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 Sheerman

Lucy Sheerman worked at the Arts Council for twelve years where she specialised in supporting the development of writers and new writing. Publications include rarefied: falling without landing (Oystercatcher Press) and the fan fiction project Fragments salvaged from her diary: a correspondence with Rebecca (Long Poem Magazine 10). Her writing has also appeared in Archive of the Now, Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets (Shearsman), Junction Box, PN Review and Poetry Wales. Menagerie commissioned and produced her short play What Did It Feel Like To Go To The Moon?, which was a collaboration with the Apollo 15 astronaut and poet Al Worden.

Blog posts

Managing Ambiguity: Spatial Extrapolation and Poetic Composition — by Lucy Sheerman (25th September 2014)

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Gareth Rees analyses the impact of pollution on plants and trees by linking detailed descriptions of small sections of ground with satellite images, through a process he calls spatial extrapolation. He records the distribution and colour of specific types of land cover (snow, lichen, birch, etc) and then links that information to the data captured by satellite images. By studying consecutive satellite images he is able to describe the changes to particular plants and trees over time.

I am drawn to the field notebook he shows me. Its minute process of description captures the detail of the author's experience of a precise moment, place and experience. These notes are couched in a mode of scientific detachment and enquiry which has parallels with a poet's notebook. I am thinking, for example, of the rigour of Bernadette Mayer's attempt to give a precise and painstaking account of her experience of a single day in the book Midwinter Day. I am morbidly fascinated by the myriad mosquitoes trapped between the pages of Gareth's book. The streaks of mud and grass stains and the messy running repairs made with parcel tape all add to the sense of immediacy and authenticity.

This a document of lived experience and it is filled with the distractions shared by my own notebooks. Of course, mine don't include complex negotiations with helicopter pilots to transport me to remote parts of the arctic, records of delicate discussions with Russian officials to gain official sanction for my visit or in-depth conversations with reindeer herders about their migration patterns. As my typical day does not take me further than few hundred metres from Great St Mary's I also don't usually find it necessary to record my gps location or how far I am from Cambridge (Cambridge to London, 50 miles, London to Vienna, 763 miles, Vienna to St Petersburg, 980 miles). However, my notebooks are filled with parallel distractions, logistics and clutter which exist alongside notes and ideas for writing projects, as well as first attempts to capture an idea or thought process.

I am drawn to Gareth's meticulous and forensic style:

photo 20: view of this site

#44 4252017470601

birch tussock lichen tundra, quite trampled

bones here so perhaps herders used this area

As before, lichen is v. heavily trampled

Overall, lichens – 50%. Most of rest is bet nova

16/7 1819 20°c! 56/RH 1015 mts 50 kls

These are snapshots which will later be correlated with satellite images to inform a scientific paper.

I am intrigued by his description of the telescopic processing of these detailed observations. Somehow the minutely detailed information he amasses has to be connected to a satellite image of a vastly different scale. These pieces of ground he describes are only 1m square while each pixel in a satellite image represents 30m square of ground. We talk about how to make choices and how to decide on what pieces of information are important to hold on to. In making a map you are forced to generalise. Just as a poem cannot contain every detail you might first feel it has to. There is a process much like editing a poem which requires you to follow Quiller-Couch's frequently quoted advice to writers to 'murder your darlings'. Every class of interesting thing, Gareth tells me, has a unique colour; nevertheless, not every interesting thing can be taken into account. Sometimes, although we would like to, it is not possible to distinguish between two species of plants for the purposes of interpretation. Physicists are simple-minded, he tells me, they are content to describe an area of dense willow and birch scrub as simply green. Sometimes they have to disappoint the botanists.

This scaling up and down involves a process of managing ambiguity. Gareth and I devise a writing exercise together that we think can give a sense of the scaling up process. First, describe a 1cm patch of ground and then scale up and out tenfold continually until you are describing a 100km square. Each description should have a severe word limit. Gareth suggests only 10 but when I try it I have to give myself 25 and his field books also use about that number.

Apparently, the most difficult step to get to grips with occurs at the shift from 100m to 1km. This is also when the sense of human perspective disappears. Gareth tells me that the discipline of considering things at this enormous scale gives him a unique way of thinking about any question that presents itself. He has arrived at the ability to create the sense of perspective or scale only usually achieved in space flight. I'm curious about the links with poetic composition, which similarly negotiates between the minute description of the actual and abstract generalisations. How might I try to register this very complex sense of scale in a poem?


Extrapolated observations at the Scott Polar Museum — by Lucy Sheerman (24th September 2014)


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713647, 5787693 (30N)

14:32, 24/5/14, 13ºc, 523nm
12500 lux overcast


Daisy petal white, shaded, half-unfurled, bleeds into violet; green leaf
fragment; tiny silver hairs; drowned in the yellow of stamens and pollen,
drops of rain


Black fly, red eyes, translucent wings, takes flight; flowers, predominantly
yellow; rain soaked leaves in sunlight, decaying, sombre green; (suspense of
loss!); slick gleam effect


Crouched woman casts green shade; silver of raindrops; moss, grass, green
in sunlight, restricted field; black patches of absence, shade-grey; brown
leaf; discarded wrapper, maroon


Pavement, pewter, rain-slicked; box hedge green; 2 faces tilted at clouds,
(blank reflection); grassed area, mainly green; yellow road markings; car,
dynamic red; sandstone wall


Purple-black slate roof, gleaming, approx. 50%; people, shadows on lamp
green lawn; pitch black street; vehicles, silver of light on paintwork; tree
canopies, jade green


Urban tract, clustered greys, (recognition slips up); black, red, verdigris
roofs; green lawns/parks; metal curve of river; bird flocks, grey, scattered;
shine of traffic threads


White cloudscape; glimpse of leaden city; silver river, diverse green fields,
charcoal grey roads, etc; water expanse, sky-blue; purple of shadow cast
across the scene


Pearl-white cloud; green, brown, golden arable landscape; towns, villages,
bluish; glut of data, (colour not allocated); smoke-grey roads, railways;
silver-blue trajectory of river & coastline

Some merging and simplification of the ground cover classes — by Lucy Sheerman (24th September 2014)


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As scientists we do not choose to categorise things as beautiful, but we may have our private thoughts. (Gareth Rees)

#1 Some of the information has been corrupted, rendering whole swathes of the territory indecipherable. The pixels have therefore been classified as no data, cloud, cloud shadow, water or bog. They define absence. Impossible to scale up from lived perspective to abstract, viewed from miles above our heads. The sublime rhapsody of flight gives the potential for serious misinterpretation. We might try reading meaning into emptiness.

#2 Satellite arcing across territory. Distributes impersonal snapshots which must be aligned to the GPS-derived location of the field data. How is this haze obscuring the view? We want to describe what was there but it has proved to be of unusable quality with a very poor signal to noise ratio.

#3 Perhaps we are wondering what all the different shades of green and brown and blue might mean? A fantasy of landscape, inhabited by degrees of colour, texture, heat and scent. Is it dense willow or birch scrub? All such speculation calls for field-based validation. Muddied fingers stroke the underside of these narrow silver leaves. What kinds of things must be discarded? It may pain us to do so but we must rely on spectral discrimination in the optical band.

#4 For the purposes of this extrapolation the names of particular categories of plant life are not significant. Nevertheless we have made detailed botanical descriptions. Absorbed in the precision of the field notebook, we look up towards the cloud which extends over our heads as far as the eye can see. We will find that colour has a way of deceiving us. That haze might be milky blue or mauve or opalescent. We should only trust wavelengths as true measurements of visible and non visible colour.

#5 We must tense ourselves against the grazing, nomadic patterns of irrelevance. Concerned only with mapping what general vegetation can be recorded here. We can resist such detail. The tiny flies alighting on every clause, sub-clause and pulse point snapped between the pages of this book. Still life made literal. The swarming discomfort of the scene moves once again into the mind's eye. We are satisfied by language's absence from such distortions.

#6 We might assert that all manner of vegetation thrives in this lush greenness even while we observe specifically 'arctic' limitations to the landscape. The classifications presented here suffer from the disadvantages of limited ground truth. We are poised between the intimate record of place and the impersonal distortions of scale. And thus, we are thrust once again into the actual. The stench of the bog, the whine of mosquitoes.

#7 Lichens, so adaptable and widespread are vulnerable to the relentless tread of metaphor. Their brittle leaves disintegrating under that inexorable pressure. We observed a large area, roughly circular and 100 – 150 m across which is entirely bare of vegetation. Not just a lack, it is a symbol of loss. The delicate submarine shapes receding into memory.

#8 We are on our hands and knees again, analysing the ground. Taking precise measurements with ruler and lens we can identify Stereocaulon, or snow lichen, it is common enough but impossible to include in a description except in the most general way. It may be possible to demonstrate that this tiny square of ground has altered over time but it is probably not meaningful to interpret any apparent differences between the spatial trends. Looking up to take our bearings, beyond us Lichen Ridge, we experience that ephemeral moment of recognition: bare ground and lichen tundra (these are difficult to separate). Detached from terrestrial constraint we begin to inhabit a landscape defined by this small window onto phenology which is purely abstract.


Satellite Image of the Nenets Okrug, Russia — by Lucy Sheerman (23rd September 2014)

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Nenets Okrug satellite image
Satellite image of the Nenets Okrug, Russia, showing the Pechora river delta, 2000
© Gareth Rees, SPRI