Alfred Corn: "Antarctic"




Polar, antipodean, the father King

penguin would (if penguins did) think of us

as bodies hanging downside up, footsoles

adhering to the planet’s inhospitable

broiling half.


Pinfeathers glossy-smooth as ermine, the lower

part of his dinner suit can incubate

an oval solid, resting on black talons—

one blood-warm venture left to him in trust

the morning mother brooders metronomed

off on their way to ice brinks overland.

Instinct and hunger pushed them, plunged their flock

into resounding tanks of turquoise brine

to gulp a cache of fish for transport home.




The orange tint suffusing his broad chest

outglows this July afternoon’s decline

below horizons an ice age froze and locked

in place. To either side, cold high-rise silences

take the austral light, washes of blush rosing

a continent’s sheer quartzite crags and spars

as dusk’s slow indigo engulfs the valley.


He lifts and flaps his baffles

to test whiffling accelerations in the air.

Hardened, compliant, still, he’ll crane his head

and look: it’s bearing down, an ambush of white

artillery, whiplash bulletins forewarning

close-huddled bodies of the siege to come.




Birds at the margin get the brunt of it,

including one we’ve watched, who leans towards

the flock’s pulsating hub, his back abraded

by icy needles. One who’d elbow a path

between, among, a thousand cousins

if hindered limbs could manage

an exclusion so determined,

the blast unfavorable.

He stands and stays, giving what heat he has

to his small charge, its shell as hard as marble.




Morning’s still aftermath. Tilted dolmen

off to himself in a drift. Encased in crystal…

And she, homing in, will find that cold pillar,

not the mate who trilled a guttural

patter-song when he courted.




Dismal to see them down there in their blank

contra-hemisphere, small, black-and-white

emblems for team spirit, pins attached

to a globe not brooded over half enough.


No beaklet to peep and pipe for food, cushioned

body skittering across the summer ice….




Human nature: it likes sad narratives.

But currents charged beyond the natural

might conceivably thaw out a captive.

This antithetical perspective, bottom

to top, allows for an alternative,

the shell’s reticulations opening

on limbs snug warm in down, while seed-bead eyes

appraise new sky and snow, a twin sunrise

simmering on the ice-milk breast of giants

confirmed as shelter when their call tunes up.



Alfred Corn has published nine books of poetry, a novel, and two collections of critical essays, the most recent titled Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007, published last year by the University of Michigan Press. He has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets. He spends part of every year in London.