Wednesday, March 09, 2022

"What the ice gets, the ice keeps."

"South - Frank Hurley (3)" photo by CineconcertsMP,
used with attribution, and creative commons license, CC BY 2.0

I first heard of Earnest Shackleton from a PBS documentary in 2002. I was so moved by his story, I started working on a poem inspired by it. This is the poem, many times revised and rewritten. I post it in honor of the mission on the occasion of the discovery of Endurance, long believed to be lost in the icy embrace of Antarctica forever.

If you don't know about Shackleton and his mission, it is well worth reading about. His 'successful failure' is studied in MBA programs about leadership, which I totally understand. But what captivated me about the story is that Shackleton promised his sailors he would rescue them and they believed him and he did. 

127 days later. 

Everyone survived. 

What kind of person must Shackleton have been that all who sailed with him had absolute faith in him, even as they lost their ship to the pack ice? 

So to the Endurance and her crew, I raise a glass. 



"What the ice gets, the ice keeps"    (E.S.)

"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness.    Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. " January 1914


He must have had a pull stronger than magnetic north
to draw so many men to his desire. Did his eyes blaze
with passion as he caressed the curves of his ship?

His wife, child, not enough to anchor him. The Pole
stolen, he claims a continent as consolation prize.


He drifts with deadly currents, a man of action

forced to watch land and sun recede; tastes failure
in the brackish water that pools at his crew's feet.


They salvage Hurley’s negatives from the groaning ship.

He must choose only a few, cries as he smashes glass plates
and the pack ice locks Endurance in its embrace. A crack

reverberates through still air. Sled dogs fall silent.


Sailors savage seals and penguins with greater skill

than killer whales. They reek of fish. Hair, skin,
clothes stiff with spray. They sleep like sardines

in the shelter of two upturned lifeboats, imagine tea,

whiskey, lavender-scented linens. They fear

even death will not rescue them.


A tiny sextant against frostbite, thirst, madness,
Shackleton sails an open boat 800 miles to desolation.
On the glacier he swears to his two companions
the whaling station waits over the next rise. And the next.
He transforms five minutes’ sleep into thirty. Whalers weep
when three wraiths shape themselves from fog.


In time, the sea calls many of her sailors back --

as if earth alone could not sustain them, as if
Antarctica herself had transfused ice water for blood.

          Lisa Janice Cohen
          April 4, 2002     

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