POETRY: North, by Thomas Merton

north by thomas merton

(Based on Dr. James Laws’s Journal of the Kane Relief Expedition – 1855 – in Stefansson Collection at Dartmouth)


Morning came at last
The storm over we sighted
Quiet mountains green and
Silver Edens
Walls of an
Empty country—Near?
(We were deceived—30 miles at least)

You can tell when Sunday comes
Everything on ship-board
icebergs like Churches
Slow sailing gifts
A sailor intoned
An Anglican hymn

“One iceberg on our port bow
Resembled a lady dressed in white
Before her shrine”
(Dazzling whiteness
gemm’d with blue-green)
“In the attitude of prayer”

“As if some magician etc. . . .”


A huge berg between us
And the green shore.
“As we were gazing it grounded and the shock
caused one end of it to fall over upon the other
and both burned over. A terrible sight. Crashed like
thunder. Spray flew mast-high”

The whales came
And played around us all day.


Black parapets
Of Disko conjured
Out of cold rain
Something like a sentry box
On a tall summit

A boat shot out
Suddenly produced
From behind that rock
Came for us
With six eskimos
And Lieut Saxtroph
Of the Danish army.

Our pilot took over
Headed straight for the rock
A crack in the cliff
Ninety yards wide
Secret basin land—
Locked dark
All stone straight up
Two thousand feet
Into the rain
Not a spot of green
I inquir’d where to
Look for the town
He pointed to
Twelve cabins.

Then kayaks all around us
Offered fish for sale
You could obtain
A duck for a bisquit

“The Lieutenant had been in the wars between Denmark and
Schleswig Holstein; he spoke English very well and during
our stay at Lievly done everything in his power to make our
time pass pleasantly. He was a splendid dancer and sang
the national songs of his country with much spirit.”


We climbed to a graveyard
High on the wet rock
There bodies sleep in crevices
Covered with light earth then stones
Some were sailors from England
And America
Now asleep
In this black tower
Over Baffin’s Bay
Waiting, waiting
In endless winter.

We left them to their sleep
Ran down to meet the living girls.

“I would have given almost anything for a daguerreotype of
that room. Voices soft and clear eyes light blue or hazel.
Not one bad tooth. Their hair is all combed up to the top of
the head and twisted into a knot and tied with ribbons, red
for the unmarried, blue for the married ones. Jumper or
jacket lined with finely dressed deerskin trimmed with fur
and a band of ribbon. The most beautiful part of their dress
is the pantaloons of spotted seal, very soft, with an embroi-
dered stripe down the front which says: “ready for marriage.’”

We called for a Polka. The band
“Struck up Camptown Races we had taught them
the previous night”
Seizing our partners
We all commenced

Better dancing
I never saw at home.

“The space between the pants and boots is filled with a
legging of linen or muslin edged and lined with deerskin.
They were all scrupulously clean.”


75 N.Melville Bay
July 29.
“A conical island in a bay of ice to starboard. It is the
Sugar Loaf island of whalers. It tells that on rounding the
headland now in sight (Wilcox Point) we shall see the far
famed Devil’s Thumb the boundary of dreaded Melville Bay”

July 30.
“Toiling slowly through the leads with plenty of bear tracks
around us.”

July 31.
“A good lead opening. Towed twelve miles. The much talked of
Devil’s Thumb is now in sight. It appears to be a huge mass
of granite. . . . Here begins Melville Bay.”

Bay of ice and gales
Grave of whalers
Where “in one disastrous year the whaling fleet
Lost twenty eight sail.”

From the Devil’s Thumb northward
Vast glacier
“One of the manufactories
From whence the huge ice bergs
Are given off”

Fifty miles wide.

8 days driven to and fro
By masses of ice.
To be crushed
“All provisions on deck
Ready for a run
At a moment’s warning.”

The bark was thrown over on her beam ends
Our batteau lashed to the bulwark
Was ground to atoms
In a couple of minutes.

“All hands on the qui vive for a smash.”

(Must we go 200 miles over ice
Dragging our boats
To Upernavik?)

Finally clear of pack ice on the 13th
We stood for Cape York
Red snow on the rocks. Open water
Finally out
Of Melville Bay!


Cape Alexander.
Here K. promised to leave a Cairn
And a bottle with a clear account of his proceedings
To tell us his intended course
A small mound
A homeopathic vial containing a mosquito
Covered with cotton
A small piece of cartridge paper
With the letters “OK” written on it
As if with the point of a bullet.


78N.Cape Haterton and Etah.

Two Indians on a rock
Like an owl’s cry

“We landed and found a village of tents in a valley with
a lake of fresh water. A large glacier over the edge of
which a cataract was pouring into the lake. Grass almost
knee deep, full of flowers. Indians in dogskins and the
skins of birds collected around us and examin’d our fire-
arms with the greatest attention.”

“We soon found unmistakable signs of K’s party having been
there. Knives and cutlery bearing the mark of the Green
River works. Pewter cups and part of a microscope. Preser-
ved meat and pemmican cans, baking pans, forks, spoons,
a piece of shirt with the initials H.B., spools of cotton
marked N. York, curtain material, the top rail of a berth,
red velvet and an ivory handled carving knife. . . .”

“By signs they gave us to understand that the vessel had been
crushed in the ice. This they done by taking a clay pipe and
crushing it between their hands.”

“They pointed to a child and made signs
That K was a small man
Bald and without whiskers.”

O hairless Kane
Lost in ice
How long gone?
They do not understand
But he cured
One of their children.

They catch birds on the rocks by means of nets
Eat the birds raw
Give anything for a knife.

That ivory handled carving knife
Probably stolen.


Possession Bay

“Moonlight among the ice presents a scene that none but
those who have sail’d in Arctic regions can form any
conception of. It glances from the floe ice with a
blinding glare and gives the ice bergs the appearance of
mountains of light.

“Light streaming through a tall archway in a berg
Like scenes in the showy fairy pieces
At the theaters.”


Pond’s Bay

Rookery of loons
“Greatest sight of bird doings”

Cliffs terraced notched every projection

Wheeling over us in moon-
Light so tame
You could knock them down with an oar.


“We entered a cave at the foot of the cliff and found it
filled with young loons and gulls.”

So we shot 500 weighing 1172 lbs.


Sept 4th 1855


“Get up Dr we are rushing down on an iceberg.”

As I reached the deck
We crashed

A huge ice berg
Four times as high as the mast
Overhangs our ship
More of the same
White mass
Driven head on we
Beat against it
Bows staved in jib
Boom carried away we
Recoil swing star-
Board beam smashes
Into small end of ice-
Berg quarterboat in splinters
All bulwarks driven in
Catheads bumpkins and the rest
Swirling around angle of ice
Like a hurricane
Rush for boats driven back:
“We fired minute guns but the gale was so high the noise of
crashing ice so great the steamer could not hear us. . . .”

(The account ends here. Both expeditions reached safety.)

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