Poetry Sunday: “Why They Went,” by Elizabeth Bradfield

Poet’s Note

The larger question driving the poems of Approaching Ice, which examines the lives of many historic polar explorers, was to figure out just this: why they went. Why, knowing the difficulties, did they go? What stories were they carrying with them? What did time in the high latitudes do to them? What myths underpinned their voyaging? And, under it all, thrummed a curiosity about what my own experiences might have been, had I been one of them. Antarctica, in particular, is fascinating because it inspired so many wild conjectures before people got there… and because it’s the one continent that was first touched upon by people in a time of bookmaking, newspapers, and (kind of) widespread shared literacy. We can read today what they thought, in many cases. Most of my poems, in some way, are trying to figure out what lenses we see through when we look at the non-human world. In this poem, the historic explorer’s view was tinted with Christianity, with manifest destiny, with entitlement and the “right of kings.” I want to shine a light on those lenses even more than on what is seen, both then and now.
Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
Thanksgiving is this week, and even though not everyone in our country celebrates it now, many still associate the holiday with our pilgrim ancestors. I had been intending to feature a poem by Anne Bradstreet, literally America’s first published poet and a pilgrim to boot, but then I ran across today’s poem. “Why They Went” was written about South Pole explorers, not pilgrims coming to America, but even with the clue in the epigraph (“where the sun does not decline”), I’m not sure I would have realized that without the Poet’s Note. Anyway, the pilgrims were also explorers, and New England in winter is, some would say, not unlike the arctic. More importantly, as in all good poems, the language of this one is porous enough to admit more than one interpretation. It makes a great Thanksgiving poem, and in fact appears in an anthology of  such poems collected here on the Poetry Foundation website. Anyway, I hope to feature Anne Bradstreet in a future column, ideally before next November.
I love “Why They Went” first and foremost for its brevity and the way it packs a wallop in just three stanzas, organized into 5, 4, and 4 lines. It’s nearly the length of a sonnet and arguably is an example of the more flexibly-defined American Sonnet—14 (okay, nearly) unrhymed lines with voltas more or less where we expect to see them: line 6 (the speaker’s eyes turning from the scene of the explorers to Eden), line 9 (the speaker turning back to the scene at hand), and the last line (the explorers returning home in their physical bodies but metaphorically turning away, towards new discoveries). Some might even call “Why they Went” a blank verse sonnet, because it scans (mostly) as iambic pentameter with lots of trochaic substitutions. Not that the labels matter, but I remain amazed at the versatility and enduring popularity of this venerable old form and am convinced that there is something positively magical about its dimensions.
The poem begins in medias res, plunging us into the harsh physical realities of the frigid, bleak polar landscape and its effects on the human body. The entire first line is written in falling meter, with accented syllables preceding unaccented syllables, creating an unsettling effect. The instability is underscored by the way that first line is, due to its three periods, carved up into small one- and two-word units. The point of view is omniscient third, the scene presented as if we were there witnessing it ourselves from a remove. I was puzzled at first by “unflippered thing,” because I couldn’t think of many creatures (besides whales and seals) with flippers in New England waters, but the Poet’s Note cleared that up. My guess is that the practice of warming beds with heated stones was universal when fireplaces were the primary heating sources for homes, and maybe it is only me who associates it with New England. I’d only read about it before I stayed in an unheated house on the Cape in October 1979 and my husband’s grandmother wrapped a stone in a newspaper to put in my bed—and after the newspaper ignited, I never tried it again.
After setting the grim stage of severest winter, the poem turns inward to answer the question posed by its title. Why these people left home was to search for an earthly paradise, Eden before the fall. It’s something we all do, even now, longing for a “time when we knew / with certainty that something watched and loved us.” The last line of stanza 2, “all we had to do was show up,” has particular contemporary relevance, at least for me. If I miss one thing about the past, it is a time when all I had to do was get dressed and discharge my personal and professional responsibilities for the day without also feeling the burden of doing something, anything, to alleviate the omnipresent suffering of the world. The notion that people living before our fraught political time may also have felt this way is oddly reassuring.
Stanza 3 turns again, back to the scene that opened the poem and once again pins our eyes on those freezing, hungry explorers (or pilgrims) searching for food in a frozen landscape—Massachusetts, or a polar icecap. Knowing that the poem was written about arctic explorers resolves my initial puzzlement over line 10’s reference to light never leaving (the sun never sets during some months at the South Pole), but it’s also possible to read that light as a metaphor for faith, in whichever interpretation of the poem you prefer. The second line, “The air from their warm mouths became diamonds,” is so lovely, my favorite in the poem. As an image, it glitters wonderfully, but I also appreciate its music: “air” has assonance with “warm,” a word that near-rhymes with the second syllable of “became” and with the first syllable in “diamonds.” Another thing that makes this line so strong is its juxtaposition of opposites (heat and cold). I love the way its words capture so precisely the way exhaling looks in cold weather and shows us the extraordinary beauty in that everyday phenomenon.
The last two lines represent another turn, from looking at what the explorers (or pilgrims) are seeing (the sun, their own frozen breath) to looking into their hearts and minds. “[T]hey longed for everything they did not have” could be a mission statement for the Mayflower and an anthem for America, not necessarily a bad thing until it hardened into capitalism and acquisition culture. The last line nails it by giving us rhetorical closure (“came home”) and then opening that door back up into something larger (“and longed again”). The poem answers its own question by showing that what drives us to leave home is a longing so intense that we are willing to endure privation to follow it, and it is a longing that never ends. By and large, the longing and the journey are the point. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” says the speaker in Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto.” But sometimes the moments at home are sweet and filled with family and plenty, and then we give thanks, as many of us will do this Thursday in kitchens and dining rooms across America.]]>

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