A First Landing
Cape Adare, Antarctica, 24 January 1895
Some twenty yards from the cockboat
a killer whale ruddered and took our range,
exhaling a hollow sanctus—fishy, lung-warm—
on our enterprise.
And with that benison
one of the Tasmanians leapt from the gunwales
and slipped where summer had made it treacherous
underfoot; his shout and shoaled heave broke
into the waters of the cape; his wetted knees
were a supplication and finely judged gesture,
and the sound was new there.
The bay’s near-crescent made a threshold
for our standing figures: Captain Henrik Bull
in a tall hat, the crew disposed to be casual,
lending scale to the scene, the ship as background.
Yes, how cleanly the binding of glass and light
—the shutter’s fall, the meagre snick of plates—
invented for us the afterlife. A clarity
came into the picture from outside
like a dangerous air over the shoulder.
For what was moving was engaging us,
and nothing could be seen of it that calm forenoon
or heard above our clanking steps—the continent
setting its range, closing in from fierce
inland horizons of basalt and ice.
We kept our minds on petty things after that.
Our hands cupped and dipped in a cascade
where icemelt over gravel was a lens
on the secret, held-in life; knowledge brimmed
in bare concavities, slipped through our hands.
Soon the Captain waved us back to the shore;
we discarded all that was low-natured
or contingent: the Bosun held his phlegm,
no one whistled or coughed; as the shutter was set
we stiffened and drew breath.
‘Whatever happened there was ordinary:
the men formed their pairs and ventured out,
collecting stones, making fire under a cliff;
one man read aloud a letter from his wife.
We grew serene and forgetful by degrees.
As we sailed again into the Antarctic gyre
we thought of severance from that bridal life;
an exemplary hunger overtook us,
we were the driven ship again—empowered
to balance opposites, surprised at nothing.’
Chris Orsman lives in Wellington. His latest collection, The Lakes of Mars, was published by Auckland University Press in May 2008.
Orsman comments: ‘ “A First Landing” was written to commemorate the historic “first landing” on the Antarctic mainland in January 1895. By all accounts (which are scanty) the occasion was a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous, and the poem sets out to capture something of this.’