Medicine Show (5): Shackleton’s Banjo

This entry is part 29 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


for R.R., who forwarded the story

Shackleton’s ship trapped in pack ice
went down without its banjo,
that “vital mental medicine” as
he called it, fished out
at the last minute & hauled along
to Elephant Island with the raffish
rest of the crew. Who included
one Leonard Hussey, meteorologist
& cut-up, hired for his quick wit
& repertoire of banjo tunes.
Picture them singing Stephen Foster
over slabs of seal meat, 22 men
confined to a hut with the one
remaining boat for a roof,
the southern stars swimming
over its hull. Picture webbed feet
frying in a pan on New Year’s Day
as the men hopped & shuffled
their cornball best. And years later
when Shackleton returned
with Hussey to the South Atlantic,
on the night he died he asked
for one last tune. Imagine that banjo
pale as a bloodless cheek,
the explorer’s watery gaze.
And in the silence that followed,
shadows from the oil lamp
continuing to dance.

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14 Replies to “Medicine Show (5): Shackleton’s Banjo”

  1. Ah, Dave, I love so much of your writing–your insights, your imagery–and I seldom comment online because I see you in person and say these things to you face to face. But this time I’m not waiting until I see you in the hollow: This poem is simply exquisite. What a beautiful slice of history reimagined! Until I read the poem Shackleton’s humanity had not come to life for me. Thanks for resuscitating this man by means of mouth to mouth versification.

    1. Hey, thanks, Todd! I am a little ashamed of myself that I haven’t done more research for this series, because I think this poem does show that a little knowledge (one half-hour BBC programme in this case) can go a long way! I’m aware that a few of the earlier installments in the series are pretty sub-par (and in fact I’ll probably cull them), so I do appreciate your taking the time to let me know how well this one worked for you.

      1. I agree with what Todd writes above. The man’s humanity and courage and the bleakness of his end are so beautifully caught in this. (‘watery gaze’ in particular strikes at my heart. I once watched over a loved one whose eyes fitted that description as she moved toward death.)

        Good to see another banjo poem Dave. (And maybe another step toward a companion volume for Odes to Tools!)

        1. Thanks for commenting, Clive. With so many of you singing this poem’s praises, I’m beginning to think I might have done all right by it. Not sure I can say the same for too many others in the series so far, but I can always write more…

    1. Go for it — I’d be honored. Unfortunately the BBC story that sparked it is no longer online. They went into detail about several things I was unaware of, such as the century-long craze for American banjo music in Great Britain and the general practice of bringing musicians along on all kinds of lengthy sea voyages, including on the numerous attempts to find the Northwest Passage. (I originally thought of writing a poem called “banjos on ice.”) Prior to the Antarctic expedition, Hussey had been stationed in the Sudan, where his banjo had served as an ambassador with potentially hostile locals.

  2. I love your poem. I am teaching a unit on this right now to my 6th graders. I would love to use it. I just learned about saving the banjo on the expedition just yesterday. I love how you picked up on that detail.

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