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Polar Explorer Adrien de Gerlache, First to Winter Below the Antarctic Circle (1898)

ISSUE:  Spring 2009

What hope at the outset: to put
his small nation in the running. To seek
a pure and scientific aim untroubled
by what his king, Leopold, was seeking
in the Congo.
The Belgica stuck on purpose?
Too proud to say it was error and pride
that kept them south too long? There were not
enough lamps for the unsunned days.
Not enough bags of flour or books.
They were trapped in pack ice.
of them, under the same crown, children
and wives were hostage to rubber. Bodies
dropped in the dark river to become
unrecognizable. Easy, there, to lose flesh to rot.

They trudged out from the ship’s stuck hull,
hauling him on a sledge. They hacked
a grave, opening ice to the sea below
that still moved, teemed, heaved
through the Austral winter.
A few short words—
and through them, uneven reports and crackings
as the grave was opened again,
again to the sea.
And then he was gone
to them, though his body
would not have gone to bone
quickly, chill allowing his flesh
to be crawled by sea spiders
and limpets for years.

So was he erased? And were the bodies
in the river of Africa erased? No
headstones for either but memory. The sea
holds them all now. And in the water all have tongues.


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