Last week a massive iceberg broke off of Antarctica. This month, ND publishes Gondwana, a new collection of poems by Nathaniel Tarn, named after the ancient supercontinent that broke apart 600 million years ago. We publish the title poem written when Tarn was traveling in Antarctica in 2008.
ψυχὰς ἔχοντες κυμἀτων ὲν ὰγκάλαις
Their lives / Held in the arms / Of the waves.
—Archilochus, Carmina Archilochi, no. 174 _tr. by Guy Davenport
Here, now, as ever, going out again \ from Finis Terre, final of earth, or \ “end of world” they call it here, \ consumption left behind. \ Earth fragments—first the big islands \ cannot be told from earth, then \ smaller and smaller islands among \ their channels, trees grabbing soil \ with weaker roots, until all’s rock where \ unimagination starts, where \ tempests flare around dread Horn. \ Last inhabitants’ blazing canoes \ expose their nakedness to last explorers. \ This plot begins and ends with past. \ But what we name the future follows on.
Earth sinks into mind \ sea being mind of earth \ in constant movement, constant fretting, \ endlessly leaping from thoughts to thought, \ waves rolling in from the planet’s belt \ greet each other as far-flung kin. \ Deep in each trough, thriving unseen, \ huge beast obsessions: small \ secret beasts; beasts with invading arms \ long as your most fearsome nightmares.
Sea lifts its swell into whales. \ Smallest speck of foam \ is a bird paddling along a wave crest \ almost invisible in search of upturn. \ How fathomless this is! \ What is going on down there, \ how far do you drop in the abyss \ before feeling ground, \ before a basis offers rest again, foothold, \ security? Meantime ghosts \ of the dead at sea: \ circling weather’s homeless \ tantalize waves with wing tips \ as they go round the endless dip and rise, \ cruising cool air. May not alight for years.
Toward center, \ center of center, \ where earth-mind turns solid, \ whereto a single bird \ may fly per annum, attracted by \ some odor, some phantom odor, \ while most, standing, in glossy caucuses \ hold a circumference for access to the sea. \ A silence there hard to believe, a hazeless, \ dustless air when in the clear: a spot \ on the farther side of knowledge \ from which all other points are North. \ Where is your “epilepsy” West, \ your “wisdom” East when everything \ flies you away from known dimensions \ into the stillness? This is no crossing \ from a river’s bank to its other side, but \ lack of movement absolute, \ total attention \ to a deliberate deliverance. \ The orb has turned all diamond.
Birds melting in and out of waves \ caressing tip with tip but never touching them, \ bird, beast, eyes peeking out—a quick \ look-see and gone again. Ice \ opens, closes. Length-wise \ black lines of sleeping animal, \ Height-wise gray lines of wary bird: \ those that fly in sea, \ those that swim in air. \ Some that flash snow and bathe in snow \ white as the ivory light \ roll on their backs in snow at times: \ black eye, black beak, black foot \ signal a presence over white on white. \ Some that are checkerboards in black \ and white, set your cold eyes to shivering.
The days stretch into years or seem to \ for all the world has told us of itself. \ Anything new revealed? \ High mirrored in a low \ has been known forever. \ Low rising to a high stays moot. \ Sun floating here in mid-floe mist unwilling to climb or fall, \ unfurls a panoply of colors. \ Mythical grass flashes its green. \ Phenomena can all forget forgetting \ except the huge electric sea. \ Now you imagine days, \ similar to days, \ days after days uncountable, \ days cannot be outnumbered \ by any calendric art. They are \ a single day—or very few you’ll swear \ by lights of the old stars, \ and, while innumerable in fact, \ these cannot be distinguished.
Domain pitches and rolls: \ hearts out of throats, \ muscles tightened to lock in breath, \ backs slamming up against the bulwarks, \ “one hand to ship,” one to your life. \ A very tender roll, \ soft yet relentless, moving us \ from incarnation to incarnation. \ You would not think such gentle motion, \ a whisper in earth’s circles, \ could leave even your mind unbalanced. \ But mind escapes like bird into mist. \ Perhaps this is your coffin \ propelled into white fire \ out of one universe into another.
As you reach the great white peak \ of the single color, \ emotions have been draining \ out of your lives. \ Naked you go into this continent \ in endless search of cleanliness, \ exiled imagination’s only host, \ until imagination rots. \ Catchword “reality” assumes a meaning now, \ breath suddenly leaps fast, \ distance-devouring clarity \ brings all the secrets of the continent \ close up against your eyes. \ This is the moment of desisting \ from human will. Whatever flares: \ slide along sea lanes, whitewash away. \ With the… no, not the fear of dying, no— \ but an immeasurable depth of sadness \ for having such a trifling time \ to deal with the one hundred thousand things.
[Far back in another dimension, \ far as you cannot remember, \ all wenches dead, the culture petrified, \ dance music curls on flowing flowers: \ freeze to the ice of heartbreak and there is such. \ Your body may sense it as you move \ and step it—yet it’s only dream. \ Despised, acclaimed, despised again through over- \ hype, you cannot hear it here— \ engulfed by silence and immense white air.]
They said back then \ there was a frozen continent \ in those high latitudes encircles globe. \ Are you moving toward it? \ Sea overwhelms all distance, \ spreads out beyond its cup into space— \ there is no other explanation \ for how long you have been moving \ toward no destination. \ You can imagine white \ drawing in your colors, \ all body differentiae, \ until you walk as a ghost, \ as someone who has crossed \ a limit on no map. \ It can be described also \ as having crossed to the other side \ whether this be a river \ or earth-girdler’s self. But, \ as you know, there is no crossing.
Is it possible to be overwhelmed \ by landscape? Yes. Engulfed? Yes. \ Sparagmatized? Broken into shards? Yes. \ Sun so blinding in ice facets \ borders fade and you enter \ what hunters have known for centuries: \ silence of silence. No silence on known \ ground outsilences this silence. \ What is an individual \ so spread over so many miles \ eyes can’t encompass them? \ Eventually you’ll wear \ pelts of all animals \ you have come far, at such \ expenditure of energy, \ to witness. Nothing is heard \ of the alleged known-world \ for however long a time \ you come to donate here.
Above leviathan’s songs \ can be sensed in your trembling limbs \ laments of captive ships, \ locked, crushed and, \ piece by piece, delivered to the ice— \ their dislocated bodies \ berthed into other waters than their own. \ Everything brought from out. Outside \ dissolves. Eyes shut, \ the creatures never seem to need to see, \ eyes free are globes of melted ice. \ Yourself in that beast’s pelt \ rests economically on a blue berg, \ gazes a moment at the undocumented, \ (zodiac pass by!), eyes close again. \ Blindly you lead the blind through paradise.
Cruising up channel, whose sides seem to fall in on you, held in a block of time: it could be a cage—but these are walls not bars. No height can be ascribed to the walls. As in a code revealed, white veins blink through black stone, damming your eyesight. Even on cloudless days, rocks climb on up, so measureless, they will outlast your sight and terminate it.
Where the initiating bang unpacked imagination’s jar emptying it once and for all, the jar of one named as all-gifts, all-giving: how falsely named! A small meteorite from our uncounted universes slammed here, name cruelty. No thing, no person spared. Truth that we are at any moment in any time, in any place, less than a hair away from ultimate disaster. Close as the wrist watch on your wrist. In this possession, this epilepsy if you will, mind unfurls (like a great banner of its own freedom while white raises balloons— the weather’s breasts) and will accept its fate. Of all the gifts, kept by an after-thought hope only held the jar.
Coming back to your life, your everyday, the one they call with relish “normal” and how you hate it! Through days of outrageous storm, ship lolling like a drunk, navel in throat, brine coating mouth with its obscene concoctions. Obsession slides, slits waves. Not allowed to move of your own volition but pushed this way and that discretionless, day after day though the roll lasts soft and would hardly seem fierce enough to move a marble from child to child.
Returned from a now known sphere for the first time completely, and thus “at home”, the sphere can never be itself once more. Done to itself in the meantime? You cannot fathom. You have not heard “the news” for all the time away. Suddenly you realize you may not hear “the news" again. This race in its inhuman sadness calls itself human still—but holds no further value. It no longer serves as yardstick for comparisons. The robot’s been switched on. You have seen creatures who, full versed in every ethic, act with such spontaneity that they will never judge. You have been gathered into Eden yet found it full. Your body as a ship is now at rest, yet there is no berth however for you to sleep in.
Purchased by sea you will never walk the same. Lines will never be straight but curve continually in an attempt at straight. This beloved earth loses its strength. Drugs drown ultimate coral colors; krill devolves into mud; animal flesh, slashed open to its innards, washes to liquid pinks: diluted wine. Shit pink, you stink among dry corpses, your guts groped at by scavengers. Much precious ice washes away to sea never to startle cloud again. Waves flush out of your pockets, pant-bottoms, mouths and ears—your bones reclaimed in full by foam.
The tallest universal star, cloud-born, earth raised beyond the highest suns: one single goddess for humankind, one sole divinity for our necessity: salvage no other! worship no other, turning all ritual to work! She walking out from loss, dying, dead, she who obliterates all other gods, now comes to life again, now smiling breathes, entices. You meditate by warm streams while molting— streams you sang beside as your city perished, paddle breathlessly instead of flying, sound like every being except yourself, experience the ultimate in solitude. The robot has been terminated. After some seeming centuries the northward-pointing cross collapses, all our directions open free. Your heart, once given to embalmers in the empires of _Finis Terre, _suddenly homes with you to mate again