Antarctic Traveller - The Knopf Poetry Series
    • Antarctic Traveller: Poems (1982) by Katha Pollitt

To an Antarctic Traveller
By Katha Pollitt

When you return from the country of Refusal,
what will you think of us? Down there, No was
final, it had a glamour: so Pavlova turns,
narcissus-pale and utterly self-consumed,
from the claque, the hothouse roses; so the ice
perfects its own reflection, cold Versailles,
and does not want you, does not want even Scott,
grinding him out of his grave—Splash! Off he
goes, into the ocean, comical, Edwardian,
a valentine thrown out. Afternoons
in the pastry shop, coffee and macaroons,
gossip's two-part intricate inventions
meshed in the sugary air like the Down and
Across of an endless Sunday puzzle —
what will such small temporizations mean
to you now you've traveled half the world and
seen the ego glinting at the heart of things?
Oh, I'm not worried, I know you'll come back
full of adventures, anecdotes of penguins
and the pilot who let you fly the cargo — but
you'll never be wholly ours. As a green glass
bottle is mouthed and rolled and dragged by the
sea until it forgets its life entirely — wine,
flowers, candles, the castaway's save me
meticulously printed in eleven languages — and
now it rests on the beach-house mantel
opalescent, dumb:
you'll stand at the cocktail party
among the beige plush furniture and abstracts,
and listen politely, puzzled, a foreigner
anxious to respect our customs but not quite sure
of the local dialect, while guests
hold forth on their love of travel —
and all the time you hear
the waves beat on that shore for a million years
go away go away go away
and the hostess fills your glass and offers crackers.

They named a mountain after you down there.
Blank and shining, unclimbable, no different
from a hundred nameless others, it did not
change as you called to it from the helicopter
it was your name that changed
spinning away from you round and around and
around as children repeat a word
endlessly until at last it comes up pure
nonsense, hilarious. It smashed
and lay, a shattered mirror smiling meaninglessly
up at you from the unmarked snow.
More lasting than bronze is the monument I have
raised boasted Horace, not accurately, and yet
what else would we have him think? Or you,
that day you wrote yourself on the world itself
and as the pilot veered away forever
saw mist drift over your mountain almost
immediately and your name stayed behind
a testament of sorts, a proof of something
though only in the end white chalk
invisibly scribbled on a white tabula rasa.

    • Katha Pollitt
    • Katha Pollitt is the author of seven books, three of which are collections of political essays and columns: Reasonable Creatures (Vintage, 1995); Subject to Debate (Modern Library, 2001); and Virginity or Death! (Random House, 2006). Her most recent book,

    • Katha Pollitt's full bio »