Book Review

“Tell me a wild bird sings deep / in the crevasses, wingstrokes cracking air,” commands naturalist Elizabeth Bradfield in Approaching Ice, her second collection of poems. Here, she charts the interior lives of arctic explorers, cataloguing intimacy and isolation. Through two chronological poem sequences, Bradfield creates a new kind of log book. She traces the movement of explorers starting in 1820, through the glacial landscape, and inserts definition poems linking terms from an eighteenth-century navigational manual with her own approaches to love and ice.

Drawing on explorers’ firsthand accounts, Bradfield invokes an arctic landscape that rarely offers transcendence. The wind-struck, desperate men and women who speak in her persona poems often strip the terrain of majesty. For example, “In the Polar Regions,” an unnamed explorer finds:

Walking west, five of us have fallen
to dangle alongside cliffs of ice, the thin crust
breaking into chasm easily, as if such sudden transformations
were to be expected and we’re the fools to be surprised.
Only a thin rope holds us to the surface. Hanging,
there’s nothing to do but stare at the blue contours of freeze
and tongue our loosening teeth, test the stringy roots
that hold them, wait for a tug from the ones left above.

Documenting the dangers they faced, physical and emotional strain, and the monotony of vast stretches of white, these poems offer a strange and realistic account of death and survival. Bradfield’s attention to physical sensation sustains a credible landscape. “Icebound” tells the story of a ship “trapped in ice.” For a month, the men work at the ice with picks, and haul upon it “ash, soot, shit, dark feathers” to make heat, while:

       . . . Beneath them, the ocean carries
on, carries them.
At last a man is sick
with the sea’s heave, so long unfelt.

Here, Bradfield mines collective experience for what it brings: acceptance of danger, twinges of nausea, and glimpses of beauty. She captures longing in lines that shift and break to mimic rifts in frozen wastes.

Through seven prose poems all titled “Notes on Ice in Bowditch,” Bradfield not only expands her lexicon—pairing variations of ice to the vicissitudes of a relationship—but also makes this multi-voiced collection her own. About an “ice needle,” a “long, thin ice crystal,” she declares: “I want ice to be my mending. I want cold to stitch me.” In a definition of “ice patch,” she sees lovers’ blankets and lovers’ quarrels. Bradfield applies pressure to Bowditch’s practical definitions, forces them to yield and open up, evoking the tug and sometimes the horror of intimacy. In a collection of poems where explorers often calmly anticipate their deaths, the definition poems’ erratic and exaggerated metaphors provide a welcomed balance, a necessary intensity. For “ice foot,” the speaker addresses her lover: “This is the foot I will place upon your heart. Stubborn and weighty. Unmoved by tides. So long in forming it will outlast nearly everything that would melt it.” Bradfield proves that love, like an arctic landscape, can unmoor people and cause them to go snow blind. Similar to explorers, lovers risk everything.

Approaching Ice deserves a place among accounts of arctic expeditions, as well as the work of other poets who wade through history, such as Ellen Bryant Voigt in Kyrie. In lucid language, Bradfield chronicles nature’s deadly threats—ice fall, ice storm—and humankind’s brave attempts to record experience. Several poems depict the artifacts of Ernest Shackleton’s doomed campaign caught on film. The poem “Polar Explorer Frank Hurley, Photographer on Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition (1915)” reenacts Hurley’s jump into the “slushy hold” of the sinking ship to save negatives, motion film, and plates—heavy items he carries without complaint as the crew spends months crossing an ice shelf. Bradfield casts photography as “silver nitrate / lyrics, spoken light,” suggesting that, for Hurley, art eclipses suffering. In contrast, in “Polar Explorer Ernest Shackleton (1922),” Shackleton suffers only after his return to London. In the steady wording of a short stanza, ordinary life proves mechanistically insidious: “Home after the rescue, his wrecked ship flickered twice daily / on a London screen to his own voiced accompaniment.” Bradfield asks readers to imagine a cowed Shackleton standing onstage as the Endurance sinks again and again. She elegantly captures his journey and ours, “We all have unexplained rhythms / and echoes inside the still-mysterious landscape / of our chests.” In Approaching Ice, Bradfield’s nuanced and well-researched histories make the desire for impossible adventures, whether in polar regions or at home with a spouse, seem inevitable and for readers, at least, worth reliving.

About the Reviewer

Rachel Bara recently earned an MFA in fiction from Pennsylvania State University. She has book reviews forthcoming in Prairie Schooner and Coldfront. She lives in State College, Pennsylvania, where she has seen bears and tundra swans in the cornfields near her home.