Bill Manhire’s Antarctic Poems Spare and Tender

Ernest Shackleton’s account of his mission and New Zealander Bill Manhire’s Field Notes are among Canadian author Jean McNeil’s favourites about the Antarctic continent.

“Antarctica is the fifth largest continent, but it is home to almost nothing,” McNeil writes. “Only emperor penguins can withstand its lack of animal and plant life and shrivelling temperatures full time. Everything else, including humans, must migrate or die. In its vacant extremity, the Antarctic presents a challenge to writing, the aesthetic equivalent of scaling Everest. According to the environmental historian Stephen J Pyne, writers tackling it must ‘develop a vocabulary equal to their environment’.

“Ernest Shackleton set the bar high with South, the riveting story of his failed 1914-17 expedition on the Endurance. It may be 100 years old, but it recounts the serial disasters that befell the expedition in prose that is startlingly modern. Miraculously, not one of the men lost his life (although many dogs and penguins were not so fortunate).

“Manhire is the undeclared poet laureate of the Antarctic. In Antarctic Field Notes, written after three weeks there, he sets the exploits of the heroic age against his own more modest enterprise of shadowing scientists. The heroes are rewritten in sly anecdotes – ‘Scott stares at the Christmas tree’; they write mordant diary entries – ‘the drudgery of courage’; or ‘dream of whortleberry jam’. Underwriting Manhire’s spare, alert poems is a tenderness, even a pity that these men should have been so unprotected.”

Manhire was born in Invercargill in 1946.

Original article by Jean McNeil, The Guardian, January 12, 2019.

Photo by Tim Higham.

Tags: Antarctic Field Notes  Antarctica  Bill Manhire  Guardian (The)  Poetry  

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