In September of 2016, I published my fifth poetry book, the winner of Moon City Press’s book prize, Field Guide to the End of the World, all about surviving and navigating the world post-apocalypse. When I started writing these poems, it was way before the light-comedy apocalypse television shows (“No Tomorrow,” “Last Man on Earth”) had started exploiting the subject. From television shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “The Walking Dead,” movies like 2012 to Armageddon, however, the apocalypse as subject matter and metaphor had been dominant in popular culture for years. When 2000 came and went with barely a peep, people were surprised that the world didn’t end. When 2012, a popular year for the end of the world based on some interpretations of the Mayan calendar, came and went, I thought the subject matter would fade from the public interest. But no – it remained an obsession.
Since my book came out, I’ve been keeping my eye out for apocalypse-themed poetry books, and sure enough, there were at least a handful of apocalypse-themed books and chapbooks that debuted in 2016: Dana Levin’s Banana Palace (you can read my full review of that book at The Rumpus here – http://therumpus.net/2016/11/banana-palace-by-dana-levin/), Donna Vorreyer’s book from Sundress Press, Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story, and a chapbook from Dancing Girl Press, Jessie Carty’s Shopping After the Apocalypse.
So why are so many poets writing about the apocalypse?
The facile answer might be, a little jokingly, that we are now living in a dystopia. But all of these books had the bulk of the poems written and published before our last election. Another facile answer would be we’ve all been influenced by the same pop culture, the same zombieland comedies and end-of-the-world imaginings that have lit up our television sets, movie theaters, as well as high literature and comic book alike. Of course, we’re thinking of the end of the world. Much like my childhood lit of the eighties, obsessed with nuclear war survival and cold war dystopias (Red Dawn, anyone?), our culture now is fraught, anxious, unbalanced. America is uncertain of its place in the world, and inside it, financial, racial, and cultural disparities are causing angst, and not just angst, but anger. Anxiety about shadowy government spying and unethical science pervades our television shows, and suspicion of people from other countries – the alien, as it were – is at what is maybe an all-time high for my lifetime. I can watch 1950s movies about invading aliens as a jokey, old-fashioned metaphor for fear of the Russian infiltration – or maybe not so jokey. Scientists have been talking about unwieldy weather phenomenon, catastrophic climate change and impending earthquakes, mass extinctions and environmental disasters are actually happening as we speak (see: the unending crisis that is Fukushima.) Fiction writers from Haruki Murakami to Margaret Atwood have been producing books dealing with their own versions of the end of the world.
I started writing the book that became Field Guide to the End of the World while I lived two years in California. California is always on the precipice of one disaster or another, and you’re expected to be prepared for it. It’s a different way of living. While I lived there, I started having some neurological symptoms that could not be ignored. They put me in a wheelchair – I had motor skill problems, peripheral neuropathy, falling and injuring myself multiple times. Not only was I in a wheelchair, I had the knowledge that things like feeling where your hands and feet were in space, or remembering someone’s name, were no longer guaranteed. It meant navigating the world differently. That informed a lot of the poems in Field Guide to the End of the World.
In all the books discussed here, including mine, the disaster/tragedy that caused the apocalypses is never made explicit, although it is referred to indirectly. The focus of all these books is on the survival of the speakers AFTER the apocalypse, picking up the pieces, learning a new way of life. This definitely resonated with me.
In Banana Palace, a feeling of alienation from the body – and a longing for “normal” pleasures, like eating – is central to the book, in a landscape of futuristic dystopia in which there are still talk shows but no peaches, in a world where living forever in cyberspace seems like an appealing option. One of my favorite lines in the book is from the short poem, “Fortune Cookie,” in which Levin claims starkly, to herself and to the reader: “You will never get death/ out of your system.”
In “Shopping After the Apocalypse,” Carty takes the quotidian survival tasks of hunting and gathering and takes a whimsical approach, visiting abandoned grocery stores and malls in search of things to eat, wear, and use. The chapbook is made up of numbered sections instead of titles, and in the first poem, the speaker is taking inventory of her own house, much as one might during a spring cleaning – in the end of the journey, the speaker is climbing the stairs of a lighthouse, “ready to know someone else’s story.”
In Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story, Vorreyer takes the pain of heartbreak and aligns it with clashing planets, the end of the world, and the way that people – and the universe – tend towards entropy. In the last poem, “Redux,” she writes as one would about the rebuilding of a relationship – or a world, that “Each day we wake and test/ the stitches, darn the tears./ We thread our limbs, lace/ our fingers. We hang on.”
In all of the books, the reader is left with no real fix, and just the outlines of various potential futures. Maybe there is a future self that survives everything, a generation that thrives instead of crumbling in the wake of the imagined plagues, wars, and accidents that have devastated our current world, defaced it. Maybe what we writers have in common is an unease about the present and its harbingers (dying bees, strange weather, meteorites coming close to earth, etc.) of environmental change, and the odd shift in politics across the globe. Maybe social media has amplified disaster after disaster, maybe our imaginations have been lit by a zeitgeist of darkness and despair. Perhaps as writers we are also lit by a need to see past despair to a narrative of survival and even, yes, the possibility of hopefulness again.
Links to the books (on Amazon:)
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Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She is the author of five books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, and Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize. Her work has been featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review and Prairie Schooner. Her web site is www.webbish6.com. Twitter handle: @webbish6.