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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Rebecca Watts

Rebecca Watts is a poet, freelance editor and librarian based in Cambridge. Her poems have appeared in PN Review, The North, Die Gazette and The Journal of Modern Wisdom. A selection of her work is forthcoming in Carcanet's New Poetries VI (2015).

Blog posts

Penguins and Providence — by Rebecca Watts (30th September 2014)

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It was April, and my first walk around at The Polar Museum, when I realised that, apart from the existence of a north one and a south one, I knew nothing about the polar regions. I'd watched David Attenborough's Frozen Planet with amazement and delight, but what I'd taken from it were the animal images: the Great Grey Owl's moon face and teddy-bear legs looming out of the whiteness; the trepidatious narwhal traffic jam amid a perilously narrow channel in the pack ice; the general tragicomedy of penguinkind. Where all this incredible footage actually came from hadn't crossed my mind; such parts of the world seemed no more real to me than Narnia. Involvement in this project has meant my introduction to an entirely new area of knowledge, inspiration and imagination.

The Polar Museum is brilliant: small enough to get the measure of in an hour, but packed so full of fascinating information that you can go back again and again and learn something inspiring every time. Being partial to thinking about animals' perspectives, what stood out during that initial visit was the stuffed Emperor penguin with a chick between its feet. It looked so sad, and the chick so desperate to be alive, that I knew straight away I would be able to write something about them. This feeling was reassuring, as it coincided with my desperate effort to mask my ignorance of all things polar from Joe and Bridget, who were expertly and enthusiastically showing me and Andrea round the various displays.

When a poem starts with a feeling I don't like to do too much research before I get some first words down on paper, in case the sentences I read overlay the initial impression or sense of voice I have begun to grasp at. So I sketched out a few lines soon after leaving the museum, and established the basic dynamic that I wanted to capture in the poem, before I let myself enjoy some of the internet's offerings on penguin habits and lifestyles. Incidentally, while chatting with one of the museum volunteers on another occasion I was alerted to the British Antarctic Survey's Penguin of the Day feature – a gift which really does just keep on giving.

Joe recommended I read Cherry-Garrard's account of the 1910–1913 Terra Nova expedition, as it was during this that Edward Wilson (chief scientist), 'Birdie' Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard endured 'the worst journey in the world', to Cape Crozier and back, on a quest for Emperor penguin embryos. The story of that journey is astonishing, and the book as a whole presents a deeply affecting synthesis of the Terra Nova explorers' reactions to the Antarctic. What struck me most was what good writers they were – many of their descriptive accounts, written in situ, already sound like poetry – and I developed a strong sense of the intensely ambivalent relationship that these men formed with the commanding Antarctic landscape.

A few phrases and images cropped up repeatedly in these writings, and I became interested in their accounts of their sleeping patterns and dreams, which seemed closely linked to their thoughts about death and to their religious beliefs. 'Providence' and 'mercy' were more than concepts: they were a means of making sense of extreme suffering and events that no discernible logic could explain. I noted down numerous passages from Cherry-Garrard's book, and began to piece together a patchwork of words and phrases that I see as reaching towards a set of definitions for Antarctica – recognising that things we take for granted in normal situations (the ability to sleep, for example) mean something totally other in the context of that place. I wanted to convey a sense of simultaneous confusion and clear-headedness, and the combination of fighting spirit and calm resignation, that seemed to characterise many of the written records of that expedition. The meaning of faith, and the extent to which it can both empower and cheat individuals, emerged as an important question for my poem to explore, in attempting to understand and communicate even a vague impression of the mindset, suffering and achievements of those men.


Emperor Penguin (The Polar Museum, Cambridge — by Rebecca Watts (24th September 2014)


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This afterlife
is inaccurate: everything here is dry.

I try to make
a true impression, but the chick

I've been given
refuses to play the part, persists with its leaning

as if it could
imagine anything beyond our destiny.

Before I was seized
my throat was an open channel,

my beak
a conduit for the sea. It is not shame

that forces
my head to hang: it is the inured act

I've grown too stiff
to shake off. Chick – even like this

you look hungry.
There is no escape. Turn in and face up.

Antarctica — by Rebecca Watts (24th September 2014)


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Heaven is a sweet dream Tinned peaches and syrup sweeter
Awake listening in the dark frenzy of canvas wind slapping
like so many frozen hands Body a quaker Muscles crying
sugar Tired as a dog but colder Colder
Language is a beggar Hope another.
Land of the South pure and Beauty enough to transfix or unfix
to turn a man's eyes blue and Hope they say is a blue-eyed look
God sender of daylight scatterer of the terrors of the dark planter
of strenuous prayers in the heart Heart keeper of the flesh Heartbeat
a song a step a prayer Heave
what a man must do for God for glory for mercy.
Bird like a snowflake like God glittering in a blue sky lucent as an angel's wing
Gift given freely with both hands This Earth is a good place
to live in Die as everything must Numb as a mass
of ice frozen reindeer bag coffin crevasse a good warm sleep
a wish Great God! this is an awful place
Give take Take give Keep temper don't speak God is
grace Returning a certain numbed pleasure biscuit talk
write rest sleep Comfort of the Almighty's making
Peace in the satisfaction of faith drifting eyes open
All that the Lord has given taken away Blessed


Captain Oates' sleeping bag — by Rebecca Watts (23rd September 2014)

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oates sleeping bag
Captain Oates' sleeping bag
SPRI Museum N: 857 © SPRI/Craig Chesek