Jean McNeil

Jean McNeil

Jean McNeil is originally from Nova Scotia, but has lived in London for twenty years. She is the author four novels and a collection of short fiction; her novel Private View was nominated for Canada’s premier literary award, the Governor General’s, in 2003; her books are published in Canada, USA and Britain. In 2010 she was a Mellon Foundation scholar at the University of Cape Town. She teaches on the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and at Birkbeck College in London.


'A sharp, unarguable talent' — New York Times Book Review


In 2005-6 the Canadian-born writer Jean McNeil spent three months with the British Antarctic Survey. In 2009 she visited Greenland with the Natural Environment Research Council. The result is the magnificent Night Orders (Smith/Doorstop, £9.95).

Part diary and part scientific journal, the book is a breath-taking study of the dynamics and the poetry of ice, ‘the most complete frozen archive of our planet’s past’. How do you write about a landscape that contains neither colour nor people?

How many shades of white can there be?

‘How many whites? The ivory of the old berg, / the bleached phosphorus glare of the ice sheet. / Transparent albumen of soaked ice, / dusk opal, albino, rose-grey, / the metallic blue-white of an electric current / or a lightning strike, / a pale dull jade.’

It is a wonderful world of bleak and extreme beauty. It is a book about the senses and the imagination, about the planet and our own small place on it. ‘We are fugitives, we are on the moon. We cannot walk on the ice, we would die. We cannot swim in the water, we would die.’'

— Andy Croft, Morning Star



We call the ship that has come to pluck us out
our big red taxi. Its real name is the Endurance
a namesake of Shackleton’s
broken vessel. 

It is April. Leaving Antarctica in winter
is like slouching away from a doomed village:
tidepools now clogged with ice,
a gorged sky. Time passes like saints
watching their backs. 

The horizon is a blue strip of light
between ice and sea, cloud and mountain.
Silver milk salt rubbed raw – 

we live like liar peasants.
The air only hooks. Struck dumb to find
we are enemies of ourselves
in an obsessive present. 

We used to know so many things.
Now we are strung on
one thin rule: 

not far now
until the darkness.



He is the sun’s own sign.

Small bodies suffer
disparities of size and mass.
He has a certain critical value. 

Some planets have little or no atmosphere.
Some planets get to you. 

We know planets revolve
endlessly in their orbits.
We know we are here only through luck. 

We ask
Will the earth end in fire or ice or will it
simply wear away?

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