The Final Stretch
Having used dogs to haul their sledges over the pack ice towards the North Pole, Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen finally reached open water on August 6th 1895, with only two dogs left.
Lift your head from the snow, Kaifas,
this is the final stretch. One hundred
and forty-six days, over six hundred
miles on the ice. Tomorrow
at the glacier’s edge there will be open
water and the plash of little waves
against canvas. The sledges will fall
silent, the kayaks will dance like Samoyeds.
Bear blood on the wind, a wounded
bear-cub lowing in the distance, no cartridge
to spare for his pain. His wails track us
across the floe, a bitter requiem
for the fresh meat in our gut. Do you
remember, Kaifas, how this journey
began? The market at Berezov,
the stink of reindeer skins and brandy,
the Ostiaks in their reincalf caps
bartering for dogs? How far we have come
since then, following the twisted line
of lichen across the Urals
to the frozen lanes of this white world.
Forty we were at the beginning,
beautiful dogs, thick coats, pricked ears, bright
eyes, ready for anything. Now we are two,
Kaifas and Suggen, high-priest and thug,
waiting under the dark water-sky
while our masters wave their hats and celebrate
with chocolate. So many deaths, and I
have watched them all: the ones I barely knew
who strangled on their ropes; my brother
Gammelen taken by a bear; poor Job, poor
Fox, torn into pieces by the other dogs,
Livjaegeren felled by Johansen’s spear,
his skinned flesh thrown to us for supper;
Katta, Kvik, Baro, Klapperslangen,
Potifar … I have sat by their corpses
and waited for their souls to fly up
from this hostile land towards the forests
of Siberia where the earth is soft
and wolves howl louder than the Arctic wind.
Now we have served our purpose. See, Kaifas,
how the sky fills with birds – little auks,
skuas, kittiwakes, fulmars, ivory gulls,
terns tacking through the mist like prayers.
Bear-breath puckers the snow-drifts, the air
is brackish with seal-fume. We face
each other’s masters, they cannot face
their own. Two shots – two easy deaths –
but who will watch our corpses on this last
sheet of floating ice while they set off
in their swift kayaks, paddling towards the land?
All evening there were rumblings: my father
sweating in black tie, my mother snared
in a cocktail frock that swished like a fan.
Even the garden ants were playing up,
pouring from cracks in the lawn
with rustling wings pinned to their metal backs.
I put on my new petticoat and climbed
over our fence into the wood. A bristling
of needles, the chill of pine; arrows carved
in the bark, leaking a sour grey sap.
I knew I must follow the signs or be bundled
into the oven, eaten by witches, trapped
forever in the fairy-tale. But it was hard to keep
my head while night-owls thrummed like tanks
and waves of thunder boomed through the dark
like guns. My feet were numb, my hem was ripped,
the bread behind me on the path blew away
where it fell, a gust of silver crumbs.
We woke next day to road blocks and barbed wire,
a twitching of commentators and politicians.
No one had planned to build a wall, they said,
though it was obvious to any child
that wolves had turned at dawn into Alsatians,
masking their snarls and growls with doggy smiles.
Published in Beneath the Rime (Shearsman Books, 2009).
Read more about Siriol and Beneath the Rime here.
Order Beneath the Rime.
Read ‘Willow Pattern’ at Carrie Etter’s blog.
Read ‘Flint, Rime, Paint: An Interview with Siriol Troup’ at
Andrew Philip’s blog, Tonguefire.
Read more of Siriol’s poems at poetry pf and The Poem.