“Erebus” Elizabeth Lewis Williams (Story Machine) – book review

Elizabeth Lewis Williams Erebus book cover

Elizabeth Lewis Williams’ father was a assistant scientific officer on the 1958 expedition to the Antarctic, finishing in 1965 at Scott Base. He passed away in 1996, leaving an unpublished book “Years on Ice”. “Erebus” grew from the poet’s desire to collate her half-remembered childhood stories drawing from memory, the unpublished book and letters left behind. “Portal Point” starts,

“Let me recall the four walls of a refuge hut
from the museum at Stanley, and set them here
on concrete blocks, fix them against the wind
with rope-metal tie-downs
and from the slatted, halve-jointed walls, cut and planed
in the sawmills of Norwich, I will conjure
the tang of pinewood, the smell of sawdust,
and the sound of hammer and nails.”

Part-memory, part-fact and a dosing of imagination to create what her father’s life might have been like on Antarctica. The poem ends,

“I summon all your measuring machines,
and, as the earth spins and signals
bounce, reflect, return, combine,
I say the coming world is seen from here.”

That creative streak can be drawn back to her father. He didn’t just measure and record, but built pictures from what the data told him. He understood the landscape and its risks. In “Calculating Risk”, her father skis out towards an ice cliff,

“sea ice 2 feet deep/a man needs 2-3 inches for walking
and little cracks can be stepped across
…………………………………………………..or bridged by skis.
Only the toppling of the nearby ice-cliffs could cause a break-up.

You have noted wave velocity, and know

from cliff to crossing is 2 minutes long;
40 yards from land (ice resting on ground above sea-level)
works out as 10-15 seconds’ walk –
and so you know you’re safe to go


That cliff did fall –
and from 100% safety you and your colleague watched”

They had to ski, a dinghy would have sunk. The reprimand for taking the risk didn’t put her father off skiing. There are a sequence of messages from home in the form of telegraphs with text on images so difficult to reproduce, but capture the fragmentary sense of communication with a wider world and how people resort to trivia (health, weather, daily routines) because more important things need to be said face to face. These are followed by a series of diary entries, showing insights into life at base, e.g. “25th December 1952”,

“Got turkey in the oven by bending sides of dish. Rowed out to the rookery where the chicks are hatching (there were no eggs to collect) then walked up to the top of the ridge. Ice is
travelling in from the South and the channel is fairly full. Found relics of past expeditions at
Bernard Point.”

There’s a celebratory note of managing to get a turkey in the oven for a Christmas dinner and the need to still make routine checks – no days off here, although time can be made for marking Christmas. But there’s also a reminder of the need for vigilance in what was left behind from other expeditions. It’s a hostile environment and the men at the base have to get along so they can cooperate. That can be easier said than done, an entry for “21st June 1954”, notes,

“Celebrated Midwinter’s Day .
Arthur finally abandoned attempts to repair his clarinet (which has a broken reed). Envisioning long hours of mournful burblings if he had been successful.”

Readers can feel the relief that Arthur failed. He was clearly no musician. “Subliming Off” (when ice converts directly to vapour, skipping the melting stage) shows how tricky life at the base could be,

“In a world of less than 10% humidity,
a blanket can shake out thunderbolts;
if you wind film onto a developing tank spiral
too quickly,
the electrostatic discharge
fogs the picture and forks it with lightning.
Here, in the snow,
paper breaks like a wafer.”

The final section is a sequence, “Erebus”, a mountain in Antarctica and merges the father’s attempts to climb it with the poem’s speaker’s own journey and myths, particularly of the three Fates. It records the landscape,

“here the silent dead: spirals shaped by running water,

ghosts of rivers past; shells embedded in the walls. There
are traces on my fingers, and water underfoot.
Ahead the stream rushes into light, between the rocks

and through the grass and underneath the sky. I lie with
arms outstretched, observe a drift of clouds like trilobites”

A extract that finishes with an extract from the father’s letters,

I must finish now. I am on nightwatch and have a huge backlog of work to
catch up on after this ‘expedition’ up Erebus.
God bless then and, as always, lots of love

The father’s journey is at the expense of his work at the base and he has that weighing on his mind as he takes time out. The daughter has time to watch the clouds. This isn’t just a journey in someone else’s footsteps but an expedition to understand her father’s life on Antarctica, to fill in the blanks of her father’s absence.

“Erebus” is a compassionate exploration from a daughter trying to build a picture of her father’s life on Antarctica. There is no resentment of the absent father and no suggestion the daughter felt abandoned or unloved as a result of her father being away – 5 years may not seem much to an adult, but could be more than half a child’s life. The poems pull together a mosaic of memories, letters, memorabilia and science to create a vibrant picture that reveals layers under a surface gloss.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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