The Polar Muse

The Polar Muse aims to harness the power of poetry to do what conventional museum interpretation can’t do: to engage with objects imaginatively, going beyond the handful of facts you can fit on a caption. Eight of Cambridge’s most exciting and innovative poets have been commissioned to select an object from the collection as inspiration for a new poem, and given access to the full breadth of the Scott Polar Research Institute’s library and archive resources to conduct research. Their poems will be presented on the glass of the display cases, in front of the object about which they are written, as both an added layer of curation and interpretation, and a new creation in their own right.




The Polar Muse
- Poetry as curation at The Polar Museum

24th September - 28th February 2015

Opening Times:
Tuesday - Saturday, 10am - 4pm
open Bank Holiday Mondays

Admission is free

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Lucy Hamilton

Lucy Hamilton worked for several years teaching in comprehensive schools and latterly with international students, mainly Chinese and South Korean, in the independent sector. In 2009 Hearing Eye published her pamphlet Sonnets for my Mother, from which several poems have been translated into Arabic. She teaches creative writing, and workshops include Riddles & Kennings for a community project sponsored by the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge. She is co-MC for Oxfam Poetry Cambridge and co-editor of Long Poem Magazine. Her collection of prose poems Stalker (Shearsman, 2012) was shortlisted for the Forward Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection. Prose poems from her second collection- in-progress have appeared in Shearsman Magazine, Tears in the Fence and PN Review. A profile of Stalker is available at Shearsman Books.

Blog posts

Courting the Polar Muse — by Lucy Hamilton (2nd October 2014)

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I'm excited about the Polar Muse. I'm already immersed in reading and research for one of the three workshops ― a collaborative project between the Poetry School and SPRI ― entitled Behind the Scenes of the Scott Polar Museum. Along with Scott's Journal and The Last Letters, I've been reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World. And while preparing my workshop, Exploring a Polar Prose Poem, had a privileged viewing of Dr Wilson's paintings, courtesy of Naomi Boneham, the Institute's archivist. Dr E.A. Wilson was Chief of Scientific Staff on the Antarctica Expedition 1910―13 ― and a gifted artist. I think I'll use his Paraselena for one of the writing activities.

Paraselena Jan 15. 1911. 9.30pm Cape Evans McMurdo Sound.
Edward Wilson (Image © SPRI N478)

I've bought Edward Wilson's Antarctic Notebooks (compiled by his two great-nephews). It arrived this morning (Saturday) and tore me away from Ponting's photographic masterpieces. You can find many of the paintings and photos on SPRI's website Freeze Frame http://www.freezeframe.ac.uk/.

Some of the photos are on general display in the museum ― such as this famous one:

Terra Nova from Grotto in Iceberg
Grotto in a berg. Terra Nova in the distance. Taylor and Wright (Interior). Jan. 5th 1911.
Herbert Ponting (Image © SPRI P2005/5/127)

Feeling overwhelmed by all the material. It's hard not to be taken over by the stories. I'm magnetised by the enthusiasm and ambition, and by the extreme exposure and risk Scott and his team endured over such a prolonged period of time. Impossible not to be moved by the humour, resilience and ― perhaps above all ― by the underlying sensitivity and affection these tough men frequently demonstrated towards one another, in spite of periods of extreme anxiety, physical pain and sleep deprivation.

Didn't sleep last night either. Plaster-cast too tight I'm sure. Typing painfully slow with left hand. Forced to look at the keyboard and when I glance up the entire text is in caps! So I sit here reading/writing about frost bite & snow blindness and it's salutary. Wilson is the man they all turn to for his calm sense of judgement and his lack of ego. I keep studying his face. He was deeply religious, a committed Christian. But he didn't proselytise. It was a profound personal conviction. He was witty too.

Today I visited SPRI again, hoping to get a poetic frisson from a specific object such as the slashed sleeping-bag, the case of letters & diaries, Ponting's camera or Wilson's satchel. The Arctic Inuit kayak resonates strongly and conjures up poems from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. The Emperor penguins, their eggs and babies are enchanting. But I'm not getting that poetic tingle. No, that's not true. How could I not be seduced by this?

Adelie Penguin
Adelie penguin.
George Murray Levick (Image © SPRI P48/14/178)

Especially when I remember what Cherry says about penguins and their babies: Now we found that these birds were so anxious to sit on something that some of those which had no eggs were sitting on ice!

And here's the man himself ― only 28 years old.

Cherry-Garrard working on south polar times
Mr Cherry-Garrard working on the "South Polar Times". August 30th 1911.
Herbert Ponting (Image © SPRI P2005/5/475)

So I'm getting the tingle alright. But I'm not getting the inner music that signals the stirring of a new poem. I love these objects and pictures and should be able to write a book on each one of them! But I'm stuck and I think I know why.

Off to London today and, as so often happens, a train journey is good for thinking. Or not thinking. Just letting your mind go free and the answer pops up if you're lucky. I'm stuck because I'm in the middle of my second collection of prose poems. I'm immersed in these poems and psychologically can't simply stop and put them on hold. So I need to think a way into a poem that will work with my collection-in-progress. My Polar Muse has to be versatile. Sssh. Something's happening ...

Slept on it last night. Didn't even make a note. This morning I know how to proceed. My collection features various 'characters', who are named according to their profession or occupation. One of these characters is the Diarist. Suddenly it's clear what I ― or rather she, the Diarist ― must do. My Diarist will turn her attention to the letters and diaries of the Antarctic Expedition 1910–1913. I will 'talk' to her and show her things. We will embark on a journey and work together. We will confer with those other diarists. My Diarist is nearly ninety years old. She's an adventurer. Now she and I will switch-on our laptops and set off …

Lucy Hamilton, May 2014


from The Diarists — by Lucy Hamilton (24th September 2014)


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Pictures & Frames

The Diarist is writing a century after the Expeditions. She is not

eminent but is resolute, delving deep, excavating through layers of

memory and silted-up grief. Unlike the men, she has achieved a

venerable store of years. She is trying to form a greater picture, framing the

two explorers in parallel as they set off in the same year, same century. She

wants to shift her obsession to theirs just as Pennel 'swung' the ship for compass

adjustment - to absorb herself in their joys & trials until the bitter end, so

her pain becomes theirs and so their acceptance and grace - I ought not to

complain, but it is hard to be philosophic - becoming hers, might deepen into...

no, not closure - into a kind of forgiveness

Letters & Diaries

She will call them Capt. S. & Dr. S, she thinks, making a list, wryly

noting the absurdity of her (Tesco) inventory alongside theirs as she

fixes her stick & bag on the scooter that's like a sledge without

huskies, thinking her cleaner will carry in the goods like a Sherpa. She too

has a team - daughters & sons & grandchildren, a nurse bandaging the

ulcerous leg in the comfort of ... oh to think of the frost-bite in that tent,

to contemplate the swamps, the malaria & beri-beri - but where to start,

how to sort & sift & record? She must re-read the diaries & letters, make

lists, keep a journal of scraps and fragments - piecemeal as her strength &

sight allow, positioning the magnifying-glass to bring it all closer, within

reach, amplifying the past in small stages.

Ice & Tears

Here is a man who knows he is going to die. The boy will be your

comfort I had looked forward to helping you to bring him up but [he] it is a

satisfaction to feel that he is safe with you... and the Diarist flicks to his

photograph, envisaging the bitten lips, those final moments in the stricken

tent with his two surviving companions. Dr. S. on the other hand, snatched

away in collision between a psychotic - noun recorded 1910 - and a

Cambridge fellow, opening his door to disorder, triggering the end. She

leans over the magnifying-glass, moved almost to tears by the sloping

letters she can barely discern, needing the typescript to read I wasn't a very

good husband but I hope I shall be a good memory certainly the end is nothing for you to

be ashamed of.

Glaciers & Robins

Dante was right when he placed the circles of ice below the circles of fire.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World

The terrifying ice-cliffs are always changing, writes the Diarist, constantly

repelling and attracting. How did they survive the long winter? Did

they quarrel? Yes sir, damn you sir. This morning, sitting outside

on her scooter, she'd begun to pull ivy from the primroses when the robin

arrived like a spirit into her tiny world - so close she could see its black

eye. She glances at the image: I hate the way we seem so small in the menacing

vastness, pulled down to unspeakable depths. Those who'd returned like young

Cherry-Garrard were never the same. Yes, and then suddenly her scooter

had shifted, tilted, and was rolling down the bank towards the stream. And

there she was, inches from the water, ridiculous, grappling for her phone as

the image of poor Cherry flashed into her mind, swinging in the harness

above the dark void.


Captain Scott's last letter to Admiral Sir George Egerton — by Lucy Hamilton (24th September 2014)

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scott's last letter to egerton
Captain Robert Falcon Scott's last letter to Admiral Sir George Egerton, March 1912
SPRI Archive MS 175 © SPRI/Naomi Boneham