The Earth Is Not Flat

A poetry reading with Katherine Coles at The King’s English Bookstore (March 1, 2013)

To try to capture a poetry reading is a perilous task at best, but here goes.

It’s March 1, 2013, at the art gallery neighboring The King’s English Bookstore in Salt Lake City. Katherine Coles’ new book of poems, The Earth Is Not Flat, just released, is being celebrated by a sizable audience of strangers, former and current students, family, friends, willing bookstore employees, and fellow writers not a few.

Katherine brings a near perfect balance of confidence and humility to both the writing of poems and the performance of them.

This new collection is born of a month-long journey to a remote Antarctic science station in 2010. She has returned from the adventure clearly changed, having encountered a sacred place and part of herself. You can see it in her eyes and hear it in the tremor in her voice. She says, “I’m in the presence of my entire artistic history in this room,” when she looks into faces not seen in years, including a high school English teacher.

Before Katherine reads any poems herself, a pianist and soprano perform a series of them set to music: the vaulting soprano voice like water pouring in and filling your ears, while the accompanying piano rushes then stops, lyrical runs cut short by dissonant chords. From inside the music come phrases and images: Perpetual sunrise . . . no search party . . . to show the way . . . could bring death . . . uncertainty undermined . . . belief arose . . . we like time . . . she could not break through.

This musical rendering creates an effect similar to the “erasure” poems Coles reads later, where she takes written accounts from explorers like Shackleton and Amundsen, and then erases most of their words—“Adding insult to injury,” she says, “by adding in words of my own.” She holds up her finger to signal the quoted passages. For me, this works a strange magic, bringing together the shared experience of a place in lives separated by a century.

The book’s cover features an otherworldly Antarctic panorama with its white plains of ice and distant blue-white mountains. In the foreground blue spheres of various sizes are positioned to align with stars overhead but invisible to the eye during the constant daylight of summer solstice. This installation was made in 2006 by artist Lita Albuquerque. You can see it for yourself at

Cole’s celebrates this installation in “Music of the Spheres”:

Bring to this particular field constant
Motion, stars we never see now
Even night shines.

When Coles told one friend of her planned trip to Antarctica, which would include a crossing of the treacherous Drake Passage in 30 foot seas (60 feet from trough to crest), waves crashing over the bow, waves like mountains in motion, in small ship with only twenty other passengers, her friend said, “I support you, but you’re crazy.”

The pre-expedition training in Denver seemed to support her friend’s uncertainty. “They didn’t trust non-scientists,” Coles explains, “They’re afraid poets are going to show up in bikinis.”
However, once Coles immerses herself in the culture of Palmer Station, where more than 50 percent of the scientists turn out to be women, she soon overcomes the stigma of the “no-bikini orientation.” She joins in the naming of icebergs—the Mark Walberg, the Ethel Rosenberg. And, when the scientists learn she’s willing to work and not just observe, she’s invited to accompany a scientific group every day.

In fact the scientists prove to be surprisingly superstitious about Coles. “Oh, you’re the poet,” they say. They notice that when she’s there, the wildlife appears—whales out of season, a penguin clambering right into the boat. Soon they prize her as a good luck talisman: “Put the poet in the boat and the animals will come.”

In this mesmerizing collection, Coles speaks of the difference between the language of poetry and the language of science: “Scientists want the words to mean one thing, while the poets want the words to mean as many things as possible,” Coles says. In the poem “Looking South” She explores the many ways knowledge comes to us:

In the end
There is what we’ve seen
And what we’ve seen in photos,

Videos, between pages, in
Our heads. Sometimes it’s hard
To distinguish one from the other

The dangers her friends at home warned her about are real enough, but they are neutralized by Coles’ sense of awe and unquenchable curiosity, such as when she peers into the open maw of a glacier:

The glacier shifts, growling, it too
Opens voraciously, invites me to look if
I’m dumb enough to get that close
Into its deep dream.

There is something to be learned in this bleak landscape—music “you can name if you let yourself be moved.” Coles asks: “In a place so strange, how do know how to make sense of what you’re seeing? How do you understand and describe what you’re looking at?”

And yet, Coles, in poems like Self Portrait in Glass, Tempo for a Winged Instrument, Dogs of Ice, Rumors of Topography, Here Be Monsters, All Day Long the Glacier Sings, and many others, gives her audience much more than a hint of what she experienced in this place “where light and ice add up to distance,” in this place “exactly south of everywhere.”

S. Cantwell, 3/1/2013

Learn more about Katherine’s book from Red Hen Press.

Writers @ Work is holding its annual writers conference at Alta Lodge in Alta, Utah, from June 5-9. See our conference page for all the details and register today!

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