- “Antarctica” and Derek Mahon’s “Topography of the Void”
How strange it all seems! For countless ages the great somber mountains about us have loomed through the gloomy polar night with never an eye to mark their grandeur, and for countless ages the wind-swept snow has drifted over these great deserts with never a footprint to break its white surface; for one brief moment the eternal solitude is broken by a hive of human insects; for one brief moment they settle, eat, sleep, trample, and gaze, then they must be gone, and all must be surrendered again to the desolation of the ages.(Scott 1907, 259)
I. Terra Nova
Remote, inhospitable, extreme: like the continent for which it is named, Derek Mahon’s Antarctica (1985) is a strange, provocative, underappreciated book. Its 14 poems observe the absurd dumb show of human being pressed into scenes of utter extremity. Virtually all of these poems present named and [End Page 17] unnamed figures speaking of or from, emotional, cultural, or geographic wastelands, landscapes that are a staple throughout Mahon’s poetry. And at the core of this book stands the title poem’s protagonist; in this instant a real-life Tithonus caught, despite the raging of a polar storm, at what Tennyson calls “the quiet limit of the world” (Tennyson 1956, 86).1 Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates, of the Inniskilling Dragoons, was one of Robert Falcon Scott’s four comrades on the disastrous culmination of the 1910–13 English Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole. Sturdy, reliable, independent, Oates, in the words of Francis Spufford, was a “notably silent man” though “probably the only man to say ‘fuck’ on Scott’s Last Expedition” (Spufford 1999, 303). Mahon, in a note on a manuscript page of “Antarctica,” describes him as “a modest man in charge of the ponies” (Mahon n.d.). Oates is remembered now, principally, for his self-sacrifice in an ultimately futile attempt to save his colleagues—and for his final, extraordinary words of announcement and farewell, which resonate continuously within the acoustic of Mahon’s Antarctica: “I am just going outside and may be some time” (Scott 2006, 410).
On January 18, 1912, Scott and his four men arrived at their goal sobered by the evidence that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them to the pole by a month. After taking some photographs of Amundsen’s camp and planting their own flag, the dispirited English team began the brutal two-month, 900-mile return march across the frozen continent to their base camp on the coast of McMurdo Sound. A month after reaching the pole, Edgar Evans died after suffering from a concussion and slipping into a coma. Another month on, Lawrence Oates, whose severely frostbitten, gangrenous feet had rendered him useless to man-haul the sledge of equipment and dwindling supplies, knew that he was fatally slowing down the group. On March 16, 1912, he refused the excruciating effort of putting boots on his destroyed feet; shod only in his socks, Oates then left his companions in the tent for the minus 40 degree Fahrenheit tempest once and for all. Four days later, Scott and his two remaining companions found themselves caught in a severe blizzard that would not abate, preventing any further travel to a supply depot just 11 miles away. The three men died in their tent around March 29, 1912, the date of Scott’s final diary entry.2 Eight months later, this log was recovered from the tent where the three frozen bodies lay; Oates’s body was never found. [End Page 18]
Each figure in this pageant of suffering and death presents a compelling story, but it is Oates, who, when poised at the edge of life and death, shatters his polar numbness to speak and then act with terminal decisiveness. Scott wrote in his journal on March 17, 1912: “This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning—yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and...