Maybe this election cycle, with its casual invocation of nuclear war and portraits of American landscapes as dystopian nightmares, will finally break the fever of apocalyptic fiction that has held a tight grip on America’s popular consciousness for well over a decade now. Maybe — and this is one of those predictions that will likely sound very dumb six months from now — maybe it’s time to think about a better future again.
If we are at that moment — if we have arrived at a time to put dystopia behind us, then you can consider Jeannine Hall Gailey’s new poetry collection, Field Guide to the End of the World, to be the apocalypse’s Viking funeral, a joyous celebration of all the ways we’ve murdered the world in our imaginations.
I lost count of how many ways the world ended in Field Guide. The first two stanzas alone have four different world-ending possibilities:
While you told me about the bee colony collapse
caused by cell phones or maybe Monsanto and their magic poisons
I was thinking about a friend who said they found a lump
and another friend finishing chemo and waiting for a scan
That’s two apocalypses that have been promised in headlines — one mysterious, one eminently avoidable — and two apocalypses of a very different kind: a black speck on an x-ray, no larger than a spray of ink smeared on a sheet of white paper by a malfunctioning pen.
But in case you think this is a book just about realistic ways the world can collapse — toxic seas, yawn — you should know Gailey is clearly fluent in dystopia. She knows how it goes. She’s likely spent the hours watching the attractive actors battle for canned goods in the sanitized big-budget abbatoirs, and listening to the sobs of a friend delivering bad news on a phone. Just turn to the prose poem “Post-Apocalypse Postcard from the Viceroy Hotel, Santa Monica” for a more Hollywood-ready flavor of doom:
I woke up and laid out by the pool, still blue and inviting, the swim-up bar emptied of everything but ice buckets. Oh, for ice. There was something falling from the sky, tiny and white, but it wasn’t snow. It was ashes. Ashes of what?
The luxury of a California hotel, laid low with the forced paucity of an apocalypse, dusted with what might be atomic portions of incinerated human beings falling from the sky: now we’re getting somewhere! You can imagine Angelina Jolie by this pool. This is an apocalypse that ends within a couple hours, after the lights come up and the movie theater employees wander around the auditorium, picking up half-full buckets of popcorn and throwing them in a rolling trash can.
And Gailey understands that these moments are primed for humor, too. In “Martha Stewart’s Guide to Apocalypse Living,” we see the crafty, luxurious upper-middle class white woman’s take on the genre, with its tips on “storing munitions in attractive wicker boxes” and its “Culinary tips for after the mega-store raid: Mixed nuts have a long shelf life. Throw in a little rosemary and toast them over an open flame for anytime elegance.”
Not all of Field Guide is devoted to the apocalypse. Gailey offers seemingly unrelated pop-cultural poems that get into the brains of popular cartoon characters, including one that wonders over Wile E. Coyote’s curious hunger for the meager meal promised by the Road Runner, that “skinny and unluscious phantom, that puff of smoke.” Another takes the perspective of Batman foe Poison Ivy, and an unmemorable triptych attempts to tackle the Wizard of Oz. Another section of the book is interested in science, both real (genomes and electromagnets) and fictional (time travel), building to a survey of the sciences as told by a poet with a long memory and a gift for compelling metaphor.
Your love for thematically linked poems, of course, will affect how you feel about this book. Some like a little variety in their poetry collections, while others would probably prefer Field Guide to be split into two or three thinner (but thematically consistent) poetry collections. I’m in the latter camp; I found my attention drifting during the pop-culture poems. Whenever Gailey’s eye strayed to other subjects, I wanted her to return to the end of the world.
Regardless of how you feel about the curation of the poems that make up Field Guide, you have to acknowledge the craft that went into the book. Gailey is a gifted poet, and her talent specifically lies in wordy, narrative poems that each build to the one pristine moment when a realization dawns. Those realizations vary from universal to highly specific: sometimes an allegory can’t accurately reflect the world; the world is made up of other people who are not as interested in us as we are; no matter how bad things get, life goes on — until it doesn’t anymore.
So why the end of the world? Why not? What writer isn’t obsessed with that first moment of “not,” when everything we know stops? Like the rest of us, Gailey’s attention has surely been oversaturated with visions of death and desolation. She’s wondered what all that obsession with conclusions can do to a psyche. Her curiosity has driven her, again and again, to the very edge of the end of the world. Unlike most of us, she goes over that edge, into the uncertainty, and she brings things back for the rest of us.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant