Off Antarctica


Will she pick up the phone?  What will she say,
your mother, when she hears?  How can I speak,
when restless rowing echoes in my ears,
and ice on ice between two muted grays?
You were the heart of all, your subtle smile
was dawn to us and Julie and Elaine,
the dentist’s dream concealed behind thick lips.
Dark, dark again!  No more.  Now tongues of black
ascend and dip; the monster’s lullaby
plays loudly in the wet, electric night
at noon.  And still no answer when I ring.
Sing of Titanic, sing of Shackleton,
glistening muse, ensconced on some high rock,
sing ancient mariners and Neptune’s wrath,
for I cannot.  No more.  Now only one
small boat floats on in frozen memory,
repeating still the stroke of your strong arms,
the shivers of the huddled castaways,
the tears of heaven, my imagined tears,
and “are we sinking?” says the little boy
among the sealskins on his mother’s knees;
the sailor grunts, and no one has the strength
to lie or yet to tell the awful truth
which no amount of bailing can belie:
the boat was meant for eight.  Did angels watch,
disguised as penguins, from the silent spires
reflecting drearily the hoped-for sun
who glowered from behind her veil of clouds,
denied to mortal view?  Did demons peer
at us from sharks beneath the raft, when twelve
elected for a cruel conundrum rocked
in whimpered prayer asking, “Is it I?”
To dive or not to dive, push or be pushed?
Which precious cargo hurled overboard,
which saved?  Is it my time to die?  Who makes
the sacrifice?  Are there criteria
objectively determining whose death
should bring the others life?  Whose past is worst–
but who could know, and who would tell the truth?
Whose soul is pure?  Whose future bright?  Whose friends
would be the worst deprived?  Who’s needed most
to guarantee survival for the rest?
When (as I thought) no one was watching me,
my eyes like hummingbirds would flit around,
alighting on the faces here and there:
the weather-beaten sailor, the old man,
the spy, the mother with her child, the queen
(her crowns and pearls earlier removed),
the secretary, the young flame of poetry,
the honeymooning pair, and then us two.
Your past was clean, your future promising,
your friends uncountable; your shoulders pulled
us more than all the rest, and with your face
you lit the way.  As yet there was no word,
no burden laid on you!  The empty bench
surprised us when we heard the ocean gulp
behind us, O my son!  Full fathom five
and more, my son!  My guilty silence was
assent to your unearned yet weighty guilt,
I thought, but no, you knew your innocence
and needed no authority.  Strong love
is heavier than any albatross,
and when eleven souls were lifted out,
I know the penguins saw your rimy corpse
twisting a bloated smile through the ice.
And here am I, between imperfect white
and faded black and icebergs echoing
your name.  No more.  At last the telephone.

Art of a Mathematician