Approaching Ice

by Elizabeth Bradfield
Persea Books 2010
Reviewed by Natalie Storey

“I want ice to be my mending”

In Approaching Ice, Elizabeth Bradfield conjures a stunning polar world and invites readers to contemplate familiar narratives of exploration, physical hardship and climate change. Bradfield, a naturalist and the author of the previous collection Interpretive Work, populates her new book of ice-themed poems with famous explorers and animals who struggle to survive in the world’s harshest regions.

The eccentric characters who dare traverse the polar landscape emerge in a series of narrative poems, titled after the names of the explorers. Throughout the collection, Bradfield intersperses lively prose poems that resemble dictionary definitions, providing brief breaks from the longer poems. The narrative poems tell the stories of figures like Douglas Mawson, among the first to reach the South Magnetic Pole, Capt. John Cleves Symmes who, once at home in Cincinnati, finds the plenty of the poles still haunts him, and Robert Falcon Scott, who “cried more easily than any man I have ever known.” Lesser known explorers also appear in the collection, including the female explorer Louise Arner Boyd, Frank Hurley, a photographer, and a cow named Lady, the last of a rare breed of shorthorn cattle on Enderby Island. Bradfield extracts the motives of early polar travelers in each of the narrative poems. Most push on for fame and recognition, like Scott, who thinks of his wife on his fruitless march. “Ah Kathleen,/ he thought to his own slogged pace,/ you’d be proud.”

While many of the poems deal in the history of polar exploration, Bradfield also takes up a more recent phenomenon: polar tourism. Awareness of global warming has made guided expeditions to the poles more popular, and comforts of modern of travel make the trip accessible to those who would have been unsuited in earlier times. The poet regards these contemporary travelers critically, addressing an absent lover who guides expeditions. She writes:

Enough, think of the historic hardships.
Cold, tired, fruit a distant memory —
and the body’s envelope loosens, skin sloughing
from the face’s planes.

Unaware of the history and hardship of surviving on the land, the tourists lack a true understanding of the polar terrain. Their efforts to capture the experience fail. Bradfield writes, “Of course no film can translate the cold, light,/ or bone-deep sense of supervised terror.” In stunning language, Bradfield hints at a modern lust for adventure taken to an extreme, a lust unlike previous expeditions because the experience has been diluted.

In the poems Bradfield does not glorify the polar terrain or its exploration. Great men fail here more than they triumph; birds leave droppings everywhere, and travelers eat their dead ponies. The air “is constantly aluminum with snow.” The explorers who populate a series of narrative poems stink of unwashed flesh, and their teeth rot from malnutrition. In “Polar Explorer Richard Evelyn Byrd (1933)” Bradfield writes, “Some trials seem contrived/ for the weight of accolades they’ll bring.” Such lines will leave readers pondering the motivations behind our explorations.

Seven prose poems, written as dictionary entries for ice-related terms, provide interludes among the lineated pieces in the collection. Bradfield’s melancholy wit infuses each of these passages. For the term “ice atlas” she writes, “A publication containing a series of ice charts showing geographic distribution of ice, usually by seasons or months. Not a bad idea. Can they make one for the climate of the heart?” Bradfield juxtaposes a practical object with the slippery terrain of human emotion, evoking loneliness and numbness.

The collection reaches a stirring pitch in the two-stanza “Against Solitude,” a searing look at two men who bed together in defense against the cold. “Don’t speak,” Bradfield ventriloquizes. “Your hair has grown long in our march, soft as my wife’s.” Bradfield delivers fervid intimacy. “Hush. How long has it been since my mouth has held anything/ other than ice and pemmican?” Here Bradfield nudges her readers into unexpected voyeurism, once again cracking commonly held notions of great exploration.

The narrative rifts allow readers to peer at the pronounced ache at the heart of the book – an unquenched desire for fruit, fame, warmth and human emotion. Bradfield illuminates the struggle to reclaim what lies frozen in pain and memory. Affecting and crucial, Bradfield’s poems succeed at capturing longing and the way it can numb, like frostbite. “I want ice to be my mending,” she writes. “I want cold to stitch me.”