Editorial Note: Today The Poet by Day features two stellar poets, Myra Schneider and Dilys Wood. Myra, an award-winning poet, poetry coach and author of eleven collections, reviews Antarctica by distinguished poet, Dilys Wood, author of two collections, founder of Second Light Network of Women Poets, managing editor of ARTEMISpoetry (biannual magazine), and co-editor and publisher of poetry anthologies.
In her collection, Antarctica, Dilys Wood has drawn on her considerable knowledge of this continent in remarkable ways. One of these is to produce a brilliant four page monologue, Apsley Cherry-Garrard addresses the Royal Geographical Society. Cherry-Garrard was a member of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic expedition to the South Pole in 1912 although he was not in the final group which reached the Pole. He was also in the team which found Scott in 1913, blamed himself for Scott’s death and had problems with depression for the rest of his life. The imagined lecture marvellously creates the sense of what it feels like to be in Antarctica:
Darkness at noon. But how also explain
too much light? Trapped inside a diamond,
you haul sledge in some spot rifted with crevasses –
you wrench off goggles to guide the team
and know you’ll not sleep that night, eyes sewn
with the burning wires of snow-blindness!
The speaker emerges as an emotionally charged man who was still bound up with his Polar experiences when the First World War, which he fought in, was over. References to the war heighten the tension in the poem. He also reveals his concern for the planet and anticipates the possibility of climate change:
……Not hard to guess
how steel’s icy sheen might have whirled round,
freezing life across five million square miles!
This ice-age, then, could be reversed? At a stroke!
The short poem Snow is an original way to write about finding the bodies of Scott and his two companions. This is also in Cherry-Garrard’s voice. He begins by comparing the frozen spicules of snow with the very different snowflakes on the nursery window which his father lifted him to look at when he was a child. Then, after one verse about the tent buried in a drift and his distress, he relates an arresting dream he’d had of ‘women called Mary’ searching for Jesus. They become mourners walking behind his father’s coffin.
Nearly three-quarters of the book is occupied by The South Pole Inn, a long and ambitious dramatic narrative. It is set in West Ireland in the 1920s mainly in The South Pole Inn which was bought and given this name by Tom Crean who had taken part in early Antarctic exploration. These expeditions feature in the poem but it is Crean’s wife Nell who is the key character. The story centres on her need for a fuller life and her love affair with Frank Worsley, a friend of Crean’s who was also member of the expeditions. There is an exciting plot about smuggling out of the country money left by Tom’s old aunt so that it’s kept in the family. This has connections with the earlier Irish Troubles. Although the main characters are known people they and the story around them are invented. Fact and fiction are seamlessly woven together and every aspect of the Irish background is totally convincing. Each chapter of the poem is in the voice of one of the main characters. The dialogue is earthy, the action immediate and the characters feel very alive. Here is Nell in the first chapter revealing her frustration:
I said I wouldn’t –
would never, never marry. But Tom Crean
He’d spent those years away, hadn’t he?
Smelled different, so I thought. Oceans, ice.
Not like the spiders who never leave
the stinking cupboard. Forgetting, of course,
He came back! Christ what for? Why crawl back?
Tom, it’s like you’ve gone nowhere, done nothing.
A sliver of ice nailed through my husband’s tongue!
Some of the short poems feature women. These include Love in a Freezing Climate, a sequence of witty and imaginative poems, all of which also focus on the extreme coldness. Here is the first which has a wonderful extravagance:
Her Birthday Present
I dreamt I gave you the White Continent.
I wrapped it in white wedding wrap, embossed
with silver penguins and skies. Your parcel
was tied up with rainbow ribbons – Aurora –
because you said Let’s go and see the Lights.
Out there it’s like bathing in pure colour!
Dreaming, I hold your gift: only then
I ask, What is it? What shall I say it is?
Is it something soft, bright, rich, gorgeous
or ice, more ice and, under ice, bare rock?
Antarctica establishes Dilys Wood as a highly original poet. Her work is complex, probing and her use of language exciting and varied. She is particularly known as organizer of the Second Light Network and as the gifted editor of ARTEMISpoetry, the Network’s comprehensive magazine for women poets which includes articles and book reviews – her own are outstanding. Her achievements as an organizer, editor and critic shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that she is an outstanding poet.
– Myra Schneider
- Poet, Teacher, Inspiration: Dilys Wood & The Latter-Day Saphos
- A Life Immersed in Poetry:Myra Schneider, Celebrating Over 50 Years as Poet and Writer
© 2016, Myra Schneider, All rights reserved; feature here with the permission of the author; Antarctic photograph courtesy of Joe Mastroianni of the U.S. National Science Foundation and in the public domain; Cherry-Garrard photograph is by Herbert Ponting – British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 (Ponting Collection) Reference: P2005/5/475 and in the public domain