Homo Antarcticus

Translated by Ani Gjika

"The wild will keep calling and calling forever in your ears. You

cannot escape the 'little voices.'"

—Frank Wild

Here I rest, in South Georgia.
A few feet of evolution away
lie the graves of whale hunters, pointing north.
A white fence shields them from elephant seals
and their apocalyptic screams that each day warn
of the end of the world, or maybe the beginning. . .
I survived five expeditions to the Pole.
The one before last, “Imperial Trans-Antarctica,” nearly killed me.
For two years I put up with the ice—no man can reap or sow
       these fields.
And, unlike farmers, I didn’t even need to ask God for rain,
because ice is sated
and more desolate than the Sahara.
I survived distance. Wrote one message after another
beginning with a capital letter and a "PS." at the end.
My own personal post office under my pillow
closed for two years already, on holiday.
I survived six month-long polar days and nights;
to this day, I don't know which one was worse.
My epitaph is simple. Carved in granite:
                         FRANK WILD
                         18 April 1873
                         19 August 1939
                          Right Hand Man”
From those cast away here
by a defect in the engine of the ship
or nostalgia of the womb.

Ah yes. . . in the beginning was the ship. The ship stuck in ice.
Ships are women. They prefer soft seas.
In the best-case scenario, she’s called La Santa Maria
and she throws you, like Columbus, on some foreign shore.
But if you get too close to her. . .
The very day after
we washed her deck with warm water and soap,
warmed her arteries with gin,
stroked her lower back with our surrogate songs,
shaved our beards and exposed the illiterate lines on our faces,
she took off.
And from the shore,
we saw how she broke her ribs, sinking,
aft first, so fast we didn’t even have time to pray,
leaving behind her ash-tree fragrance
and faux pearls on the water.
“Such a woman!” someone laughed bitterly,
“She knows when to leave so as not to be forgotten.”

A woman, naturally, has no business there.
Antarctica is a masculine continent—
male penguins keep the eggs warm,
the moon stands up on the street to urinate
after being kicked out of the tavern,
the cold like a cut-throat razor, dulled for three thousand years,
and the sled dogs, the Huskies,
we kill with a single bullet
so they won’t starve to death. In this way
we instill a little character into the new land
before the arrival of Conquistadors, thieves,
assassins, missionaries, prostitutes,
the first invading army of every continent.
Antarctica is a man’s continent,
because only a man chooses to break into the darkness of the mind
by conquering the body,
as Amundsen and Scott did, their glory
reaching to the apex of ecstasy.
Zero degree of geographical latitude,
utter collapse.

Hunger is overestimated. The stomach functions much like the
when it has nothing to think about, it feeds off memories.
It can last three days just thinking of a single biscuit.
But those who have a better memory, meaning a much stronger
can go on for months
remembering a slice of prosciutto, two fried eggs,
sweetly folding their eyelids like napkins after a meal.
Then hallucinations begin. Banquets. Easter supper.
Feet move impatiently under the table;
the scent of rosemary wafts from a platter
and two clean serving hands with burns here and there.
That's when you feel grief-stricken
and you attack the seals and penguins with your
alpine knives and shoes like a madman
in an empty amphitheater.
Or is this, too, a hallucination,
and in this case not ours
but Antarctica's?
And when clarity finally returns,
both stomach and brain
notice only their own deep wrinkles.
Blubber, blubber, seal's blubber.
Blubber that keeps your spirits alive, rendering it for fuel, for light,
blubber to mask the body's foul odor,
—a mixture of doubt, hope, and ammonia.
And if you have nothing better to do,
think of a cow's thigh hanging at the butcher's,
its delicate streak of fat
like a silk ribbon.
I survived even this sarcasm.
And every night, before bed,
we read recipes to each other
one of a few things we secretly rescued
from the ship before she sank,
as if these items were her lingerie.
What a show it was!
What pathos in pronouncing prosciutto, sugar, omelet!
What sensuality in milk, parsley, cinnamon!
We made these words up ourselves.
Nothing exists until its moment of absence.
But first, in order to warm up our mouths
like actors before going on stage,
we'd repeat mechanically, palates dry,
"Bless us, O Lord,
and this food we've received through your mercy.”
It was the Romans who spoiled the word
studying rhetoric
before anatomy and mathematics:
Vir bonus dicendi peritus
“The good man skilled in speaking" (Marcus Porcius Cato)
But in Antarctica, words are measured differently: by calories!
With a simple greeting you lose five calories,
just as many to keep a fire burning for a full minute.
And a Ciceronian argument can consume a whole day’s
think carefully before you open your mouth.
The word is overestimated.
Sometimes it’s enough to avert your eyes from your shoes
to imply “gangrene”;
and a vague exchange of glances between men
is enough to understand that the ice is cracking beneath your feet
and death is closer than your fingers.

Stretched smooth from end to end—such is Antarctica. In fact,
even a baby’s skin looks withered by comparison.  
No emotions. No regrets. No warnings.
Either fight or die.
My father was like this more or less. A teacher at a village school.
In classrooms that smelled of sheep-wool pullovers
drying on the body. And eyes that moved freely
in their hollows, like toes
inside an older sibling’s shoes.
Unlike the Romans,
my father preached about justice and honor
his hands folded behind his back.
His shoulders seemed twice as wide
as his worn jacket.
I inherited his sharp, gray gaze
and his soft voice.
Eyes that say “Go” and a voice that says “Stay.”
You never know which one to trust.
And mother? Oh, she was simply Captain Cook’s niece,
—the great James Cook—
from morning to night
when she washed, swept, dug potatoes from the garden,
fixed her husband’s tie on Sundays
even from her bed, while in labor.
She never spoke of this. As it wasn’t necessary.
People speak of what they have, not what they are.
She was a tailor. Measured everyone's perimeter with a glance;
erred only on the width of one’s neck, an unknown strength.
Her large scissors followed
the white chalk line on the cloth so precisely. "Snip!"
She said little. Her silence followed the white outlines
of another tailor,
over a fabric much older than she was.
But now that I think of it,
how did the poor woman respond to her friends asking,
"Where is your son?"
"He's exploring the world."
"And what does he bring back from there?"
"Himself, alive, I hope."
"What's the point of returning empty-handed after two years?”
Was she at least a little proud of me? Of her Frank?
Certainly not. She was Captain Cook's niece.
The past always conquers.
I was the first of thirteen children.
And as a rule, each of them
eyed one of my belongings.
One eyed my bed near the window
that overlooked the water where frogs lived
and asparagus grew on the shore.
Another eyed my green jacket bought with borrowed money,
poker cards, a fishing net,
my wicker chair with the damaged back.
Another whistled my favorite tune:
"What Will We Do with a Drunken Sailor?”
without reaching the refrain.
And yet another envied the basement
—that place I occupied in my father’s heart—
 with its elm door hanging by a single hinge.
But the time hasn't come to leave home just yet,
until your own brother begins to use your shaving kit
and dreams of the same girl.
What shaving kit? Antarctica makes you grow a double-beard
as if you were a hundred-year-old grave.
And, while you remember wasting time waiting in line at
another beard grows, a red one.
Here, each body part works for itself:
the stomach, hands, intestines, eyes. . .
The unity of the body is overestimated, too.
Only skin pulls everything together like a sled.
The skin? Which skin? Man loses his first skin
to his first love, like the snake early in spring
on a thorn-apple bush that blocks the way.
From that point on he stops counting the rest.

I don’t know why it was named “Elephant Island,”
when it answered the ocean with the cries of a she-wolf.
We could only make out her sly teats under her belly. After
      some time,
if she didn’t kill us first, we’d begin to cry like wolves ourselves.
Twenty-two people. Packed next to one another under two
      inverted boats
like notes in Bach’s “Come, Sweet Death, Come Blessed Rest,”
with more pauses, a dramatic suffocation between breaths.
A dry, calcic cough was a sign of life. Or the delirious mutterings
        of someone
dreaming aloud of “ice” in the middle of ice,
after they had cut off his toes.
But the hardest moment arrives in the morning,
when, with shut eyes and plugged nostrils,
as if drinking your own urine
you recycle the same lie for four months straight:
“Men, pack up your stuff! The boss might arrive today!”
And they obeyed me. Packed carefully each day from the start,
leaving nothing shap in the folds of their bags,
nothing that would spoil the line between fact and fiction.
It was a time when
routine grew more powerful than hope.
Fish in the ocean toyed with our citizenship.
On the seventh mile, we left our medals behind, class ranks,
along with the dogs, potatoes, and a camera.
We made fire out of money
and kept only a single metal coin each
so that archaeologists might trace us more easily centuries later.
On Elephant Island, we had to bid farewell even to tobacco,
tobacco which reminded us of village alleyways
and walks home after midnight.
Time glided above us without touching a single strand of our
nonexistent, as if gliding above ancient cities,
exposing the solemnity of our white bones
and crickets on absent walls.
That’s when the ten commandments deserted us:
“Do not steal,” “Do not lie,” “Do not covet,”
“Honor your parents”. . .
save one of them perhaps,
the one about the holiness of Sunday.
We already had nothing. We belonged to no one.
An entirely new species: HOMO ANTARCTICUS.
A scientific proof that “forgotten” and “free”
mean the same thing.
Two years after returning from the world of the dead,
you find your house taken over by another tenant
and the rent tripled,
the commemorative plaque nailed to the gate:
“Here lived F.W.”
And your lover, or better, ex-lover,
for the same reason,
in the arms of another
three times more handsome.
You see your own image sold at an auction.
Artifact. Original. “Brrramp. Sold!” The price so high
you can’t afford it. But even if you could,
you're an illegal customer,
holding a death certificate in your hand.
And you find your parents turned into winter trees
their eyes fixed on a large cloud of plaster.
They don’t expect visitors. Best not disturb them.
Let their leaves fall quietly where they will
let the crow's nest remain in the armpit of a branch,
where it has always been.
Perhaps you should take a shortcut, start over.
Or you know what? There’s a war going on nearby, they say.
Go there instead!
But this time die better.
War’s never satisfied with flesh;
Fresh, branded, smoked,
with or without blood
blue blood, dark, thick, whatever kind.
And frozen blood like yours
could store at minus 40 degrees Celsius,
viruses from 1914 unscathed,
and the map of the old Empire         
and Scott's hurt ego 
and old coins minted with the head of Edward VII,
and Browning’s poetry and the epic of the unknown,
like an envelope inside an envelope,
all making you the ideal candidate.
Back on the ship, ammunition everywhere,
sailing through the cold Northern seas
where you had to learn a new language.
A new language is like a fish:
first, you need to remove its spine
in order to chew it.
Unlike in Antarctica,
one’s purpose in war is clear: kill or be killed,
though sometimes it’s the same difference.
Baltic nights gave you what Antarctica refused you:
the other half of the celestial sphere.
You meet Vera, the widow of a tea plantation owner,
a character out of a Baroque novel, her pupils blurred with dusk,
and the ritual of mourning fitted perfectly to her body
like a final journey. 
A man charmed by a glacier,
who knows too well the flawless forms of her body,
feels her eavesdropping gaze even when asleep,
her clean and distant breath
and her heart, a piece of ice, that melts inside a cigarette case
heated for drinking water,
finds it difficult to marry a real woman,
to marry Vera.
And Africa.
I bought land. Barren. Hundreds of acres. In Zululand.
I didn’t fare well with tobacco. Planted cotton instead,
chose bodily peace rather than meditation.
My nearest neighbor lived 45 miles away. White, of course.
And my fate, never blended with the blacks,
those beautiful statues, wrapped in straw.
I heard them nod off during lunch break,
like the oars of a boat,
in complete sync.
They knew where they were heading.
But I didn’t.
And I was right. It didn’t take long
before drought, floods, worms
destroyed everything. The bank left me only my own beard
and the malarial shadow of a baobab. Apart from other things,
Vera filled out divorce papers. The woman in the yellow dress,
yellow as quinine, yellow as the sigh of a hinge at dusk,
the woman married to the hero
who now can’t even manage a small plot of land.
The man in front of me
—my master I call "Boss"—
is newly shaved, and dressed in a striped tie and jacket
as if the Prince of Wales or Fred Astaire,
a style that arrives here two years late.
He asks me to serve whiskey to clients at the bar
and chat them up
using their jargon, gestures,
sentences uninterrupted by mosquitoes,
and the abstract rhetoric of the Depression years.
And, to be frank,
he pays me for the latter.
But what do I know,
what does a survivor know about the art of living,
for which new instincts are needed, new muscles
and other kinds of heart valves?
how can I obey such a spick-and-span boss,
having known the smoky gods of Antarctica
who recognize each other solely by the nose
and can end rebellions with a glance
and count the deaths as members of the crew?
How can I take orders from a boss whose name isn't Shackleton?
"Second in command,” “Lieutenant,” “Shackleton’s right hand”
What did she see so clearly in me,
my drama teacher in elementary school
when she'd always assign me the role of Father Joseph,
of Gaspar the Magi offering Jesus frankincense,
or of John the Baptist always there to clear the path?
What did she see in my metallic pupils, baritone voice,
      infrequent speech
as if scissors, bandage, and iodine
inside a first aid kit?
Under Antarctica's naked sky, each of us followed his own star.
Even the carpenter, his own heraldic calling.
You didn’t need much to feed them;
 just a few crusts of insomnia and the tents' punctured holes.
My star was weak; you could hardly see it
hidden behind another larger, troubled star
like a calm valley that appears behind jagged peaks
more attractive when absent.
What happened afterward can be told in a few words:
I worked in a mine; earth’s warm heart,
happened to be crueler than her frozen brain.
I laid railroad tracks South, always toward the Unknown.
It was like playing only two strings on a violin: joy and sorrow,
fatefully blending at the horizon.
I repaired houses. Another waste of time.
I never understood their weak points,
just as you can't make out eyes from genitals or mouth
in some underwater creatures.
And when I was left penniless,
I gave lectures about Antarctica,
water gurgling in my gullet every five words, for those few
who listened patiently to an adventure of survival.
Then Bea arrived. Or sweet Beatrice.
It was easy to grant her what I had left in my heart
—that set of heavy museum keys—
with no fear she might lose them.
Tired lungs and liver
could barely follow my split image
of bust and bottle of booze.
Like a prophet in the last circle of Dante’s Inferno,
I carried my own decapitated head in hand.
My ashes were lost at the base of a church. No one
      thought of them.
It was a time of war. Another world war. The second
one not knowing what to do with her own ashes either.

Some of us died in the war.  Others took to the sea again,
the gray, cracked waters of the South,
decks perspiring fuel and alcohol.
Our random itineraries. Full-time melancholics.
For months in Antarctica,
we waited for our shadow to return
and consumed that question you ask yourself only once in your
the way one consumes chickenpox.
And the rest of the time,
we counted the scars left on our faces,
with a gesture you could call indifferent and epic,
or childlike.

Luljeta Lleshanku, "Homo Antarticus" from Negative Space. Copyright © 2012, 2015 by Luljeta Lleshanku. Translation copyright © 2018 by Ani Gjika. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.
More Poems by Luljeta Lleshanaku