Poet and naturalist Elizabeth Bradfield turns her vision south

Toward Antarctica: An Exploration

By Elizabeth Bradfield. Boreal Books, 2019. 155 pages. $19.95.

This beautiful book by poet-naturalist-photographer Elizabeth Bradfield brings new meaning to what literary and visual images can do for a kind of travel writing. It is certainly not a guide in the usual sense; rather it’s an exploration by a singular heart and mind of landscape, history, animal life, human life and the world of ideas. It challenges not just the traditions of travel writing and our ideas of the place we know as Antarctica, but the forms and uses of poetry. The “toward” in the title is a gesture to humility; the poet wants us to understand that she will not claim any sort of arrival, in place or understanding.

Bradfield, a former Alaskan who graduated from the University of Alaska’s MFA writing program, has authored three previous poetry books and won multiple awards. While her earlier work drew in part upon her experiences and keen insights as a naturalist who has worked on adventure cruise ships in both the north and south, this newest volume dives into deeper creative waters.

As Bradfield explains in her introduction, she was drawn to the Japanese form known as haibun, invented by the poet Basho in 1682, and adapted it for her purposes. Basho, in his travels around remote parts of Japan, combined a diary-like prose with short poems that captured emotional moments. Bradfield’s style of prose poetry operates similarly, with haiku-like poetry imbedded into blocks of description, narrative, or thoughtful questioning.

Bradfield also adapts other aspects of Basho’s work. In lieu of his allusions to people, places and details that his contemporaries would recognize but might be mysterious to others, Bradfield makes use of footnotes. For example, in “Cooper Bay,” a reference to “Lamarck” is followed by a footnote explaining this early biologist’s role in describing a kind of clam. And, as an alternative to the calligraphic paintings that accompanied Basho’s words, Bradfield has included her photographs as full-page images. These, in soft, matte colors, are impressionistic rather than illustrative, and of small details — a reflection in water of part of a penguin, whiskers of a seal — more than landscapes.

Organizationally, Bradfield divides the volume into four sections corresponding somewhat loosely to the geography of Antarctic travel and her two seasons of guiding there. The first, “Down the Coast (Getting There)” takes readers from the mustering in Chile to the crossing of Drake’s Passage. We accompany Bradfield from the signing of paperwork on a sticky vinyl tablecloth in the crew mess, to witnessing a surging Patagonian glacier and ten sei whales, to an intimate look at mating sea lions. None of this is exactly “told.” Rather, the images build and scatter, with a sidelong glance, a wonderment, the capture of a felt moment. The advancing glacier surprises the narrator, who is more familiar with glacial retreat. “Steer to pace fact and awe, motion & drift. Putter in sun. Kelp geese strut the intertidal. Usual metaphors for blue fumbled as ice pops and groans. Glad to fumble them anew.”


The second section, “South Georgia (More There Than There),” includes poems that reference the care taken to avoid carrying even a grass seed caught in Velcro onto protected lands, the calls of penguins (“like washrags swept across window screens”), an old whaling station, introduced reindeer and efforts to remove them, Shackleton’s grave. A lovely list-poem, “Getting Ready I: Standby 5 AM,” starts this way: “socks: 2 pr, toe warmers between/long underwear: 2 pr/maybe pants over?/shirts: 5 (silk, cotton, polypro, wool, zip neck poly).”

The third section, “The Peninsula, Etc. (There & Back, There & Back: Repeat)” includes the poet’s — and passengers’ — first landing on the Antarctic continent. Driving a shuttle boat ashore, Bradfield breaks protocol to “Swing boots over port pontoon. Into water. Onto stone. Set foot.” A haiku follows: “dream, story — supplanted/three rocks, gold with lichen/my unmarked marker.” Other poems here speak of other landings, with penguins and leopard seals, and of glimpsed killer whales and humpbacks. Others detail the narrator’s duties — preparing and presenting lectures, dressing in heels for dinners with guests.

Bradfield turns a line from “Moby-Dick” about expansion into a found haiku and responds: “We expand. Are changed by passage and place. I, too. Have scrawled on this ship, cracked the specked shell of job title to suck the rich, strange stuff that might become words shared. Thus this. Here.”

In the final section, “Heading Home,” poems include a “sightings log,” shock about “the ambition of trees,” and a “five-year checkup” in which the poet asks what has changed since her two journeys south. She concludes, “We chug along. I’m no gauge, my stick too short to measure true. But I’ve seen the colorful maps. Why do you need me to say it? It’s red where we sail. I don’t know if our presence is benign.”

Perhaps unique to a poetry book, “Toward Antarctica” ends with a small section titled “Information and Action: Get Engaged.” Bradfield, here citizen above all, recommends with capsule descriptions 10 organizations involved in understanding and protecting the Antarctic and its ecosystems.

Enjoy this book for its exquisite language and striking photos, its journey into mythic place, its insider depictions of an unusual job, its fascination with both natural and human history, and its questioning about the responsibilities of our age. The world of ice and the world in general will never look the same again.

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."