This Is How It Ends: Poetry of the Apocalypse
There are infinite ways that the world could end, and just as many ways to write about it. Along with poetry, I’ve been enraptured with novels and nonfiction about our earth and the era we find ourselves in. Geologically, we are in the age of the Anthropocene: the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
We humans are responsible for what’s happening, and—more ominously—what happens next. In the anthology Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, several authors discuss the damage we are doing to our earth, and novelist Jeannette Winters explores the “what’s next” in her book The Stone Gods. Her imaginative account comes in cycles: crossing worlds as easily as chapters, moving across hundreds of pages.
Poets don’t have that much room to work. Like a painter limited to her canvas, a poet concerned with the apocalypse must cover a lot of ground in a small space. Somehow, she must convey a whole new set of world rules to her reader, while building a scene, while distilling it all to a small narrative, a sliver of truth.
And yet it’s possible; a poem can be made stronger from this challenge, as it can gather energy from such a paradox. Juxtaposition can create conceptual dissonance, a sort of paradox of knowledge which the reader cannot reconcile.
Conceptual dissonance is a term often associated with the pelvis paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. In these images, the finite (bone) meets the infinite (sky). O’Keeffe juxtaposes the tangible with the intangible, solid with open, known and unknown. As viewers, we’re forced to be in two worlds at once. We breathe, our hearts keep beating, the sun moves steadily across the sky, and yet that solid white bone—that piece of death—looms before us.
Like the best speculative writing and this series of paintings, the post-apocalyptic poem can create conceptual dissonance by collapsing the distance between the known and unknown: the reader knows the dystopian scenario depicted is fictional, but an underlying truth—emotional or perhaps political—pushes against that fiction.
I think there is a sort of end-of-the-world vibe within these paintings because at their heart is the question of what’s left: sky and bone. Though it may be implied by the form of the landscape, we’re not actually given any indication that the world beyond the edge of each canvas is alive and well.
About her pelvis paintings, O’Keeffe said, “It is a kind of thing that I do that makes me feel I am going off into space—in a way that I like—and that frightens me a little because it’s so unlike what anyone else is doing.”
I like to think that this is how poets feel when they tackle apocalyptic or dystopian subjects. To counter the fright, poets turn to form, as sam sax does in his “Prayer for the Mutilated World,” published on The Poetry Foundation, which relies on anaphora to collect a variety of images and ideas into a single poem-as-list, ending in a call to action.
Meghan Privitello nudges her poems into a sort of diary or journal, numbering each lyric as “Day One,” “Day Two,” etc. in her poetry chapbook Notes on the End of the World, found here.
Jeannine Hall Gailey takes a different approach, infusing humor into her end of the world postcards. Poems like “Post-Apocalypse Postcard with Food Network Hostess,” published in Freezeray Poetry, rely on humor and draw imagery from pop culture to explore a rather terrifying subject.
By placing form and content at odds, these poets each create their own sort of conceptual dissonance, juxtaposing prayer or confession or humor against Armageddon. These approaches somehow bring the end of the world into our familiar lives while holding the pain of decimation at arm’s distance; it’s impossible yet totally possible.
With a rather volatile political climate and our natural environment facing an unstable future, this rich— terrifying material—is ripe for the taking. We can tuck it away where we don’t have to see it, or we can use poetic form to reap it, forming it into anything from a quiet prayer to a fiery Hollywood-style explosion—the page can hold not only a world’s end, but an entire world.
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at http://www.staceybalkun.com/