Monday, December 12, 2011


At Lady Mott-Bayfield's regular salon in March of 1872,
Certain Arctic explorers were displayed
Like cakes on a tray.
Did I say "displayed"? I meant invited, welcomed, feted!
They held tea in china cups,
Answering questions from thick-bearded men and fine ladies
As the snow from their boots slowly melted
In a trail from the door to where they stood.

"What did you see?
"Who sponsored your expedition?"
"Terribly cold, I expect?" (this last sending a ripple of titters through the ladies nearby.)

Cold, yes.
We left fingers, toes, and twenty-seven immortal souls there,
On the endless pack ice.
We saw things...
Things that were there,
And things that were not;
We saw enormous, yellow-white bears circling our camp at all hours
In hunger and in curiosity.
(The guests now quiet and hanging on every word,
Making a ring around the explorers as if they were moons.)
We saw seals
Pulled up from their dens by the bears, who could smash through the ice with their great paws and tremendous weight;
Our friend Roberts had become disoriented,
Believing one of the seals to be a woman or a mermaid
Depending upon the degree of his fever.
When the bears caught his particular darling,
He dashed out on his frozen twig-legs, lurching,
Tears freezing on his cheeks before they could fall.
A bear shattered his skull with a single swat,
Letting the madness out,
And his spirit.

One of the salon attendees clears his throat.
A lady's hand flutters at her heart,
A practiced gesture,
Half sincere this time.

It was dark around the clock,
The sun an impossible memory
Like warmth, or a wife.
There was no respite from the cold,
The wind over the open ice,
Or each other.
We had long since killed all of our dogs and horses,
(Someone sets down a cake, making a small noise in her throat)
And we ourselves were dying by degrees,
Losing first our sense of mission
Then our equilibrium,
And, for the twenty-seven, life itself.

There is silence,
Then a hearty "I say!" from a railroad magnate.
The explorers are never invited back,
And a maid cleans up the messy slush by the door
The moment that the last explorer has left,
And it is shut, firmly, behind them.
linked to Real Toads open link Monday


Daryl said...


ellen abbott said...

whoa Shay. excellent. chilling and so...

Laurie Kolp said...

= 0


hedgewitch said...

Those expeditions were absolutely insane--supposedly driven by the need to find shipping routes or whatever, but I think really driven by something in the human spirit that has to confront the unknown. In this case, they found it was more than ready to confront them in turn. Though this is set in 1872(with so many telling details, and that long middle stanza is almost standalone excellent) the tale it tells is universal. Very well done, Shay, in all ways.

Titus said...

Outstanding. I loved all the juxtaposing in the poem, and the comic effects work so well as underscore, almost counterpoint, to the tragedy.

Shay, I don't know you so please feel free to bite my head off, but the bears being in the Antarctic nags at me, and distracted me a little from a hugely effective, and impressive, poem. If they are bears of the mind, OK, if they are the 'things that were not', OK, but you have taken such trouble here to make it touching real, with the bears violence seeming, to me, to smash an actual skull full of imaginings. Polar Bears are Arctic creatures, and aren't found in the Antarctic.
If I'm misreading utterly, forgive me.

Fireblossom said...

Titus, they are now Arctic explorers. Thank you for pointing out my error, and for your kind words. They are indeed intended as very real bears.

Kerry O'Connor said...

I was very moved by this scenario of the socialites trying to get their kicks by inviting the explorers to their gathering and then being appalled by "reality". Aren't many do-gooders the same, making all the right noises before being slapped by actual experience, when they beat a hasty retreat to the safety of normalcy.

Brian Miller said...

fascinating story telling shay...i always wanted to be an explorer...far more than ever wanting to be a socialite....i would image they would not mix...and probably would have left with them...

Sherry Blue Sky said...

What a fabulous tale you tell. I was hanging on every word. Absolute perfection!

Anonymous said...

i quite think i'd rather spend time with the explorers than the "regular" salon attendees {as long as i didn't have to actually GO exploring!}

brilliantly told, Sista Poet! ♥

Abin Chakraborty said...

superb narration.every stroke measured to perfect pitch tone and swerve.

Marian said...

displayed? feted? what's the difference? hah.

Jinksy said...

Some story! ♥

Mama Zen said...

Damn, Shay. This just pulls you in. Tremendous tale.

Margaret said...

Really enjoyed the socialites discomfort! And I bet you a million bucks, the adventures didn't WANT to come back. Well done!

HermanTurnip said...

Unsettling, brutal, upsetting, depressing, and pessimistic.

In other words, genius! Loved it so much I read it twice...

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this immensely and thought you might find this piece interesting,as did I, considering the subject of your poem.

Anonymous said...

amazing imagery especially:

Tears freezing on his cheeks before they could fall.
A bear shattered his skull with a single swat,
Letting the madness out,
And his spirit.

kaykuala said...

The expeditions of old were prompted by the desire for riches or nationalism, no one knows! Excellent verse!


Kay L. Davies said...

Oh, yes, if they told the truth, they were shunned. They were supposed to consider the delicacy of the ladies, simply shrug, and say, "Mmm, yes, the expedition. A trifle too cold for me. I say, are those tea-cakes I see there? Thank you so much."

Caty said...

Wow!! what a story, loved it :) so detailed...i felt like I was in that salon listening to them tell their tale...

Lolamouse said...

This was fabulous! Wonderfully sarcastic and bitter portrayal of culture shock when pampered intellectuals decide they wish to mingle with "real people."