Monday, 27 May 2013

Antarctica, Shackleton and Penny McCarthy's 'Endurance'

Statue of Ernest Shackleton at the Royal Geographical Society, London. Photo by Michel Wal. Used under GNU Free Documentation License

It has been a beautiful, sunny, warm bank holiday weekend in London, and my choice of reading matter has been Antarctica by Gabrielle Walker (which I don't like as much as Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita - but it is still excellent.) I suppose that this is fairly typical for me, though I have no desire for London to return to Antarctic conditions.

A few years ago in 2010, I went to the readings of the prize-winners in the Poetry London competition. It was a lovely evening as the great Michael Longley had judged the competition, and also read some of his own poetry. He very generously said of the various poems that anyone might have been proud to have written them.

There were several exceptional poems, but this one about Antarctic hero Ernest Shackleton, Penny McCarthy's 'Endurance', particularly struck me. It is a very subtle poem which metaphorically interweaves Shackleton's life and exploits with the complexities of human relationships.

ENDURANCE (Penny McCarthy)

As the poem alludes to Shackleton's sisters, I have to mention for six-degrees-of-separation interest that my grandparents knew his artist sister, Kathleen Shackleton, in Montreal. My family owns her portrait of my grandfather.


  1. I wonder if you see this poem, as I do, as being an expression of a multi-dimensional or multi-layered perception of reality: the poet viewing her mother and Shackleton; the poet viewing her uncles and Shackleton's sisters; you as reader viewing poet, poet's mother, Shackleton, etc., but through the deeper lens of your own family connection with the explorer, and through which you also gaze upon the portrait of your grandfather, perhaps a window into a deeper level of existence still. Then there are the rest of us who bring our own points of departure or points of vantage to the poem. With you, I find the whole thing quite subtle.

    1. The image (the lens) that comes to mind for me when I read this poem is a telescope, or something telescope-like. The way the components of the telescope fold in/out of each other, the way you can make everything seen through it look very close or very far away. The perspective keeps shifting, the white fabric becomes the ice fields, etc.

      The poet (or at least the speaker) obviously draws some deeper meaning from the parallel of Shackleton's four sisters and her four uncles. This is personal to the poem and difficult to interpret. I saw that portrait of my grandfather so many times and could always see the resemblance to my father and brother (and probably myself) but I never knew my grandfather, who died before I was born, so there is both closeness and distance there.

      I am also quite sure that as the mother sews, there is a reference to the Weaving Fates of mythology, who also cut the thread at the end of a life.

      Thanks for your comment, as it seems to have triggered some more interesting thoughts...