Emma Lee is touched by unanswered questions raised in Jane Routh’s chapbook sequence about the ill-fated Franklin expedition

whitesilenceThe White Silence 
Jane Routh
Wayleave http://www.wayleavepress.co.uk/
ISBN 9780992894658
16 pp     £4

 

In this sequence of ten poems, Jane Routh looks at Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the North West Passage through the Arctic ice. Her focus is on the trip through the ice rather than the disaster. Despite being an experienced explorer who had taken part in three previous Arctic expeditions, Franklin’s attempt to find and map the North West Passage ended in his two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, becoming icebound near King William Island in the Canadian Arctic with the loss of all on board. The pamphlet assumes readers have that knowledge (or will look it up before reading.) In ‘Franklin, ice-bound’

 You have to imagine the tedium.
(Collingwood carved a table for his crew
from polished ice

and taught them billiards:
they would not miss, he said, the baize,
never having known it.)

Months, dark and cold. Waiting for moons.
It might even have been relief to be on watch.

The poem invites readers to imagine the boredom of being stuck on ship without knowing when the ice could break so they could get moving again. Routine maintenance and invented tasks would only partially eaten up time. The ship had three years’ worth of food supplies. There were libraries but sitting for long stretches reading books wasn’t really an option: it was too dark and hypothermia wasn’t just a risk. These were naval men rather than explorers so sat it out. The relief is imaginary. Eventually they left the ship and set out across the ice. The poem is firmly written from someone looking back at the expedition rather than imaging someone there, battling frostbite and weakened by hypothermia and scurvy, mechanically following a routine and resigning themselves to their situation. The inventiveness of the iced billiard table is underused. ‘Franklin, in retrospect’ looks at what might have occurred to change the course of events that led to Franklin leading the expedition:

 If he’d kept to orders written by men
who knew the Arctic as a drawing assembled
on theory, guesswork and vested interest,

if there hadn’t been that run of harsh winters
(or they’d not been beguiled by softer ones
into thinking they knew how ice behaved),

if the food cans had not been sealed with lead,
or if he’d not suffered from what he called 
‘influenza’ those months before embarkation,

if he’d not been over-wrought by accusation
of ‘petticoat government’ – even if he’d not married
Lady Jane, that is, if Eleanor had lived

and he’d bought that estate in the country…
O hindsight: how we can pull on any thread
we fancy and make history unravel

as if some small accident of circumstance
were all that drove disasters. Of course not.
I tell you he was simply a man of his time.

The poem rightly concludes that even if he’d been more knowledgeable about the conditions and weather he was to face, not been ill before the expedition, married his first love or moved away to the country, Franklin would probably have made the same choices. He wasn’t first choice for expedition leader, but was the first one on a list of candidates who was available. In the rush to get the food supplies ready, the canning company had taken short cuts and badly soldered the tins so traces of lead leaked into the food. However, there wasn’t sufficient lead in the food to cause the levels of lead poisoning found in the bodies found afterwards. The distilled water systems fitted to the ships also allowed lead to leak into the drinking water supply and the combination from these two sources would have provided enough to induce lead poisoning. Scientific studies suggest that deaths were caused by a combination of hypothermia, starvation, lead poisoning, malnutrition and scurvy. So, had the cans been sealed properly, it wouldn’t have saved the expedition.

Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane, led campaigns and funded expeditions to find the men involved even after all the men were declared dead although their bodies hadn’t been found. At the time Franklin was considered a hero despite the failure of the expedition. In ‘Sir John Richardson’ Jane Routh explores what it must have felt like to have individual accomplishments swept aside so someone is forever linked to a failed friend rather than celebrated for his own achievements.

 though to have a mountain, bay, river and islands
named after you, and plant and animal species,
yorr books still referenced;

to have brought anaesthetic into naval surgery;
to have hospitalised the insane
with kindness in place of restraints;

to have learned Cree and the ways of the Cree,
to be known for goodness, and relied on
as ever firmly balanced and collected.

and yet be noted on your memorial
merely as the constant companion
of a man famed for his failure (and one

who only lived to fail because of you)
– oh the gods surely rolled their eyes at that,
shrugged and wandered off.

Hindsight shows that, despite the tragic loss of life, Franklin’s failure did mean that more of the Arctic coastline was mapped by expeditions searching for Franklin’s ships than would have happened if Franklin had been successful.

I value Jane Routh’s approach in looking at issues and events in and around the expedition rather than basing her sequence on reportage or giving a linear, narrative account of the journey. However, I didn’t really feel as if I’d been there. I’d have liked a better idea of what it might have felt like to wake and go to sleep in darkness, to have days slip into one another, to sink into resignation, hypothermia and be weakened by malnutrition and effects of lead poisoning whilst not knowing how long this will last. The White Silence is a touching homage, but one with questions rather than clear-cut answers.

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Emma Lee’s Ghosts in the Desert is forthcoming from Indigo Dreams Press. Previous publications include Mimicking a Snowdrop (Thynks Press) and Yellow Torchlight and the Blues (Original Plus). http://emmalee1.wordpress.com