• Katharine Coles


Fixing Antarctica

I keep taking the same photo over and over
As if to say Look, and Look. The light

Shifts minute by minute and everything
Holds: cormorant’s flight, clouds
In motion, the glacier losing itself

Perpetually to sea, sea to sky—
And so we have returned, to consider what

Cannot be recovered. What is permanent
Is this moment, then this one, and always
Slipstreaming between them, the change.


Self-Portrait in Glass

Between liquid and crystal, I am
Holding firm, trying to see through

Myself. I could magnify what is past me
Or flip and turn an ice-locked continent

Crossed with gorges and fissures to
A leaf just coming out. That kind of day,

Blue one minute with sun on my face
And the next full of flakes stinging

My cheeks to water. In such a moment, neither
One thing nor the other, what would I know?


Self Portrait as Erasure

It is, after all, just
What happens. Whether by time

Or light. By quirk or snowfall or the slow
Hand of wind over a surface: sand,

Water, even stone goes by. A feather
Flips over and flies. It is what

Happens to you, love, when I go
To sleep—and to me, I assume, when you

Sink to where we cannot keep
Each other, becoming as we do absent-

Minded. Waking to find you, I recall
What I must lose. Sometimes,

Talking, I look in your eyes and see
Every word vanishing. No

Matter. Let me tell you about that day
Chasing after humpbacks, our tiny

Boat fast-dancing in chop and wind, until
Alex killed the engine. We rose and fell,

Drifting on the swells. Chris, snap-snapping
His giant telephoto lens, shot a whale

Fluking in the distance, a whale
Bigger, closer, more focused, in every way

More present than our eyes
Could see. Later, over dinner, we looked

And looked. On video, what I got
Was not the whale’s sudden surfacing

Right beside the boat, but its breathy
Spume, and, between me and it, Eddy

Doing his little jig of surprise. What I see
Now in my mind’s eye: that fluke, lifted

And stilled against water
And snow, looming so close

We might touch it; Eddy letting his joy
Move him. I tell you, I can smell

The whale’s sigh even now, its whoosh
Of fish and heat. Why hold on to whatever

Really happened, when
Memory writes over every bit.

what happens


sink as I do
                     what I must lose

we chased

                     look     what I got
little jig
mind’s eye

                     hold on


To Alice the Beast Appears

Say a creature glows in the dark, body
And soul afloat on a sea

So southern you have to pass through
An underworld to get

Where it’s never dark. You’ve dreamt
This creature’s spine and head and extravagant

Tail lifted from the water so elegantly
It must be curious, preening, still

As life. You know
It’s apocryphal. You take one photo

After another. Carved ice, blue
Water you must jump into, though

You’ll take years to get your nerve,
A day to stop chattering. I dreamed

The creature. Alice pointed it out
In this world, in which its push-

Me pull-you shape keeps
Changing. So pure, we could

Chisel chunks off to chill
Our drinks. Instead, we leave it to sail wind

And tide toward its necessary
Vanishing. Ice-blind, we see right through it.



On my screen, the hut is wood
Beams, light and shadow, a ship

Breasting rough land. Someone has just

Stepped out on deck, leaving me
A cup on the table, a book, a lantern

Waiting to swallow its flame

Alive. One chair knocked
Askew. What furniture I have

Rearranged for this. Because it is

Shot in black and white, I see
It’s past—the scene, not the photos—as I am

Abandoned to the air of something

Kept artfully. From here no one
Can know if there are ghosts or how to live

Inside where I cultivate light

Or abroad in the vast emptiness, where I am
Never as wild or alone as I’ve felt. Mere

Suggestion in the arrangements: air

Bottled, trousers on the line still
Shaping a leg—you’ve heard all this—long

Gone. Here, dog harness

And biscuits, nail-studded wheel and oil
To feed the motor, gooseberries and currants and salt

Nobody ate, the dead

Penguin nobody salted and the books
Left to read or burn, spiked boots

And dog bones I’ll never have to gnaw, men

And beasts also composed of light
And mind as durable as we come.


In the End

There is only what we’ve seen
And what we’ve seen in photos,

Videos, between pages, in
Our heads. Sometimes it’s hard

To distinguish one from the other, when I
Clearly remember lowering

Myself into the volcano, earth’s
Centre roiling so bright

I have to shield my eyes, an open heart
It wears on its sleeve, as if we lived

Still upon a star beating
Right there on the surface. 

Last night I dreamed I slipped
My body down a cave

Lit within by its own blue
Shadow, satin I could barely

Shiver into. Who could
Paint those walls? When

Will I imagine I’ve seen
Enough? Always so much

Left, no matter
Where on earth we’ve been.


How Shackleton Taught Me How To See

When I first looked at the list of poems Axon had graciously agreed to publish—along with this little introduction—my first thought was that with the exception of ‘To Alice, the Beast Appears’, each of the poems in this group invokes some kind of lens, usually a camera lens. Then, in rereading, I realised I’d been wrong—there is a camera in ‘To Alice’ too, though it is not foregrounded, perhaps, as prominently as elsewhere.

In the larger collection, too, there are lenses everywhere. I’ve been worrying these same bones for years: perception; time; how we know what we know, if we do; how our representations—photographs, memories, poems—alter the very things we are trying to capture and preserve, if that is what we are doing. If I bury one of these bones in the yard, it’s not long before I dig it up again and go back to gnawing.

The above questions are abstract ones. I’ve often been accused of spending a lot of time in my head. What perplexes me is that people distinguish spending time in one’s head from spending time in the body. The head—or perhaps I should say the mind—is of the body, inherent; it is composed, moment by moment, out of sensory experience, just as it composes that experience into something one feels as ‘self’, as ‘thinking’. To distinguish the head from the body is to imply that the self is somehow separate from its flesh. To the contrary, it is where the body pulls itself together. Thick with matter and neurons, it is electric, on fire with the body’s news.

Strictly speaking, when I say ‘mind’, I am not talking about the brain, though the brain is one of my favorite organs, but the eyes and ears, the feet and hands, the skin and blood. Without these and the sensations they constantly produce, we are nothing—or perhaps we are merely nothing to ourselves, which is after all the same.

Thinking at its best, its most exhilarating, is an act of passion. It engages the body totally. To say something is ‘heady’ implies dizzying excitement, transports of delight. The poem is the thing that brings body into thought—that embodies thought—on the page. Poetry is an ideal place to engage questions of perception and epistemology specifically, because it uniquely engages the senses in its explorations of the world and of experience. It is at its heart experiential. Any ‘thinking’ or ‘perception’ or ‘knowledge’ that arises within it is rooted in the experience it enacts—an experience of the body, which includes the mind, at work in the world. Please notice that I say ‘enacts’ instead of ‘reproduces’: for me, the job of the poem is not to represent but to create an experience, both for the reader and for the writer. In doing so, the poem may reference an earlier experience, but its most important work is in immediate sensory engagement—through the mind—with the world. Perception arises from that.

Though I consider myself to be a poet of the long Romantic age, the kind of poem I am describing is not, I think, much like the Romantic poem of representations, which seeks to project the self into/onto reality and so transform it. About Wordsworth, the great American critic Harold Bloom says he ‘had no true subject except his own subjective nature’. I am interested in observing that place where my mind and perception make contact with the world, the liminal (or maybe littoral) zone between ‘self’ and ‘not self’. And I am interested in the question of how we know the difference. Does that thing I am looking at and thinking about become part of myself? Does it also retain integrity, its separate being? In order to investigate those questions, I need to see it as precisely, as accurately, as possible.

Knowing that ‘positivist’ is an insult in many English departments, I nonetheless ally myself here with the scientists. I believe there is a reality beyond my own subjectivity. I believe we can know things about that reality. Though I have, like most literary people, spent youthful hours indulging the idea that nothing can be known, in the end I agree both with Einstein’s assertion that ‘The world of our sense experiences is comprehensible’ (‘the fact that it is comprehensible’, he goes on, ‘is a miracle’), and with John Burgess, who once said to Errol Morris, ‘The stars can’t be socially constructed’. Finally, I believe the poem can help us come to knowledge—us being both the poet and the reader. It can enhance and deepen our experience of reality.

I believe all this, but I am wary of saying so. Who can deny that our experience of the world is impossibly mediated, altered by the lenses, theories, propositions and languages we create to examine it through? Even the perceptions of scientists, engaged in most careful measuring, are so shaped.  What they observe is changed by their observations. And in spite of the fact that their goal in using language is absolute precision—free from metaphor, each word meaning one thing only, as Gillian Beer points out in ‘Problems of Description in the Language of Discovery’, the nature of language dooms their efforts.

Meanwhile, what do we do with the poet, whose goal in using language is to wring as many productive meanings as possible from every word? Doesn’t this failure to flatten (to even want to flatten) prove that the poet lacks precision? I would say not. The line between ‘productive meaning’ and ‘unproductive meaning’ is razor-thin but definitive, as definitive as the line between a word that merely works and the best word. This kind of precision allows us to foreground, even to celebrate, the ways in which our observations are mediated. It allows us to make mediation part of the examination. And it allows us to embrace complexity and uncertainty, which are as real as lichen on a rock.

As for Alice and the Beast:

One night soon after I reached Palmer Station, the US Science Station on the Antarctic Peninsula, I gave a talk and Q&A about my project, for which I had promised to write poems. I was nervous. My audience, for the first time in my experience, comprised scientists and engineers. I was an outsider, exotic, maybe just plain weird. But I’d been writing poems for two decades engaging science and scientific ideas—not making science, not illustrating it, but engaging it as a powerful mode of perception and understanding and as a tool for passionate thinking.

I came by my interest honestly. I was born into a family of scientists. My father is a mathematician; my mother has PhDs in geology and psychology; one brother is a mathematical economist and the other an engineer; my husband is a computer scientist with a PhD in physics. Much of the conversation surrounding me all my life has engaged scientific questions and ideas. My curiosity has been fundamentally shaped by that environment. I have always felt that, despite the many differences between scientists and poets, methodology not the least of them, in an odd way we are embarked on the same project: to observe and understand and account for the world.

I was in Antarctica on a grant from the National Science Foundation to continue that work. Yes, I am happy when the literati read me, but I wanted these poems in particular to be read and enjoyed by scientists. I wanted the poems not so much to reflect their experience as to help them enter that experience through a different door. And I wanted, most of all, for the poems I would eventually write to give people—especially these people, welcoming me among them—pleasure.

All of which I said to my audience.

A couple of weeks later, nervously, I debuted the first poems from what would over 18 months become The earth is not flat. I had been working furiously and had a slim sheaf of pages; I wasn’t certain what I thought of them, partly because I was so dazzled by that remarkable place. At first, I hadn’t even known what I was looking at; the land- and seascapes had seemed somehow pure spectacle, beyond description, until I encountered the passage in Shackleton’s South where he talks about ice and water; about reflection, refraction, and mirage; about how it is impossible at any moment, in that place, to know what you are looking at. Everything was in question, including the place of the sun in the sky and those mountains that may or may not have been just where I saw them on the horizon. This uncertainty I was trying to incorporate into the poems, experimenting with a technique called erasure, which involves erasing the texts of others—in my case mostly Shackleton and other Antarctic explorers, whose remaining words I folded into my own poems. In a place in which nothing was so completely called into question as the status of the self, I also found myself writing a series of self portraits, using my own subjectivity as a lens for examining the landscape—and, I suppose, vice versa. Eventually, in ‘Self Portrait as Erasure’, I began to erase myself.

Already, the metaphor of the lens was becoming important to the collection. How do we frame what we are seeing?  How does the frame (including the poem, including simple knowledge) alter what we see? How does memory interfere with our understanding of what we’ve been through? Can we ‘capture’ anything—an image, an experience—without altering it? Included in this reading was ‘Fixing Antarctica’, one of the first poems I produced that I was sure of; an erasure of Shackleton’s passage on mirage; and a poem about a dream I’d had of an apocryphal bird-fish (a sort of tropical penguin, I guess, thinking about it now) arcing its way among the floes and bergs out on the harbor.

After my reading, a talented young biologist approached me in the communal bathroom and told me she’d been turning over what I’d said at that first presentation, and after hearing the poems she thought she understood poetry for the first time. It had never occurred to her that poetry might be more about perception than imagination, about observing as closely as possible and communicating one’s observation as precisely as possible—or that there could be different ways to communicate precisely. For a poet who is constantly being told how ‘difficult’ her work is, it was a wonderful moment.

Two days later, she came to me again, excited. There had been an unusual number of small bergs adrift on the water that day, many of them in fantastical shapes. She said, ‘I saw it today. Your creature. Look, I took a picture for you.’

Many people have asked me if I changed her name in ‘To Alice, the Beast Appears’ to invoke Alice from the books—full of fantastical creatures and written by a shy mathematician. That her name was Alice was my sheer good luck. She was tiny and beautiful and tough. I remember her hunched in the bottom of a Zodiac, in cold spray and chop, working barehanded to fill sample vials with a dropper. The Zodiac had sprung a leak, and water was slowly filling the boat. We were waiting for rescue.

The Eddy in ‘Self Portrait as Erasure’ was her lover. I do remember Chris’s telephoto shot of that whale’s tail, collapsing distance. But even more, I remember Eddy’s dance, right there, which I shot by accident. At the time, I was unhappy that he was between me and a breaching whale, also right there. The video is up on my Facebook page if you want to see it.

They were young enough and innocent enough, Alice and Eddy, that I should probably use the word ‘boyfriend’. But I choose not to.


Works cited: 

Beer, Gillian 1987 ‘Problems of description in the language of discovery’ in George Levine (ed), One culture: Essays in science and literature, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 35-58

Einstein, Albert 1936 ‘Physics and reality’, Journal of the Franklin Institute 221.3 (March). Also printed in Ideas and opinions, New York: Dell Publishing Inc, February (1927), 285

Morris, Errol 2011 ‘The ashtray this contest of interpretation (Part 5)’, The New York Times Opinionator Blog, 10 March, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/10/the-ashtray-this-contest-of-interpretation-part-5/ (accessed 7 September 2012)

Shackleton, Ernest 2004 South, New York: Penguin, 33-34; 48-49