Dogs

Bill Manhire

I tried to work up a little poetry – ‘the ever-restless spirit of man’ – ‘the mysterious, awe-inspiring wilderness of ice’ – but it was no good; I suppose it was too early in the morning.

Roald Amundsen, The South Pole

‘What do you think? Shall we start?’ –
‘Yes, of course. Let’s be jogging on.’

So many dogs! And once they begin barking,
it’s good-bye to the peaceful Polar morning.

Yet there is this: dog can be fed on dog,
the feeble go straight to the chosen.

On the 29th we shot the first one, Bone.
He was only a hindrance.

At our first beacon we had to shoot Lucy.
Sad to put an end to this beautiful creature,

but there was nothing else to be done.
Adam and Lazarus were never seen again.

Sara fell dead on the way
without any prior symptom.

13 dogs each, hence we could sit on the sledges
and flourish our whips with a jaunty air.

Each man was to kill his own dogs
to the number that had been fixed.

I remember how shot followed on shot.
A trusty servant lost his life each time.

We opened the dogs and took out their entrails.
One dog found its grave in another’s stomach.

Many just ate till they dropped.
We named this place the ‘Butcher’s Shop’.

The dogs spent the night in eating;
all night there was crunching and grinding . . .

Rex was turned into cutlets.
Poor, faithful Per broke down utterly:

a little blow from the back of the axe . . .
But we slaughtered Svartflekken.

(He looked good but had a bad character,
hence was consumed with satisfaction.)

The same evening we had to finish
the last of our ladies – Else.

She was placed on the top of a great ice-beacon.
On the way home we would share her out.

(She had quite reasonable flesh
once you scraped away a little mouldiness.)

But in the meantime, the Pole! I remember best
our five weather-beaten, frost-bitten fists

clutching the flag, and that the dogs
took not the least interest in the regions

about the earth’s axis. How can you care
where a meal came from

when all that you leave is the teeth of your victim?
Then soon enough we were ‘turning

for home’. The first one killed on this leg
was Lasse, my own favourite.

We shared him among his companions.
Like Lurven, he made fifteen portions.

Nigger had been destroyed
on the way down from the plateau.

And here again was Don Pedro Christophersen,
partly in shadow, yet gleaming in the sun . . .

And all was so still . . .
But we had to kill Frithjof at this camp;

his lungs, quite shrivelled up,
went straight down another’s gullet.

And Thor . . . who could not get to his feet . . .
Yes, of course, it is true, sometimes

I feel quite alone. It is hard almost to speak . . .
My best friends bark in my stomach . . .

But then I think:

Come now, harness the team!
Fetch the right lashings!

And I see once again how the whip
haunts the heads of the dogs

Come over here, Bone!

and how the great unknown
spreads out before us – white, always white,

with always a splendid surface.