Poetry Sunday: “The Yukon Quest,” by Therése Halscheid

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
I met Therése Halscheid when we read together for a Press 53 event at Barnes & Noble at the 2015 American Writers and Poets (AWP) conference in Minneapolis. Press 53, which published both our most recent books, is a small but wonderful North Carolina press fiercely dedicated to publishing the best poetry and short fiction it can find.  At the conference, I bought Frozen Latitudes, the evocative and tender book from which today’s poem is drawn.
“The Yukon Quest” is another poem I decided to feature some time ago but saved for January, because it so completely evokes winter and what I recall of that season from my childhood in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. It wasn’t Alaska, but I do remember subzero temperatures and concerns about getting frostbite on the mile-long walk to school. That was in the days before GORE-TEX and other technical solutions to the cold, and it was not unusual for kids to weep from pain as their feet and hands thawed after boots and mittens were removed. I have a deep dread of that kind of cold, and I shivered while reading today’s poem.
“The Yukon Quest” is 42 lines organized into 21 two-line stanzas (couplets) of medium to long lines that comprise six full sentences. The first two sentences open with the phrase “What was it like” (lines 1,7), the speaker musing about a story she’d heard about a musher lost with his dogs in a sled race that’s like the Iditarod, the famous race that covers nearly 1,000 miles of rough terrain from Anchorage in south-central Alaska to Nome on the western Bering Sea. The poem’s remaining sentences all open with injunctions to the reader: “Imagine” (15, 23), “Think of” (29), and “Picture then” (35), with the speaker, in effect, grabbing readers by the lapels and compelling their participation in the story. In this way, she establishes herself as an experienced storyteller who knows how to capture and sustain her audience’s interest. This is important in all poems (and all pieces of writing) but more so, as here, when the poem is long and narrative in form.
The story itself is simple: A man in a dogsled race hits a patch of ice and spins out, then becomes disoriented and heads off in the wrong direction. By the time he realizes his mistake, night is approaching and the dogs, exhausted and hungry, refuse to go on. They can survive the night but the man will freeze without wood to build a fire. Fighting sleep, he walks until he finds an abandoned camp, then returns with his arms full of firewood. He builds a fire and realizes that although he has lost the race, he has won the more important race to survive.
What is it that sustains our interest? One thing has already been mentioned: the stakes are high. The man will die if he does not find wood. Another is the poem’s use of scene to move the action forward and build suspense. The technique is cinematic, so that reading the poem feels like watching a film of the events it describes. In the opening scene, presented in a way that feels like slow-motion photography, the sled hits a patch of ice and becomes airborne: “that moment, when his body lifted in wind, sled and all, / while the huskies were held in mid-air” (3-4). Notice how the speaker’s insistence (communicated through italics) that we focus on “that moment” extends it. Next, we see the sled team racing the wrong way until they come to the camp made earlier in the day, and they change direction. The next scene is of the sled and dogs bogged down, night beginning to fall, with the man’s desire to win the race replaced by a more fundamental concern for survival. Ensuing frames show the man fighting sleep and death, trudging through the snow to find wood. The poem closes in the warmth of a blazing fire under a cold, ancient moon.
Also moving the story along is structure, long-line couplets that bring to mind sled tracks in snow. Meter is irregular, but many lines reverse the stress pattern of spoken English and put the accented syllable first; others place two accented syllables in a row to make what is called a spondee; these techniques create subsurface tension and a pulsing urgency that recalls the insistent throbbing of drums. For an example, see line 7 (What was it like after the whirling ended, when his body quieted), or the dramatic spondees of lines 22 (fierce winds) and 26 (sweat froze).
Another technique is the drama built into the poem through sequencing of events, which begin in medias res, in the middle of things, just as the sled is spinning out. From there the tension builds, as in a moment of dramatic irony we understand before the man himself understands that he’s going in the wrong direction. When will he figure it out? we wonder, until he does. The situation grows more dire when the dogs refuse to go on. The conflict presented here is the classic battle between man and nature and again the stakes are as high as they get. Suspense mounts as the man loses feeling in his fingers and, unable to find any wood not too green to burn, feels his sweat freeze. At the poem’s climax, readers are uncertain for a time about whether the man may be dying: “and he thought of the dogs surrounded by stillness / everything whitened as with mists in a dream” (27-28). But he keeps walking, and the conflict resolves when he finds the abandoned camp. In the story’s denouement, the man builds a fire and holds up his hands in gratitude. What I’ve just described is the classic model of rising and falling tension caused by conflict, conflict, and resolution known to fiction writers as Freytag’s pyramid, a time-honored structure used by storytellers over the centuries.

Another element that sustains interest is the poem’s conscious use of fraught moments, moments with high dramatic value. Long after reading the poem, I recalled details like the slo-mo sled upheaval, the freezing sweat, and the man standing bare-chested in forty-below temperatures. The poem is also full of evocative language, lines like “the smooth long road of the moon” (18), “bedded down in small nests of snow” (21), and that great line closing the poem, “the old moon, so silvery, that round and silvery moon in the arctic sky” (42). These techniques combine to make “The Yukon Quest” a highly effective narrative poem and one that makes me glad again that I live in a mild climate. But what a pleasure to curl up somewhere warm with a mug of hot chocolate and read poems like this!


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