I am writing tonight to share with you one of my favorite poems, “The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica,” by Bernadette Mayer, which is here.
This is a poem I have been repeating over and over to myself this past year, but my love extends farther back than that. It’s a poem I love to teach and share with people. I love to watch people uncover it and see all the opportunities for poetry and language that Mayer makes possible within it.
One of my favorite ways that she does this is through her immediate reference back to the self. The opening lines go:
Be strong Bernadette
Nobody will ever know
I came here for a reason
This self-reflexive gesture is just so exciting, because within it we are forced to reckon just exactly who the Bernadette is. Is she Bernadette Mayer the poet or is she Bernadette the person? Or perhaps she is someone other than Bernadette entirely? We are forced to confront our own ideas of who we expect the speaker of a poem to be and it’s endlessly thrilling to me.
I also love the way that Bernadette can be substituted for anyone’s name and how I can substitute my own and say, when I’m feeling tired or deeply sad or angry, “Be strong Dorothea/Nobody will ever know/I came here for a reason” and then give myself the strength to keep going. Try it now—you can do it, too.
This poem makes me think of how hard it is to keep up your spirit when something is difficult. When you look over the expanse of snow in your life, it is so blindingly bright and you just want to get warm. Just as Mayer says in the poem, all that there is left to do is: “Look at very small things with your eyes/& stay warm.” Snow makes the simple desire of warmth your only goal.
There’s also the landscape of snow in the poem that is gorgeous, overwhelming, and also maybe scary. But lately something else I think of when I read this poem is how vital this landscape is now to all of our survival. With the horrific rise of climate change, the poem takes on new meaning. We ask ourselves: what does that mean to survive in Antarctica when snowy places might not exist at all sometime soon? I begin to think of how this place of fear in the poem is now a place to cherish a precious thing we must preserve. Of course, this changes my reading of the poem entirely.
The poem’s last lines provide for me a kind of answer—I love them:
if I crawled back to the house, two feet give no position, if
the branches cracked over my head & their threatening me, if I
covered my face with beer & sweated till you returned
If I suffered what else could I do
I don’t love these lines because they mean something in particular to me, but because I feel them. A lot of times when people read poems, they want them to mean something specifically. But to me the beauty of poetry is that meaning is at least partially emotional.
We can all “decode” these lines, but what’s the point of having one fixed answer. Why I love this poem is that I can feel it and feelings are important. I am not a beer drinker (or any alcohol really), so I can’t understand why someone would cover their face with beer. Still, I can understand it on an emotional level. If it were me, maybe I’d cover my face with something else—like jam or water or green eyeshadow—if I was trying to make it through. The point is that the poem exists, and in it Mayer’s Bernadette is saying: I am going to make it and you are, too.
The poem asks us not to give up, and that even in these moments where everything seems hopeless, to keep at it, and that we can do this. And I wish this truth for all of us, that we can somehow come out of this time and thrive in new ways with love and peace.
This is Astro Poets, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that Bernadette Mayer is a Taurus. (I wish so much I knew her whole chart.) Taurus is one my favorite signs. (I’ll probably end up saying that about all of the signs, because I do love them all.)
This poem is clearly by a Taurus. Tauruses are so affected by the natural world. I remember reading somewhere that if a Taurus is feeling down, you should take them to a space with trees. I think about this sometimes with the Tauruses in my life.
But also, maybe the crucial thing to mention here is that the poem is about endurance and that is very Taurean. Endurance, to me, is one of the greatest qualities of a person. It’s hard not to respect the elegant, vulnerable strength of this poem and of any lovely Taurus. They give of themselves so completely and with such fortitude, and so does this poem. So, long live Tauruses and Bernadette Mayer and this poem and everyone!
If you feel like it, take some time, even a few moments today or tomorrow, to do something creative that makes you happy. Maybe write a poem about the snow?
Lots of love to you,