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"Mapping the Passage" by Steven Heighton

In 1845 Sir John Franklin with a crew of 129 officers and
men sailed hom England to map the Northwest passage
and to collect specimens of arctic wildlife. His ships the
Erebus and Terror were last seen in July of that year. In 1856 an expedition commissioned by Lady Jane Franklin found proof of Franklin's death and the loss of his men; an official diary exhumed from a cairn on King William Island also described the surviuors'plan to walk south to the mainland. Evidence shows they pulled a life-boat loaded with food and flammable materials overland for hundreds of miles before the last men died. . .

In blade-silver straits between islands even summer
was stillborn, endangered as the adamant songs
of gulls deserting into fogs above the passage

they did not discover. Twin ships lashed by anchor cords
indivisibly to their extinction. Well-crafted hulls
scuttled, crushed by shards of puzzling ice, sharp white as the
un-

marked fringes of maps, or fine English timbers
bleached and bleaching ivory under the blind-
folded hills. A certain shade of white but not

the white of certainty, that fabric of a virginal century's premise, torn. White of the whale, winter's bones
scrimshawed with piercing weather. The Erebus. The Terror,
the terror, To see that tone stare at the page's edge until snow-
blind as the sailors at their dying, staggering
south into gales, white of blizzard hail cracked shorestones and

this
untouched sheet
of ice, as I fill its pale
(white
whalers peering from the foredeck
of search boats into the freezing)
surface
with terms of unlikely rescue. . .

Sir John Franklin sailed with a
cargo
of proofs
and charts mapping the misty transition
from history to incoherence;
on his maps
a white fiercer than uncomposed parchment
a mutinous pallour, unshrouded cautions
of all colours spread outward like a blot, and hinted

there is no passage here for men
from Devon and Somerset
who have healthy sons and delicate
faithful wives
Whose whole world will become a margin
clenched white around their ships--


John Franklin did not discover his aim

but a whiteness in every sound as patient
and impartial as icebergs
awaiting the blind
century sailing onward, credulous, captained by a sane
faith in progress
that read meaning into every passage
because it was sailing ahead too fast, an evolutionary defect

dust
grinding the littoral under heads
where gravestones of three men face north like sentries
across a frozen sound
with no one left to inform
of anything

a hundred more who scrawled
a linear history
in snow and cairns stuffed with rope and empty tins and polished
bones a cold summer south to Victory
Point

then perished
in duned waves
Britannia never ruled, refuted

by blinding storms
the hoar
face of a spreading earth
hauling behind them a life
boat full of England

able in the end
to lift around them with only voices
a fleeting shanty
of song