Marion Starling Boyer
Ice Hours
Wheelbarrow Books

Reviewer: Rebecca Patrascu

On June 9th, shipwreck hunters announced that they had found Quest, the ship on which Ernest Shackleton died almost exactly a century ago. The timing of the discovery is fortuitous for poet Marion Starling Boyer, whose new collection Ice House tells the story of the Ross Sea Party, a support expedition for Shackleton with a history as dramatic as that of the explorer. In his memoir, Shackleton himself said of the crew’s journey, “I think that no more remarkable story of human endeavour has been revealed than the tale of that long march.”

The story is noteworthy and harrowing. In late 1914, a team traveled to the Ross Sea in Antarctica to lay a supply line for Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Their ship became ice-bound, then broke free of its moorings, leaving the sledge party without supplies of their own. Despite scurvy, snow blindness, frostbite, starvation, the death of most of their sled dogs, and ultimately, the loss of three men, the group managed to fulfill their mission, without knowing that it was a sacrificial expedition. The Endurance had sunk, Shackleton’s march was canceled, and the supply depots were rendered unnecessary.

Long obsessed with the Ross Sea Party, Boyer was scrupulous in her research for Ice Hours. She read survivors’ journals to glean diction as well as insight into the group’s interpersonal dynamics, and her poetry includes enough relevant vocabulary and context to animate the narrative without overwhelming readers with obscure details. Boyer also orients us through the judicious use of historical material in epigraphs. Even her cento, “The Men Asleep at the Bottom of the World,” is confined to source lines from poets writing at the time of the First World War.

Having written persona poems extensively for her previous books, Boyer adroitly inhabits Ice Hours’ cast of characters despite their varied backgrounds and areas of expertise. Aeneas Mackintosh (“Mack”) and Joseph Stenhouse are Scottish naval officers, while Ernest Joyce and Harry Wild are English seamen. The team also includes a Cambridge-educated Episcopal priest-cum-photographer (Arnold Spencer-Smith, the “Padre”), an accounts clerk with sledge dog experience (Victor Hayward), and an Australian physics teacher (Richard Richards). Boyer primarily differentiates the men through tone and diction, creating immediacy throughout the book by using the present tense. Onboard the steamship Aurora, Stenhouse reads like an eloquent captain’s log, as in “Rudderless”:

From the crow’s nest, I watch floes split
into lanes, congeal, then divide again.
Vapors rise like smoke from the open water.
It is strangely beautiful in moonlight.

Joyce, a veteran of Antarctic expeditions and senior member at thirty-nine, is fractious and critical, with lines such as, “Mack’s too damned pigheaded / to see his plan is the worst // kind of foolishness,” followed by, “I told him flat he was mad” (“Parting Company on the Barrier”). Ever stalwart, Wild describes the party’s circumstances in conversational reportage: “It’s 30 below. I roll a tea cigarette. Sing.” Then, “The sixth day. Katabatic winds. Banshees all about. / Scurvy’s blacking my legs …” (“White Earth and Ruins”).

In addition to identifying characters by how they speak, Boyer cleverly assigns some of them poetic forms. Early in the book, a masterful crown of sonnets gives us a dramatis personae. After that, the Padre is represented by Shakespearean sonnets, a structure in keeping with his profession and his stature among the group (the exception to this is the erasure “Spencer-Smith’s Woodbines,” which seems appropriate, given the loss first of tobacco and, eventually, of the minister himself). Hayward’s epistolary poems contain newsy tidbits and much initial excitement; an early letter jumps from a description of a blue whale to “You’d laugh to see the penguins!” then describes birds fighting over squid, then interrupts itself with, “and oh–someone’s put Caruso on the gramophone. / I haven’t words to describe this” (“Penguins and Whales”). And because his poems address his fiancée, they are candid in his descent into despair. “O love, what am I doing here?” he asks in, “Snow-blind, 79° S, Replenishing Supply Depots.”

Mack’s wife, Gladys, is voiced in triolets that are also epistolary, short, light, and sweetly plaintive in their refrain and rhyme. Additionally, Ice Hours contains a golden shovel, a sestina, a pantoum, and even the challenging glosa form as a container to hold the most insupportable circumstances: Wild, isolated for days with the sickest men in a snow-bound tent, and Mack, wondering delirious on the ice. With a lesser poet, some of these poems might seem shoehorned into the rules and requirements of form. It is a testament to Boyer’s skill that throughout the book, form and narrative co-exist with such naturalness and grace, it’s easy to miss how she is using one to convey the other.

The Ross Sea Party’s perspective is predominantly masculine, but Boyer counters this with Gladys’s poems, and with pieces representing an iceberg and Antarctica herself, whose voice interrupts the narrative and introduces sections with a dream-like tone and expansive point of view. The continent’s poems float across the pages with irregular lines and lyrical language, as in “All My Flowers,” which provides a catalog of forms of ice as well as the collection’s title:

   The ice gives birth to ice.
The first filaments of ice mating are frazil ice.

Once it develops and grows muscular
   ice battles ice.

The ice barrage explodes
in a din of booms, cannonades, cracks loud as rifle shots.

And when ice buries ice
it is entombed with ancient atmospheres.

All my hours are ice hours.
      All my flowers are ice flowers.

Given the brutal history of the Ross Sea Party, it feels strange to admit how enjoyable Ice Hours is to read. But there is no mysterious sub-context here or need to search for a subtle theme. This is simply Story, at its best, with a beginning, middle, and end, internal and external conflict, and the very highest of stakes. Additionally, it is splendid not only for the engrossing narrative, but for Boyer’s gorgeous, evocative language, her admirable formal dexterity, and the way in which we are invited to get to know the characters, to join them on their remarkable journey.