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A&E Blog

Of Poets and Penguins: Katherine Coles at Marriott Library

by Sarah Kramer
- Posted // 2011-02-24 - One might expect that any artist traveling to Antarctica might wind up retreading in her precursors’ frozen footsteps. From a poet, one might expect a sort of literary March of the Penguins: touching and epic but also glaringly trite. Not so for the works written by Utah’s poet laureate Katharine Coles on her month-long sojourn south. Thursday’s reading at Marriott Library allowed a reverent audience a view of Coles’ experiences that was both subtle and surprising.

Coles is a petite professorial sort in dark tweeds that seem to mark her status in the bardic clan. At first, it’s hard to imagine such a small personage in a terrain so barren and boundless, but then she reads. Her voice seems more comfortable in her words than most people are in their very skin; her eyes sweep the room as they might have swept a panorama of glaciers, sea and sky. Her performance is steady and assured and effectively communicated the experience of Antarctica to the listeners ensconced in the warmth of the library.

Coles’ reading followed her journey like a diary. The first poem drew inspiration from advice she received before setting out to “remember: a penguin is only a penguin.” Her final works range from “Tattoo,” on her thoughts returning to Puntarenas, Chile to “Anti-Manifesto,” which speaks to the experience of artists creating not in solitude but within a larger, sometimes competitive artistic community. The pieces ran the spectrum of poetic form from a 10-part prose poem to brief, Pound-like glimpses of life in the world’s coldest desert.

Thematically, many of the poems center around beasts of various sorts: penguins, yes, but also strange dreamed-up hybrids and dogs brought along by the original Antarctic explorers, now banned due to environmental concerns. The scientist, too, becomes incorporated into her menagerie as a peculiar kind of animal: one that discovers, explores and names. The culture of daily life on Palmer Station is just as much of a backdrop to her words as icy vistas and endless sunshine.

While in Antarctica, Coles read works by Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen and Apsley Cherry-Gerard, early explorers of Antarctica. Shackleton especially, she said, taught her “how to see” the continent: its dangers, its comforts and, most importantly, its light. She says she felt her purpose on the trip was not to document, but to engage in “intellectual exploration” as a kind of artistic companion to her scientific station-mates. After all, Coles teaches us, scientist and poet employ disparate language to the same end: the human exploration of the sublime.

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