On Pauline Stainer's poem

Pauline Stainer: The Ice-Pilot Speaks

This reads at first as a poem nearly impossible to understand, partly because of the density of its allusions, and the way in which it hop-skips from image to image. So it follows that my reading of the poem may be utter nonsense, and I wouldn't like to pretend other than that the poem is sometimes almost wilfully obscure. However...

Stainer is principally interested in rituals, especially those associated with death, as she announces at the outset:

No such thing
as a routine death -

However, as the poem proceeds, although she frequently touches on moments of death, it becomes clear that what she is mainly absorbed by is ritual, by sacred ritual, and how difficult it is to define what 'sacred' really means. She seems to delight in the oddity and even absurdity of sacred moments, locating them in music (Satie, Varese), in landscape (polar, for the most part), and in love. What makes the poem more complex is its deliberate inclusion of scientific knowledge about the kinds of images with which she is dealing - which, far from demystifying the events, actually gives them an added spirituality.

The speaker - The Ice-Pilot - is a navigator through the mysteries of death, especially at sea. Although she frequently describes events or images which are on land, the context is nearly always arctic, freezing. This gives the voice an added degree of deatchment, as if he (or perhaps she) is numbed by the cold. The speaker is constantly investigating or questioning - the poem's full of questions - the significance of the world around him, looking for the

of the deep keels

like a scientist. The ice-pilot sees the sea, for instance, as

a silver-stained
histology slide

and reflects on the way

The blood-group of mummies can be determined

or tells us that

polar bears sweat
through upturned paws

What Stainer is attempting is to add mystery to the ritual of events, even when they are not located in romantic contexts. She shifts from time to time, from location to location, but she always brings the poem back to a process of puzzling over the weirdness of the human and animal world, betweem which she deliberately draws little distinction. The mineral world of rock and ice is described as if it were also alive. Icebergs are nudes and have 'viscera', and lava's movement is described in the same breath as the 'cutting of flesh'. The glacier in X is described as 'albumen', the sea has a 'searching tongue'.

Stainer has chosen the ice-pilot as a speaker because he is trying to navigate through uncertain or unknown worlds. He is in 'terra incognita', trying to use the imperfect medium of language to 'open the sacred quarry'. The ice-pilot is able to reflect on any number of strange occurrences, because that is his work. He repeatedly returns to holy or sacred moments, to the enigma of different cultural rituals, to the world of the shaman. The shaman conducts the bizarre ritual of stretching 'the throat of a walrus' to make (I assume) the skin of his drum in I. The ice-pilot himself has been

At the magician's house
[carving] ivory noseplugs
in the shape of a bird
with inlaid eyes

The mystery is in the attention to detail. We are asked to wonder whether the decoration on the noseplugs is for aesthetic or sacred purposes. The electricity of the Northern Lights is also referred to as shamanistic in VII (this image is echoed in VIII in the idea of Christ turning

on Yggdrasill
under the strobe lights

The image of the strobe lights is a characteristic cross-reference between one environment and another - the kind of sideways leap many of the poets in The New Poetry enjoy, ironically in just the same way as do the poets in The Penguin Book Of Contemporary Poetry whose writers are ruthlessly excluded from this anthology - writers like Raine and Reid, for instance, who, like Stainer, have inherited a great deal of the pleasure in bizarre connections from Sylvia Plath.

Death absorbs the ice-pilot from a number of viewpoints. Stainer juxtaposes instinctive, predatory killings (one of the shot snowy owls is 'thawing its prey') with killing for survival ('the ship's astronomer' is given 'four ounces of raven'), killing for a purpose (the 'foxskins' softened by the Inuit women, or the 'ptarmigan hunters', or the feeding of the living by the ship's surgeon), killing carelessly (Amundsen driving five dogs to death). Killing can have surprising consequences, as when the hunters think not of the ptarmigan deaths, but of their own. As the opening words suggest, no death is 'routine'. Death can be caused by disaster, too - the Titanic and Piper Alpha are both used as reference points. In the case of Piper Alpha, there is a weird beauty attached to the event, even though it was an environmental disaster. Stainer also puzzles over the culling of reindeer (who are 'kneeling' as if in prayer), and thinks of the whalers flensing their prey as potential 'gods'. The whalers are not from the nineteenth century but the twentieth, but they are teasingly compared to figures like Balder and Loki from Norse myth. There is a direct challenge to conventional views of death:

Who says plague
is monotonous?

Repeatedly, Stainer uses the ice-pilot to guide the reader back to the individuality of events. As the ice-pilot puts it,

One waterfall is extraordinarily like another

but what matters is that lovers think of the water as from a different source, and that artists make events their own (an abstract artist turns the waterfall into '5 strings'; blind Borges feels the 'Euclid' - a metaphor for discovery - flow through him like 'serum' when he feels a pillar in a hotel room; Satie turns icebergs into piano music (Gymnopedies). And William Newton in IX hallucinates about his lover (although the reader would presumably need to know about Newton to get the leopard/camphor tree reference).

Nor is the poem at all obsessed with the world as negative or obsessed with death. The veils worn by sailors 'against snowblindness' make the ice-pilot think of 'Ascension week', and there are repeated images of erotic moments. The ice-pilot dreams of a woman's body; Newton thinks of his lover's bed; the instinctive closeness of the narwhals reminds the ice-pilot of his lover's menstrual blood, and in XIII, the image of death (the 'game that must be lost' by the chess-playing gods) is linked to lovemaking, which is seen as the 'palmipsest' for all that follows.

Stainer uses the ice-pilot more as an observer than an interpreter. The opening of VI asks

What is song
when the shroud
is left unlaced at the mouth
and the arctic tern
has a radio transmitter
lashed with fuse-wire
to its leg?


This is an example of the impossibility of arriving at an answering logic for the diversity of experiences. Stainer cannot define even something apparently straightforward like song, when it is associated with the ritual (Inuit, I imagine) of leaving the mouths of corpses open to the air, and also with the sound picked up artificially from a bird in flight. She can no more answer this question than define 'the deerness of deer', or how to make the appropriate sound for links like those in IV; or any more than St. Brendan and his monks could deal with the sound of icebergs simply by using prayer. Religion can't define what is sacred; myth can't define what is sacred; art can't define what is sacred. Sacredness can be personal, and is often found in the rituals associated with killing. But Stainer is more interested in the mystery than in answers.

From unpublished