Saturday, December 29, 2012

Owen Beattie Makes Everyone Green

Green with envy, that is! At least, that's the theme of a Forward Prize-winning poem by UK poet and novelist Sheenagh Pugh. The poem appears in her anthology Stonelight, an eclectic collection that encompasses themes ranging from Arctic exploration to a tutor's urgings. "Envying Owen Beattie" is perhaps the least conventional in its message; as the title implies, Pugh yearns to be a part of the exhumations that unearthed Petty Officer John Torrington.

While I do not want to quote Pugh's poem directly (I did not request her permission to do that), I can tell readers of this blog that the piece is unabashedly honest. Pugh walks the reader through the emotional steps of the exhumation process via a series of tercets. The last four become very personal as Pugh contemplates bestowing a kiss upon the well-preserved body in an attempt to reawaken the young man who does not appear to be entirely deceased. Poetry on the Franklin Expedition abounds, but I know of no other poem that expresses such sentiments for a crewman.

Yet, just who was John Torrington? We know him as the chief stoker on board H.M.S. Terror. From what I've read, I know that he was new to the Royal Navy, a first entry. He was from Manchester, and his mother died in childbirth. By today's standards, he possessed very short stature. This is a frustrating paucity of information on a man who has oddly (and unwittingly) become the face of the Franklin Expedition.

Stonelight also contains poems about the geography and other explorers of the Arctic, including a rousing one about Elisha Kent Kane. Copies occasionally appear on eBay, and they are usually inexpensive.

January 1st will mark the 167th anniversary of John Shaw Torrington's passing. Let us take a moment to remember him and his comrades through poetry, prayer, or a few reverent thoughts. Doing so just might bring old John back to life....