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  • Letters to the Dead
  • Corinna McClanahan Schroeder (bio)

after Lady Jane Franklin, whose husband, Sir John Franklin, led a two-ship expedition into the Canadian Arctic to chart and navigate a section of the Northwest Passage in 1845. The entire expedition was lost. Searches for the HMS Erebus, the HMS Terror, and their men began in 1847 and continued throughout much of the nineteenth century. The HMS Erebuswas finally located in 2014 and the HMS Terrorin 2016.

Dear Love,

    What should I say? That I cannot eat?

That the sun on my face is a shame?

    That I am a sinking ship of grief?

In truth, I added a hall to the house     so I could host two dozen at a time.

My dinners consist of julienne soup,     braised beef,     whitebait;

then quail,     strawberries,     cake, and wine. [End Page 60]

Dear Love,

For years after     you were lost,

sleep was a white waste I staggered across—     searching for your boot prints,

laying tins of meat     in the snow.

Dear Love,

I tried, I did—     clairvoyants and admiralty men.

Schooner after dockyard lighter after pilot boat.

Only relics trickled home.

Pieces of rope and canvas,     animal bones.

Then ribbons and gold braid. A pocket watch.

    A spoon engraved with the conger eel's head, [End Page 61]

your crest—

like nothing in my hand.

Later, a prayer book     frozen shut

and, found inside a cairn,

the men's penned announcement     of your death.

Dear Love,

"Faithful Penelope," they call me—

but I sent you off.

Your orders:

Make a legend         in our name.

Dear Love,

I'm glad you died—

watching the butler at the sideboard slicing breast     from bone. [End Page 62] I thank God you didn't live long enough         to suffer hunger's shame.

A cooking pot,

the corpses' fingers defleshed.

Marrow sucked from splintered bones.

Dear Love,

Never mind.

The Northwest Passage is yours— the inscription I placed on your monument

proclaims it so.

You grow     immortal.

I can almost believe you're still safe.

Shining tines     of forks and the ship's cold books to fill your days [End Page 63] as you wait for the ice to thaw.

Dear Love,

Haven't I always told you

there is what happens,

and then

there is how         we choose to tell it?


this drawer     of letters

at least.

I have nowhere     to send them.

Corinna McClanahan Schroeder

corinna mcclanahan schroeder is the author of the poetry collection Inked, winner of the 2014 X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Gulf Coast, and Pleiades.


Details in the poem are taken from Ken McGoogan's Lady Franklin's Revenge (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2005).


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pp. 60-64
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