The recent discovery of one of the ships from Sir John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition has made me think once again about that suffering crew and their calamitous attempt to find and map the Northwest Passage. I had long been fascinated by Franklin’s last, failed, Arctic exploration, reading everything I could about it: conflicting accounts by historians, imaginative reconstructions of explorers’ journals, and a number of novels. Then, in 2002, I wrote a book of poems about the Franklin expedition, including the mysterious fate of the ships, entitled Franklin’s Passage (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2003). In my treatment, the tragedy becomes an occasion to reflect on the various ways human beings can be lost, with the Arctic as a personal interior space which we strive to negotiate.
That was the year summer didn’t come to the Arctic.
Our ships beset by ice,
crushed in the glacial jaws of its vice
north of King William Island,
we abandoned our once-unsinkable homes—
reinforced bomb-boats driven by locomotives
that could not budge the pack by an inch—
and trekked like solemn migratory wraiths
south toward the river and the fort,
pulling sleds filled with books and fine china,
leaving a pyramid of tins behind
to mark our passage to the underworld.
Exhaustion brought no peace,
conferred no balm of sleep or resignation
as we staggered in harness
tormented by the music of the elements
that tugged us toward the inevitable coast,
teased by an occasional patch of green—
rugs of sorrel, bladder campion, chickweed, stitchwort—
by sparse clumps of plumb-black crowberries
poking out of the hillside drifts,
driven by the red spurs of our own butchered flesh
that kept us going just long enough
to cross from one season into another,
to bridge the strait to the mainland
as far as Point Booth and Starvation Cove
where the last of us lay down together in the snow
and sank into the century without a trace.
That was the year summer didn’t come to the Arctic,
the year we trudged into History
and not one of us lived to tell the tale.