This is the glimpse of the god you were never supposed to get.
— Laura Kasischke
I’ve been thinking about the end of the world for as long as I’ve been in it. It was my primary childhood fear — a projection, any adult outside my door might have said, of my off-kilter family life. The end was going to come because China and Russia were enemies of America and eventually one of them was going to drop a nuclear bomb on America and especially New York City, where I lived on 12th Street. And it would all happen without warning, in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Thank God for the movies my mother took me and my twin brother, Kevin, to — even if they were way too provocative (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Pumpkin Eater). Like many women of her time, my mother was lonely in a marriage.
I’ve moved only slightly away from the fear I invented in childhood; most of the nuclear family is dead, and there are days — end of summer days, especially — when I forget about the end of the world completely, even as it teeters on its axis more hazardously than ever before. The world — I’ve concluded — is simply a machine that will eventually blow from two opposite bad habits in collision: neglect and overuse. And like the beings that inhabit it, hasn’t the earth always been in some phase of departure? We all know this. But there are poets who draw on it for inspiration.
Dana Levin and Laura Kasischke (among others) contributed poems as part of a 2012 New York Times feature called — with a cloying kind of aw-shucks sentimentality — “It’s the End of the World,” triggered by the infamous Mayan calendar prediction about the end to civilization. Generic as it was — in an effort, I suppose, to lighten the message — the title still couldn’t diffuse the seriousness of the poetry that followed it. “Morning News” by Dana Levin ends like this:
The death of ice, of food, of space, whatwe call Doom —
which might be a bending —
a flow of permissions —
to forge a mutant form —
Time is almost always ambiguous in a poem that lasts — nonlinear, cosmically (or comically) stacked, ordered like a dream. And the central idea in “Morning News” is that the end is the beginning of something else or — more trenchant — somewhere else. Or, that the world ending is not quite finished with the imagination it uses to keep it intact — eulogized in the concluding lines of another Levin poem, “At the End of My Hours”:
I couldn’t quite
quit some ideas — trees and chocolate
I couldn’t stop yammering
over the devastated earth
pining for nachos — prescription drugs
and a hint of spring, though I could see
the new desert — its bumper-crop
of bone and brick
from shipwrecked cities — where now
the sons and daughters of someone tough
are on the hunt for rat — the scent of meat
however mean and a root
sending an antenna up, to consider
greening — what poems built their houses for
once, in a blindered age, teaching us
the forms we felt, in rescue — hoarded-up scraps
whirling around my cave
trying to conjure peaches
The poem staggers along like the charting of a fever dream — the way that bedraggled father and son stagger along in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — through the apocalyptic end of a world that’s collapsed, even though Levin’s future-speaker (or is she just crazy?) isn’t ready to quit yet. She’s held to the idea of living because she still has the capacity to remember something.
This haunting displacement (or is it stubbornness?) informs a very different poem about endings: Rilke’s “Requiem for a Friend” (I’m thinking of the Stephen Mitchell translation), in which a woman’s recent death is nuanced by her ghostly return that feels, to the poet, way too early:
I have my dead, and I have let them go,and was amazed to see them so contented,so soon at home in being dead, so cheerful,so unlike their reputation. Only youreturn; brush past me, loiter, try to knockagainst something, so that the sound revealsyour presence.
As it is in many Rilke poems of spiritual restlessness (the world stops and eventually goes back to where it was, but changed), Levin’s “Morning News” ends on a turn and invents a place that occurs without the inconvenience of human beings or, at the very least, advocates for a different kind of being: forged, mutant.
The mutant is either made by the world advancing, splitting off, or devolving. Or the mutant enters the world as something from beyond our atmosphere. I’m thinking mostly of the movies (Invaders from Mars and even, in its way, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) where the stranger comes to town (in a spaceship, as it happens) to signify the end of the world — particularly since these movies were all made in the fifties, the height of America’s atomic bomb testing program. The interplanetary messenger is always bringing some version of doomsday down with him.
By now we’ve been living with the end of the world as a subject long enough for it to be mythic by not happening. “The nuclear age produced a nuclear consciousness and nuclear psyche, but not a nuclear imagination,” wrote Steve Erickson in an essay called “The Apocalypse — Stay Tuned.” “Those few who have [a] nuclear imagination not only confront the abyss but are liberated by it,” he continues, which is exactly where, consciously or unconsciously, poets like Dana Levin live (and, as it happens — says Erikson — where Billie Holiday and Walt Disney lived, too). The nuclear imagination — in a more literal ideation — has also made catastrophe the trope of choice in the American disaster movie (if you can’t see the end, it’s not there), which gives poets the freedom to look at apocalypse as a gateway to a language that describes something even bigger: the threat of an empty universe — a phrase Alberta Turner once used to describe the poems of Jean Valentine — in which the real subject is silence.
How does one write their way into such an inevitability without resisting it? Or is the poem that faces the world in conclusion just an open invitation to make something complicated read as simplistic? (Think of the overly obvious poems written after 9 /11 that couldn’t get out of the way of two towers and four airplanes). Jim Schley’s seminal anthology Writing in a Nuclear Age, published originally as a special issue of the New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly in 1983, consisted of prose and poetry that dealt with the nuclear idea of extinction before those longer eves of destruction — terrorism and climate change — had revealed themselves in the theater of interpretation. Some of the work in the book is naive and unimaginative; some of it is appropriately haunting. “When,” by Sharon Olds, couples nuclear anxiety with a kind of suburban malaise:
I wonder now only when it will happen,when the young mother will hear thenoise like somebody’s pressure cookerdown the block, going off. She’ll go out in the yard,holding her small daughter in her arms,and there, above the end of the street, in theair above the line of the trees,she will see it rising, lifting upover our horizon, the upper rim of thegold ball, large as a giantplanet starting to lift up over ours.She will stand there in the yard holding her daughter,looking at it rise and glow and blossom and rise,and the child will open her arms to it,it will look so beautiful.
Instead of driving predictable panic through a scene of predictable panic, Olds turns the poem in another direction. Awe and surrender end the stanza, but they are also there to meet the indelible and chilling opening declaration: I wonder now only when it will happen. It’s not only the world that ends, but a kind of thinking about the world, too.
William Stafford’s “Next Time” uses the threat of extinction to talk about the quality of attention when it is lifted by future-hope:
Next time what I’d do is look atthe earth before saying anything. I’d stopjust before going into a houseand be an emperor for a minuteand listen better to the windor to the air being still.
When anyone talked to me, whetherblame or praise or just passing time,I’d watch the face, how the mouthhad to work, and see any strain, anysign of what lifted the voice.
And for all, I’d know more — the earthbracing itself and soaring, the airfinding every leaf and feather overforest and water, and for every personthe body glowing inside the clotheslike a light.
If writing the nuclear threat has been eclipsed by a slower moving catastrophe, it’s an important distinction when considering the end of the world as something that reconfigures the language used to talk about it. Because the end will probably be up to the world itself and not decided by a button on a control panel behind the curtain at some Cold War’s secret Oz location — how I used to think when I was masterminding my childhood. The intent and function of the “I” in a poem of apocalypse written now pulls further and further away from the ego and, in many instances, the political. The “I” in the Olds poem has now grown into the one who sees beyond a merely radioactive horizon — underscoring an overwhelming paradox: the end of the world as a philosophy about the end of the world. Which is lucky for poetry. Nothing is literal until it actually happens.
End of Days — the slogan, the commodity, the live wire sending its current through the hand of the poet writing about it — has, of course, become unavoidable as we draw closer to it. Levin suggests that we are already in the end of something — if not the world, at least the thinking around the idea that the world never ends. And other poets have always let the end of time influence — even if fleetingly — their ethos in at least one of their books: Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely; Laura Kasischke’s Space, in Chains; Adrienne Rich’s Tonight No Poetry Will Serve; Chase Twichell’s The Ghost of Eden; Louise Glück’s A Village Life; Jorie Graham’s Place; and two books published in 2013, Christina Davis’s An Ethic and The Cloud That Contained the Lightning by Cynthia Lowen, the latter a book of poems that speaks through J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atom bomb,” who serves as the book’s conflicted persona.
All of these books are extraordinary and I would also have to include on that list — though it may not be an obvious choice — Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires. When he died in November of 2012, Gilbert interrupted the books I was reading because I had to stop and go back to his work (you always want to hear someone’s voice again immediately after they die to be certain the world didn’t end what they sounded like) and to the poems before The Great Fires for a sense of the whole life he gave us — writing in the voice of a man in survival: a dramatic whisper, sounding, Look! Here’s what’s left. The end of the world in a Gilbert poem is a subject that enlarges the “I” into someone witnessing personal experience, but also the world experiencing being the world. Here, in its entirety, is what may be Gilbert’s poem of core belief — “A Brief for the Defense”:
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babiesare not starving someplace, they are starvingsomewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would notbe made so fine. The Bengal tiger would notbe fashioned so miraculously well. The poor womenat the fountain are laughing together betweenthe suffering they have known and the awfulnessin their future, smiling and laughing while somebodyin the village is very sick. There is laughterevery day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,we lessen the importance of their deprivation.We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must havethe stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthlessfurnace of this world. To make injustice the onlymeasure of our attention is to praise the Devil.If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.We must admit there will be music despite everything.We stand at the prow again of a small shipanchored late at night in the tiny portlooking over to the sleeping island: the waterfrontis three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboatcomes slowly out and then goes back is truly worthall the years of sorrow that are to come.
We must risk delight, the poem instructs us, and to live to an end that has magnitude; to take on happiness, in spite of the world trying to eat happiness. To fight for it; to know that it isn’t only a possibility, but one of the necessities of life. We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world. The poem makes joy an even larger and essential human condition by framing it with dread. There is laughter / every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta.
Jack Gilbert’s poems are complex and spiritually audacious. He is also part of a rare breed of writers who see the world as a love object (Nazim Hikmet and Seamus Heaney are like this, too) while still feeling the sharpness of its blade, which makes the poems bigger in the mind than they appear on the page. (The poems in The Great Fires are never longer than one stanza). And because, even in their measured gestures of longing, they are also poems willing to be overtaken by the world’s stark and sometimes sudden outbreaks of beauty, they feel written in a way that could be read as one long footnote referring back to Hokusai’s iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Something formidable is about to hit the shore, but is caught in the last phase of what makes it catastrophic. Perhaps, like Dana Levin, and all the other singers underground, Jack Gilbert considered the end of the world his muse and not the iconic disaster popular culture would have us believe it to be — an invitation for his mind to go inside the lyric, without sounding the alarm.
To go inside that particular lyric takes a kind of psychic will that intuits the edge of the abyss — the what-is-ness that gives a poem about the end of the world its sense of liberation and what gave — back to the Erickson essay — Billie Holiday her voice. Writing in the Nuclear Age was my first exposure to a certain poetry of danger and the understanding that Armageddon was something poets have been thinking about for a long time. Today, I think that same subject has taken hold of a lexicon that is more elliptical and unsettling than it was in the poems Schley included for his anthology. The new writing about the end of the world (or is it for the end of the world?) may simply be an extension of our moral outrage against corporate greed and various forms of biotechnology — the way, in my childhood, I looked to the nuclear threat scenario as a more workable explanation for why my household felt threatening. Childhood is the laboratory for making meaning and mine was helped along through absorbing the images I saw on television in all those old science fiction and invasion movies. The alien metaphor wasn’t lost on me because I, too, felt like a stranger in a strange land.
I’m going to be sixty on my next birthday, and I’ve gone from watching space invaders, body snatchers, and radioactive insects to becoming mildly obsessed, like other Americans, with the vampire and the shapeshifter and, just last week, the resurrected as they are depicted in the French thriller series The Returned — about a random group of dead villagers who return to the land of the living years after they died and try to resume their lives with as little bother as possible after devastating their small idyllic mountain community with their reappearance.
What’s different about the returned is that they have none of the usual signs (insatiable hunger, bad skin) that mark a zombie’s life. And, even more crucial, they’re not even certain they’re dead until somebody tells them they are. In other words, they all look and sound like you and me and the world coming to an end is the farthest thing from their minds because it ended already. Sort of. Life after life is their version of the rapture. But being dead is not the same thing as being erased. And what the poets are telling me — some of them, and many of the ones I love — is that the dilemma of being alive at the beginning of the twenty-first century (after taking into account the unending casualties of war) is the possibility that I won’t get to have my own death; “we were young we knew how to die / but not how to last,” Mark Conway says at the hinge of his poem, “in the ruins.” And I think in that lowercase, nonpunctuated statement, he identifies the essential question of our time.
And, speaking of time — my copy of Writing in a Nuclear Age is thirty years old. I wonder why I’ve kept it all these years. It’s a good book, but not a great book, and it even started coming apart a few months ago. Maybe I still have it so I can come back to the haunting photograph on the cover — from FIRE, a play by Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater. I actually dropped the book the other day and all the pages came loose and scattered to the floor. And as I was putting them back, I knew they were out of order, which — I was magically thinking — may have made the poems lose all the danger that was there when they first appeared.