Johnny Payne

On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
(Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, 1911-1912)

Tryggve Gran

He dug them out, buried in snow
headed back from the Pole
where they’d arrived second,
after Amundsen’s merry crew.
Skin yellow, glassy.  Tent perfect pitched 
as Delius’ On Hearing the First
Cuckoo in Spring.  Scott lying dead
center, Bowers and Wilson to either side 
weirdly peaceable.  Eleven miles
from a food depot.  Come to collect eggs.  
Over them we built a cairn
and Atkinson read from Corinthians.
For who among men knows the things 
of a man except the man’s spirit within him?
Sixty below, gale-battered, snow 
thick and cloying, Scott’s sledges pulled in relay
one mile gained for every three walked
navigating by dim twilight at noon
else moonlight.  The rest, utter darkness.
They fell into crevasses by turns.
Cherry’s teeth chattered so hard
they shattered.  The team took fits and howled. 
Snatched six eggs, dropped three.  
Faces scarred, eyes dull
hands white and creased.  Back home,
the eggs got tossed as irrelevant.
The team stopped and added rocks,
thirty-five more pounds to slow sledges.
Among the fatal stones, a fossil sample of 
a Glossopteris fern, its feathered 
leaves distinct.  A plant extinct.  Soon after
the find, the men went wild-eyed and frost-bit.
Scurvy, dehydration, altitude.
Oates lame, slashing his reindeer bag
so one leg would stick out and freeze.

Robert Falcon Scott

The close-grained granite rock which weathers red. 
Hence pink limestone, and cliffs of peach sandstone, 
well weathered, carrying within coal seams. 
Wilson picked plant impressions: piece of coal 
with beautifully traced leaves in layers, and
thick stems, cell structure evident within. 
In one place we saw cast of waves on sand.

Set foot on rock after 12 weeks of snow, 
and ice, near 7 out of sight aught else. 
Like going ashore after a sea voyage.
The sledge meter unshipped.  Distance traversed?
The recent fallen snow clogs runner, skis 
sky overcast, the sledge groans, hazy land.
With plenty horsemeat we had supper.  Good.

We keep our sleeping-bags spread on the sledge 
and they are drying, but, above all, we
have our full measure of cooked food again. 
Tonight, we had a stew fry, pemmican 
and horseflesh, voted it the best of hoosh 
we’d ever ate on a sledge journey. God.
We looked for pony meat, but we found none.

Our sledge and ski leave deep ploughed tracks which can 
be seen to wind for many miles behind.
R. 36. Supper temp minus 2. 
There’s little doubt we’re in for rotten times 
and lateness of the season makes it worse. 
Looked at the map tonight; there is no doubt 
we’re too far to the east. With weather clear, 
correct mistake, but will the weather clear? 
It’s gloomy and the wind is dying down. 
Tonight, the hopeful sky clears in the south.

Luck. Bowers’ sharp eyes spied a double cairn, 
the theodolite telescope confirmed 
and all our spirits rose accordingly. 
 Poor Wilson had a snow-blindness attack.
I wish we had more fuel. R. 38. 
Temp minus 17. Despondent now. 
Oh! for a little wind.  The depot close.

Only 24 miles. Bowers and Oates 
in their last new finnesko.  A cold start.
An oil shortage; Oates disclosed his feet. 
The toes are showing very bad indeed, 
temperature-bit. The third blow came at night, 
the wind, which we had hailed with joy, brought dark 
overcast weather, 40 ticks below.
Took two full hours to get our foot gear on.

The surface grew more awful, beyond words. 
The wind drew forward, circumstance against.
After 4 hours things so bad we camped, 
just 4 miles covered. No fault of our own.
Still more than three parts surface held us back – 
the wind at strongest, powerless to move 
the sledge. When light is good, one sees reason. 
The surface, lately good and hard is now
a thin-coat layer of woolly crystals, formed 
by radiation, far too firmly fixed 
to be removed by wind; makes friction on 
the runners. God help us, we can’t keep up.

42 miles from depot. A week’s food, 
but only about 3 to 4 days’ fuel.
Oates’ feet are in a wretched state. One swelled 
tremendously last night and lame today.
I fear the sacrifice to tend Oates’ feet. 
We cannot help each other; it’s enough 
to take care of ourselves. The soldier has
become a terrible hindrance to us all.

Oates’ left foot can’t last long; and as for me,
I have to wait in night foot gear an hour 
before I change, and then I am the first 
at ready. Wilson’s feet give trouble now, 
but mainly because he tends others’ feet.
Oates’ foot worse. Rare pluck, but he has no chance.  
Apart from him, if he went under now, 
I doubt whether we could get through. With care 
we have a dog’s chance, but no more. 

The weather’s awful, and our gear 
gets steadily icier as we go.
I bade from Wilson medicine to end
our troubles.  30 opium tablets 
apiece and he is left the morphine tube. 

Oates’ hands as well as feet are useless now. 
Oates said he can’t go on; proposed we leave 
him in his sleeping-bag.  A blizzard blew.
He said, ‘I’m going outside a good long while.’ 
He strayed into the blizzard and that’s all.
We couldn’t dissuade him from walking toward death. 
He was a brave and English gentleman. 
We hope to meet the end with same aplomb.

We leave here theodolite, camera, 
Oates’ sleeping-bags. Diaries, et cetera, 
and Wilson’s geological specimens 
to be found on the sledge along with us.
My right foot gone, and nearly all the toes – 
two days ago, I still had both my feet.
The blizzard bad as ever – Wilson, Bowers 
can’t start – tomorrow last chance – we’ve no fuel.

We march for depot without our effects. 
We’re getting weaker, end cannot be far.
A pity, but I can’t write any more.

Roald Amundsen

Hanssen set about 		slaughtering Helge
uncommonly useful 		good-natured dog 
without fuss pulled 		morning to night
shining example 		to the team
last week 			quite fallen away
on our arrival at Pole 		only a shadow left
drag on the others		did absolutely no work 
one blow on the skull 		Helge ceased to live 
death to one 			is food to another 
Helge portioned out 		nothing left but teeth
and tuft at the end 		of his tail

Johnny Payne’s poetry and fiction have been published recently in a number of literary journals.  He has also published novels and two books of poetry.  He writes and directs plays in Los Angeles.  His most recent novel is A Graveyard of First Chapters.