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after Cavafy

The Franklin Expedition, 1845-48

When you set out to find your Northwest Passage

and cross to an empty region of the map

with a headlong desire to know what lies beyond,

sailing the thundering ice-fields on the ocean,

feeling her power move you from below;

when all summer the sun’s hypnotic eye

won’t blink, and the season slowly passes, an endless

dream in which you’re forever diving into pools,

fame’s image forever rising up to meet you;

when the fall comes, at last, triumphantly,

and you enter Victoria’s narrow frozen Strait,

and your Terror and Erebus freeze in the crushing floes;

in that long winter night among the steeples

of jagged ice, and the infinite, empty plain of wind and snow,

when the sea refuses to be reborn in spring,

three winters pass without a thaw, and the men,

far from their wives and children, far from God,

are murdering one another over cards;

when blue gums, colic, paralysis of the wrists

come creeping indiscriminately among you;

and you leave the ships, and set out on the ice,

dragging the lifeboats behind, loaded

with mirrors and soap, slippers and clocks,

into the starlit body of the night,

with your terrible desire to know what lies beyond;

then, half-mad, snow blind, even then,

before you kill the ones who’ve drawn the fatal lots,

and take your ghastly communion in the snow,

may you stumble at last upon some band of Inuit

hauling their catch of seal across the ice,

and see how foolish you have been:

forcing your way by will across a land

that can’t be forced, but must be understood,

toward a passage just now breaking up within.

Northwest Passage

James Pollock

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