 

what he could, heaved it up 

onto the ice as Shackleton 

tossed a gold watch, gold lighter, gold coins 

onto the fissured surface before the makeshift camp, 

telling the men they could take only two pounds 

of unnecessary attachment from here. All of them 

left something behind. But there, on the ground
that clenched and crushed their ship, they declared 

what mattered most: silver nitrate 

lyrics, spoken light.

Read the complete poem here

For the Poetry Friday roundup, visit Toby Speed at The Writer’s Armchair



  1. You always share the most unusual books with us. Yet another to add to my list. I’ve been fascinated with polar explorers since I was a kid, yet I can’t stand it if the temp drops below 50!
    Check out my blog, Jeannine. You’ve been tagged! (Don’t blame me, blame it on Susan).

  2. You took the words right out of my mouth! I was paging down to comment and I was thinking, man, Jeannine always finds the best books!
    Loved the entire poem but the image of the glass negatives on the ice is my favorite.

  3. Candice, I have no desire to risk frostbite either, but share that obsession with polar explorers. The beauty of reading. And thanks for the tag! I’ve been finishing up a ms. so haven’t blogged as regularly, but maybe this will get me back in gear.

  4. Susan, I loved this book and just ordered her other collection, so may be writing about that one Friday. As someone who draws a lot from research, those glass negatives sparkled for me, too.

  5. Although I find the lines from the the first poem Jeannine quoted (“You’re not worried/ about frostbite, snow/ glare, or crevasse. Not/ about a leopard seal/ beneath the ice you walk,/ stalking. Not madness.” ) more evocative, this one about Frank Hurley, the photographer, is nice too. But something about it bugged me when I read it.
    It’s the use of the word “ground” for the frozen water, the ice, that they stand on. I grant that I may be being slightly too picky here, but — from what I have learned about poetry recently from observing Jeannine and her work — it seems like an ill-chosen word. And given that, in large part, writing poetry is a search for the “mot juste”, this just seems… wrong.
    What is odd to me is that the poet DOES use the term “ice” — twice — to correctly describe the hard surface that the explorers stand on. Would it have been a crime against verse to use it a few more times?
    “Ground” is a word particularly ill-chosen in these lines:
    left something behind. But there, on the ground
    that clenched and crushed their ship, they declared

    … because it removes, or at least obscures, an essential element of the process by which the ship and the men who crewed it came to their perilous situation: They sailed into this position through open WATER, which slowly froze around their vessel and turned into ICE, and that essential quality of ice as it forms (its slow, inexorable expansion) is what caught and then crushed the ship. It’s one of the most terrifying things (to me, at least) about these types of arctic explorations — the medium through which the exploration is conducted suddenly, randomly, turning from an avenue of hope and excitement to one of bleak despair.
    And in my opinion, the use of the word “ground” in this context weakens the poem. — PL

  6. I’m glad you liked some lines, and the intriguing subject, even if you quibble with that word choice. It didn’t bother me, though I see your point. Thanks for reading!

  7. “I’m glad you liked some lines,”
    I think I liked this one the most:
    about a leopard seal/ beneath the ice you walk,/ stalking
    It is subtly creepy… and I just realized that, in a weird way, it reminds me of the scene from “Thor” when that big monster is pursuing Thor and his friends on the frozen world of the Ice Giants, Jotunheim, by running along the underside of the ice sheet.

    ” and the intriguing subject…”
    As you must recall from our joint reading of “The Terror” by Dan Simmons… and your own — as yet unpublished — work!
    “Thanks for reading!”
    I love reading your blog — I always learn something. — PL

  8. Thanks for sharing this one, Jeannine. I’m going to order it right now!

  9. Dori, I think you’ll enjoy seeing some “old friends” here. I found it a nice, and beautifully succinct, way to return to some stories of exploration.
    By the way, I read a review in this Sunday’s NYT of a book called Empire of Ice, which sounds great, apparently emphasizing science over racing and conquest, and the reviewer notes that as this Dec. is the 100th anniversary of people reaching the South Pole, we can expect more books.

  10. Have you seen the doc, Encounters at the End of the World?
    There’s a part where they listen to seal sounds under the ice…and it sounds like an alien spacecraft. So cool.

  11. I am looking forward to reading it. And looking forward to the new books that will be coming up. I’m reading “White Darkness” by Geraldine McCaughren right now, and loving it.
    This is one of my favorite quotes concerning those polar guys. From Caroline Alexander, Endurance scholar: For scientific discovery give me Scott. For speed and efficiency give me Amundsen. But when you’re in a hopeless case and disaster strikes, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.
    As I was checking to remember the author of this quote, I ran into another book she wrote. Have you seen this one? “Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition: The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton’s Polar-Bound Cat.” Introduction, written by Lord Mouser-Hunt, available on amazon.

  12. Seal sounds! And listening while warm. Perfect. Thanks, Crissa.

  13. Quibbles
    “I’m glad you liked some lines… even if you quibble with that word choice.”
    I have had a few days to think about your comment about my “quibbling”, and, upon reflection, I must say that I don’t think my comment falls into that category.
    I know this is not a perfect analogy, but… it makes me imagine, for example, a poem featuring salamanders, wherein which the poet waxes eloquent about their beauty and so forth, but several times refers to them as “reptiles”… which, as you know, they are not (they are amphibians).
    It is a small thing — a word or two — but it would be the equivalent of, say, finding part of an apple core in your fruit salad.
    At least, it would to me. — PL

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