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from ‘The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica’ 


Be strong Bernadette 

Nobody will ever know 

I came here for a reason 

Perhaps there is a life here 

Of not being afraid of your own heart beating 

Do not be afraid of your own heart beating 

Look at very small things with your eyes 

& stay warm 

Nothing outside can cure you but everything's outside 

There is great shame for the world in knowing 

You may have gone this far 

Perhaps this is why you love the presence of other people so much 

Perhaps this is why you wait so impatiently 

You have nothing more to teach 

Until there is no more panic at the knowledge of your own real existence 

& then only special childish laughter to be shown 

& no more lies no more 

Not to find you no 

More coming back & more returning 

Southern journey 

Small things & not my own debris 

Something to fight against 

& we are all very fluent about ourselves 



This month’s poem was written by Bernadette Mayer, who died on the 22nd of November at the age of 77. Mayer was an incisive and prolific poet (her final collection was published earlier this year) associated with a group known as the Language Poets, a movement that developed through the 1960s and 70s and emphasised the materiality of words, using them almost like building-blocks. The poem is, for writers like Mayer, perhaps more akin to a sculpture.  

The Language Poets – and maybe Mayer especially – also wanted to use language to make inquires: writing becomes an act of discovery, both for the poet and the reader. Indeed, in the poem above, Mayer, in quite an unusual move, starts the poem by addressing herself. The use of her first name creates a sense of intimacy and even pathos (that is, an emotional force), but the list of imperatives in the poem’s first half also suggests that Mayer is having to buck herself up: ‘Be strong Bernadette’; ‘Do not be afraid of your own heart beating’;’ Look at very small things with your eyes’; ‘stay warm’. These lines read like a self-help book, or even a survival guide, suggesting that the best advice we can get comes from – first and foremost – questioning ourselves.  

The second half of this extract drops the advice (perhaps having heeded its suggestions) and dwells, instead, in a more doubtful world. We have a knots of negations, as in ‘& no more lies no more | Not to find you no’; and elsewhere there are bouts of uncertainty, like ‘Perhaps there is a life here [...] Perhaps this is why you love the presence of other people so much | Perhaps this is why you wait so impatiently’. (On a technical point, this is known as anaphora, which just means using the same word of phrase at the beginning of multiple lines— in this case, the repeated ‘Perhaps’ is anaphoric.) The poem teaches us, through its use of self-interrogation and its treatment of uncertainty, that doubt can be as valuable as being sure, because it keeps us asking questions. Indeed, Mayer never stopped asking questions, no matter how difficult, and the answer was less important than simply persevering in our inquiry. Her poem is not called ‘In Antarctica’, but ‘The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica’: the value is not found in the destination, but the way in which we travel. We learn, as we go, to be ‘fluent about ourselves’.  

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