Cold! Cold! Totally cold! Colder than Alaska or Siberia.
Colder than the North Pole. Cold like my former soul
You are, oh age-old Antarctica!
Measureless and empty plains with silences as white and deep as death
Descended on me there, and frost besieged the air
From rocks of ice around Antarctica.
Dark and shapeless were the nights while somewhere deep in space, the Milky Way
Rose beaming like the dawn, but never would the sun,
And I withdrew behind Antarctica...
Warm...warm...lovely warm...warmer than the Congo, Spain or India...
Warmer than a bonfire has been my old desire
For always green, tropical Trinidad...
Riverbanks and stars arise despite the walls of ice I once evoked
Around Antarctica, for I am thinking of
My always green, tropical Trinidad...
Oh, there’s the warmth and love of old of starry nights in lovely Trinidad.
Royal are the palm trees, and gentle is the evening breeze
In always green, tropical Trinidad...
Long ago there was a time my heart was almost like Antarctica
With blizzards all about, where life was just a shout
Across a desolate Antarctica!
Cool is the light on snowy nights when I am thinking of Antarctica.
The cold is like my past and I have changed at last,
And so have you, oh cold Antarctica.
Warm is the light on starry nights when I am thinking of my Trinidad.
The warmth is in the name, and there’s a perfect flame
Around my self, my age-old Trinidad...
Copyright 2004 by Freddy Fonseca
Critique by Jendi Reiter
The majestic rhythms of this month's critique poem, "Antarctica" by Freddy Fonseca, evoke the grandeur of the two landscapes he praises. More than a mere travelogue or pastoral, the poem uses the essential features of these extreme climates to illustrate the dynamic relationship of opposing principles within the soul.
The poem's subtle yet effective formal structure relies on repetition and syllable counts. At first glance, it seems like free verse, but the subliminal perception of underlying order inspires the reader to look deeper. The first line of each stanza, though pleasantly varied in length, contains nine stressed beats and around 18 syllables. The second line uses iambic hexameter, twelve syllables with an internal rhyme (e.g. "The warmth is in the name, and there's a perfect flame").
Finally, the last line approximates iambic pentameter, always ending with the name of one of the two subjects of this ode. Points of departure from these strict meter and syllable counts (e.g. "Royal are the palm trees, and gentle is the evening breeze") give the poem some spontaneity, a nice contrast with the gravity of its tone. The recurring "Trinidad" and "Antarctica" at the end of each stanza heighten the impression of a timeless landscape, one that is more mythic than naturalistic. (For more on syllabic verse, sample the work of one of its leading modern practitioners, the acclaimed poet Marianne Moore.)
Although they don't tell us anything new (Antarctica is cold), the opening lines narrowly escape banality because of the sureness of this oracular voice. The sounds, rather than the content, carry the poem forward. The opening string of three stressed syllables ("Cold! Cold! Totally cold!") uses the same technique as the famous opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to demand our attention. Interior rhymes and assonance (cold, totally, Pole, soul, old) resound like a tolling bell. In the second stanza, the poet confronts the haunting scene's stark beauty with an awe that is barely distinguishable from terror.
By contrast, most of the images of Trinidad are softer-focus and sentimental, without the immediacy or tightly constructed sound-patterns of the preceding section. Exception: "Riverbanks and stars arise" is a lovely, delicate image. To some extent, the lesser intensity of the second section is a relief from the inhuman majesty of Antarctica, but I think this effect could be retained while increasing the originality of the wording.
The contrast between the landscapes would not be news in itself, but acquires significance as a mirror of the speaker's inner journey. The speaker introduces both himself and the poem's setting by saying that Antarctica is "cold like my former soul." The word "former" immediately suggests the opening of a story, which we hope will be brought to closure later in the poem. This hope is only partly brought to fruition.
The Trinidad sections imply that the speaker's soul, once frozen like the polar wastes, has been thawed by the romantic hopes that always lay in its depths: "Warmer than a bonfire has been my old desire/For always green, tropical Trinidad." The word "old" suggests that both moods have long coexisted inside the speaker, but now he has allowed the warmer one to become ascendant. Formerly, he "withdrew behind Antarctica," a desolation that may have had its own unique pleasures (solitude, safety, self-dramatizing unhappiness?) but did not satisfy the part of his soul that longed for human connection.
Yet at the poem's end, the speaker is still only "thinking of my Trinidad." It is not clear that he has reached the land of fulfillment. Where is he now, thinking of both Antarctica and Trinidad but not actually in either place? Perhaps one represents the past and the other the future. In any event, the next-to-last stanza's soothing phrase "Cool is the light on snowy nights" shows that he has achieved balance between both aspects of his temperament, and can appreciate whatever sublime experiences each landscape offers. There's a maturity in this conclusion, a harmony with the past rather than a rejection of it, which somewhat compensates for the unfinished nature of the poem's journey.
Where could a poem like "Antarctica" be submitted? As I've mentioned before, many literary journals nowadays are wedded to a modernist, colloquial free-verse aesthetic. The old-fashioned romantic tone and diction of "Antarctica" would be out of place in such venues. Poets with a style like Fonseca's would do better to concentrate on publishers outside the American academic establishment, such as state poetry societies and small independent contest sponsors, especially British ones. Some upcoming contests to consider:
Poetry Society of Virginia Contests
Postmark Deadline: January 19
In addition to open-theme grand prize, several themed contests offer prizes for a variety of verse forms and topics, including poems about nature
W.B. Yeats Society Annual Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: February 15
Affiliated with New York City's prestigious National Arts Club
Oregon State Poetry Association Contests
Postmark Deadline: February 26
Also holds contests in August; open-theme grand prize plus smaller awards for traditional verse and other categories
Kick Start Poets Competition
Postmark Deadline: March 25
British contest offers 500 pounds, accepts various currencies; 2004 winner was formal poem
Byron Herbert Reece International Award
Postmark Deadline: April 15 (changed to October 15 in 2006)
Honors Georgia poet who celebrated his native landscape; no simultaneous submissions
In January 2006, look for the biennial Nature Poetry Competition from Friends of Acadia Journal
This poem and critique appeared in the December 2004 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques