(SPOKEN BY A DUTCH WHALER)
We glimpsed a further view, the homes in ruin,
roofbeams braced like fleshless ribs against
the Arctic cloud. For all we knew they were
the bones of whale, but no one thought to leave
the boat’s environs, nor pocket souvenirs.
The place was more, and lonelier than death.
At our feet, foetal-shrunk in death,
a man (once European) had grasped his ruin.
He was not old, and bore no souvenirs
of injury. His hood was pulled against
the snow-locked mass behind him, taking leave
casually of all his people were.
Of course we’d heard report of what they were,
outmost lineage of thieves who once brought death
and fire to monasteries. Easy to leave
thinking of the long nemesis, the ruin
of axe- and sword-arm, that nothing’s proof against
the Arctic’s ceaseless hunger for souvenirs.
I saw a longer time, when souvenirs
littered a smoking earth where men no longer were.
But this was easy too, a piety against
the utter loneliness of this man’s death,
who, for months beyond his people’s ruin
stared seaward for the ship with which to leave,
then curling like a child on sand, took leave.
Hang up the hat, unpack the souvenirs
from gorgeous Venice. Make a happy ruin
of the lovers’ bed, and those who were
your children, embrace them closely lest this death
break the spell of our assurance. Against
it I have seen no angels; just cloud-rags against
the booming giants of ice that break and leave
southward for our shipping lanes. For us a death
cannot be borne without our souvenirs,
the children, artefacts to prove we were.
We did not bury him, his end a ruin
against which we had answers still, souvenirs
to leave our warming generations, though we were
a party to his death, and sharers in his ruin.
© Alan Gould