The Poetry of Polar Exploration

Reviewed By

Elizabeth Bradfield’s passion for her subject and her acuity and great sensitivity to language make Approaching Ice a fine collection that will fit nicely on shelves of natural history books as well as those for poetry.

Elizabeth Bradfield adores words. She chooses them with great care and shares them with ardor in Approaching Ice, her second collection of poems. An accomplished poet, she is also a serious naturalist who works on small ship expeditions into the Alaskan wilderness. Approaching Ice delves into the history of polar exploration, where science, nature, history, and psychology intertwine to create an absorbing subject and unique vocabulary.

Bradfield’s work as a naturalist informs and grounds her poetry in a way that will appeal to people who do not usually read poetry. Her poems are both precise and physical, and at their best are reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop’s work. Wilson’s “Specimens” brings to mind Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” and showcases Bradfield’s masterful use of verbs:

Quickly, he learned the art of flensing,
of peeling back the strange skins
from the swimming birds that streaked beneath
the Terra Nova’s prow,

Bradfield’s poems, like Bishop’s, are the product of rigorous observation and meticulous word-choice. There is a painterly aspect and a visionary quality to the collection lit by Bradfield’s devotion to her subject. “Polar Explorer Donald B. McMillan Brings Color Film to the Arctic (1925)” sets a scene with breathtaking language that is both dense and delicate:

Grease ice melon with algae, claret floes of pupping grounds:
from the beginning, one man on every venture
was issued brush and paint to translate

Just as Bradfield, the poet searches for words to describe the Arctic, those artists also searched:

But they had no palette, no dialect
to describe the shawled earth. No aniu
(snow on ground) or muraneq (soft deep
snow)

and even a photographer could not fully capture the landscape; even Technicolor’s “objectivity, once home, seemed static, framed”. You can feel the poet’s empathy for the photographer as Bradfield struggles with her palette of words to bring to life something so vast and complex.

In an interview Bradfield said, “There is something terrible, ridiculous, and glorious in the ambition, hubris, foibles, and tenderness of these men and women, something epic.” She vividly captures these qualities in poems about specific explorers, such as James Weddell, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and Ernest Shackleton. In others she speaks in an imagined voice, using private moments of man’s intersection with the extremes of nature to great effect. From In the Polar Regions:

It takes a particular man for this, you know,
able to be short-sighted for months on end.
The air is constantly aluminum with snow,
and my mouth, too, tastes of metal. Salt
of iron seeping from my weakened gums.

The peculiarities of polar exploration are rich with distinctive details and she uses them to great effect: “Each morning I pack drift around my tongue/to freeze the soft flesh holding my teeth.” That level of specificity is what makes Approaching Ice special. In “Icebound” she describes how the captain and crew “try and make a path across the ice/of its opposite: ash, soot, shit, dark feathers”. They continue this for a month, trying to draw heat to the ice as “with saws and picks/they work down to water” until “The seam they’ve drawn opens. The crew/ tries to remember how to make a course.” Polar exploration is the subject of many fine works of non-fiction and I read Approaching Ice curious to see if the poems would reveal something not available in linear narratives. A vignette such as that, telling of using ash, soot, shit and feathers to break through ice, could be told in prose, but the poet makes it fresh and startling and visceral.

One of the most intriguing poems is about a man who stayed home—John Nash Forbes, the brilliant, unstable mathematician (subject of the book and movie A Beautiful Mind), who turned down a prestigious position at the University of Chicago because he believed that he was to be appointed the Emperor of Antarctica.

But why hadn’t I thought of this
before? That someone might
want a throne there, ruler
of most of the world’s fresh water,

inaccessible. Penguins his uncomplicated subjects, little history
to surmount, and the ground’s own pure and endless
fractal variations—or permutations as it’s all
a rearranging of Hydrogen, Oxygen, Hydrogen—of white.

A land to quiet the mind’s static, a slate
for his huge equations, numbers scrawled across
the faint sense of what was once expected there—tropics
at the pole, Eve’s descendant’s picnicking together …

A powerful lot of insight is packed into a compact poem—the overloaded man’s yearning for the uncomplicated; the use of fractal variations to give a glimpse of how his mind might work; the fabulous image of huge equations scrawled across the vast whiteness. Those connections come together like the notes of a great jazz riff.

The above-mentioned ardor for words is exhibited in “Notes on Ice in Bowditch” interspersed throughout the book wherein Bradfield truly reveals herself as the kid in the metaphorical candy shop. Nathaniel Bowditch was the author of The American Practical Navigator, an encyclopedia of navigation, first published in 1802. In her “Notes,” Bradfield includes entries from Bowditch referring to ice (ice bridge, ice buoy, ice cake, ice canopy …) followed by a brief personal response. These are not nearly as well crafted as the poems, which I found frustrating, but I also understand and admire Bradfield’s desire to share her candy with us.

If there is a weakness in Approaching Ice, it is the lack of presence of the author herself. There are a few personal poems, including ones in which she writes movingly about being the wife left behind when her partner goes to Antarctica, but most of the poems are other people’s stories told from their perspective. In a brief preface she writes (in part):

Because this life, this alarm clock time card
percolator direct deposit income tax stop light

seems vast and blank and numbing
Tell me secret orchids hide
between the black rock and the ice…

Those words set me up to expect reflections, juxtapositions, and insights, that, unfortunately I rarely found. Seamus Heaney wrote that technique “involves not only a poet’s way with words, his management of metre, rhythm, and verbal texture; it involves also a definition of his stance towards life, a definition of his own reality.” In Heaney’s “Digging,” “The cold smell of potato mold/the squelch and slap of soggy peat, the curt cut of an edge/”, is made more meaningful because the poem is a measure of the poet against his father and grandfather. I do not want to imply that Bradfield’s poems are soulless—they are not–but they would be enriched by more personal reflection and refraction.

Bradfield is a talented poet—her first collection, Interpretive Work, won the Audre Lord Prize and was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist; and Approaching Ice was a finalist for the Academy of American Poets James Laughlin Award. Her passion for her subject and her acuity and great sensitivity to language make Approaching Ice a fine collection that will fit nicely on shelves of natural history books as well as those for poetry.


Jennifer Jefferson is a writer living in Massachusetts. She received her MFA from Columbia and currently works as a lawyer defending mentally-ill clients. Her first novel is titled Defending Violet. More from this author →