Northwest Passages

a poem by
NATE MAXSON | Performance Artist + Poet

 I’m a big history buff, and sometimes I read certain facts that strike me so intensely that I have to use them as details in poems. In this case, it was that the two ships that disappeared in the Franklin Expedition, which was a mid-19th century failed voyage to the Arctic circle in an attempt to find the Northwest Passage, were named “Terror” and “Erebus.” That, coupled with the Renaissance symbol of the goldfinch, a bird that eats thistle seeds, and was used to represent Christ’s crown of thorns, were the images that the rest of the poem grew around. I was writing a lot of poems with bird-related imagery in them earlier in the year, and, while this one does feel less indebted to Ted Hughes’ “Crow” poems, a series I’m quite fond of, the second section of this poem is equal parts Catholic mysticism (though I’m not Catholic) and Hughesian reverie. I’m an artistic magpie, to use another avian metaphor, so all the shiny and interesting things I learn and read get reprocessed into my poems in a very collage-like manner.

Photo by Jennifer Latuperisa-Andresen

I could be a goldfinch
In another white sky
Floating on the updrafts from an open pit diamond mine
The center of the world
Where time stops
Somewhere north
I could watch the Arctic ships
Terror and Erebus

And the bones of the sailors were marked with the days that they waited

When the glaciers melt
All that waits beneath
Reveals itself unto shadow and song

In Renaissance paintings this bird appears among depictions of The Madonna and Child
This is how we escape from time
Set iron to water and fill the holds with the bodies of saints
Waiting for the ice to break
Those who need to believe,
Those who deserve a mystery instead of a wake
Cyrillic names traced in frost on their cheeks by an unseen hand

I could be,
A paradox painted on the sides of hulks lining the harbor
Find me in a dream, like the song says
When the mouth of the prisoner opens
A radio signal
Like a silver ring
Something with wings
Beating against the cold



Performance Artist + Poet

I’m a writer and performance artist. I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.