A is for: an #antarcticalphabet

Antarctica lies hidden behind the cold-current fringes of the Southern Ocean, ancient lands shrouded in white and blue. Sleeping Beauty, bramble-fenced, breathing in rhythm with the tick of the clock, awaits the destined prince. Cold, storied emblems of passivity and pride.

Amundsen and Shackleton have come and gone though Scott remained, ensorcelled by the imperial myth. The White South has outlasted the kiss of heroes. Exploration has become science these days: we monitor the dying sea-squirts and steal her meteorites for distant laboratories. Antarctica has held up her mirror: clean Pleistocene air is trapped in ice-cores and unseen valleys shrug off their cloaks. New colonists ride the ocean currents. She is not still: our own folly changes her every day.

Alexandra, trapped by coma, is no less mutable.  She kicks and snarls, throws pillows to the floor like bergs calving from Thwaites Glacier. Trauma strips her of that birth-right strength which once pulled the ropes of wind-worked sails like thread. Scuttling pain twists her face as crab-claws striate the muddy floor of Palmer Deep. Long unconsciousness distorts the flesh.

Ambition drives our fata morgana, the polar mirage. The charms of white sheets and desolate landscapes are lit by implacable hope. It will be me. I will reach the Pole; I will awaken the sleeper. My tale of hardihood and endurance will move you to the truth and change the ending.

Again and again I will fail, just as Shackleton abandoned Endurance and worldly ears in Paris stayed covered against glacial whispers of the rising tide. Alexandra, too, remains unrecovered, forced to endure unwanted life by the courts, her opened eyes bewildered by tubes and therapeutic torture. Behind the thorns the princess is withering and lost, her lips unresponsive to the kiss when her lover, so long-awaited, arrives.


This is the first in an occasional series of short essays, poems , stories and meditations.

Alexandra is the middle name of my friend Polly; we sailed hundreds of miles together including from Falmouth to Coruna. She crashed into coma near seven years ago but is (cruelly) still alive. You can read about her here, and about the impact of coma on families here. The photograph is from a great blog about the studies of melting ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula.

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  1. A wonderfully evocative prose-poem.

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