At the height of wildfire season in the American West last summer, as smoke from California drifted east and smartphone footage of alien red skies filled my social media feeds, I found myself transfixed by Ken Burns’ documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” from 2012.
The film is built around the testimony of Americans who survived the drought, poverty and dust storms that plagued the Great Plains in the 1930s. “The world’s coming to an end,” one man remembers his grandmother saying, when he asked her about the bloody color of the sky.
“The end of the world” is like a refrain in “The Dust Bowl,” the phrase most fitting to characterize a time of dust clouds thick enough to throw bright afternoons into sudden, inky darkness; of housewives’ futile sweeping, a desperate plea to keep the dirt out of their homes and their children’s lungs; of fathers’ suicides and tiny coffins; of grasshopper swarms and jackrabbit roundups; of an exodus of millions, carrying what little they had left westward, to California.
As I listened to the memories of elderly people whose childhoods were marred by environmental disaster, I felt a perplexing pang of reassurance. There was hurt in their voices, but there was also resilience and humor, and I was strangely comforted by the stories they told, these laughing survivors of the end of the world.
I thought about that feeling of fortitude–maybe it is better called hope–as I read the poet Franny Choi’s newest collection, “The World Keeps Ending and the World Goes On.” The title poem opens with a litany of world-endings, the apocalypses “of pipelines legislating their way through sacred water,” “of dogs and slave catchers,” “of radioactive rain” and “of the leaving, and the having left.”
“I was born from an apocalypse,” the narrator announces, “and have come to tell you what I know.” What the poem wants us to know is also what “The Dust Bowl” makes plain: our present apocalypses–of extreme weather, of governmental inaction, of human folly and suffering and greed–are not the first or only.
This poem was born from Choi’s feelings of despair amid the political turmoil of 2016 and the U.S. exit from the Paris Accords in 2017, when she was grappling with “a terrible certainty that what we were headed toward was the end of the world.”
“When I was in this state,” Choi said in an interview, “my partner said it might be helpful to remember that the apocalypse happened a long time ago and that our people have long been surviving it.”
There was something “almost comforting” about this idea, Choi said, an idea rooted in Afrofuturism. It compelled her to write about the “world-ending historical events” in her family’s story, like the Korean War, the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Japanese occupation of Korea and the Korean diaspora.
“Looking to past events helps me feel less lonely in these unprecedented times. It builds a kinship with people of the past,” Choi said.
Understanding that many of us exist today because our ancestors endured their own apocalypses “means that there will be people after this one, too,” she said. “If we say it’s the end of the world, then it frees us of the responsibility to imagine the next world, to imagine what it might be like for people to live in that next world.”
Instead of giving in to doomerism, the uncomplicated temptations of fatalism, we might look to history, reading the past for lessons in tenacity.
Elsewhere in the collection, Choi turns her imagination to the horizon, creating futures and possibilities out of poetry. “Wildlife,” a poem inspired by a “slip of the tongue” replacing “wildfire” with “wildlife,” imagines animals and plants “stampeding from their graves,” exploding like flames from the earth, a “rebellion” of nature against those who would plunder her. In “Wildlife,” attempts to drill for oil yield a rush of “bees, butterflies, short-horned lizards, plovers and prickly pears, grizzlies.”
In “Dispatches from a Future Great-Great-Granddaughter,” Choi writes from a distant time where there are “twelve different siren patterns” and “crises every day,” but also the ordinary comforts of “bread bubbling on the counter, pickled beans, a cat who comes home.” The letter has a simple, essential message: “What I want you to know is that we’re okay. Hurting but okay.”
“I think that this is one of the most important roles that artists can play,” Choi said, fulfilling an obligation to bring other worlds into the realm of the possible. “What I’m trying to do is help people build that muscle of imagining a different way for the world to work. Because we have to be practiced in order to build those worlds.”
For Choi, poetry also offers the means to process the often-overwhelming world we’re living in now. “Reading the news is almost like a beyond-human experience. There’s not room in my heart and my brain for all of it,” Choi said. “And yet you can’t look away. You have to keep looking at it.”
“It is difficult/ to get the news from poems,” William Carlos Williams wrote, famously, “yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” What is found in Choi’s work is the capacity to distill an onslaught of facts into emotional truth. In “How to Let Go of the World,” written after the documentary of the same name, Choi compresses a flood of headlines, from “the graves of reefs” to “brimstone eating California,” into sharp verse:
“I say when like disaster hasn’t come, isn’t already growing in the yard. Do I
have to run through the list? The firefighter prisoners–my friends’ islands
slowly swallowed–war in my faucet, remember? Syrian Civil War is the name
of a drought. The name of this hurricane is Exxon, Exxon, I shout.”
What better way to describe the crimes of the fossil fuel industry than the precise, scathing power of “the name of this hurricane is Exxon,” which conjures up, in a single sentence, an alternate reality where cause and consequence are much more clearly linked, and the storms wheeling across Doppler radar screens are named for oil companies instead of women. What would it mean if we remembered the destruction of Chevron, BP and Shell instead of Maria, Ida and Katrina?
“[Poetry] allowed me to start getting to that sharp little kernel that’s at the heart of the grief and the despair,” Choi said, which is “a love for the world and love for the planet and love for my people.” The pain we feel when we behold the wreckage of the present is born from love; you don’t mourn something if you didn’t love it first.
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That love, both the recognition and the cultivating of it, may also be part of the remedy for our permacrises. “Ever since I read that line from Grace Lee Boggs saying, ‘these are the times to grow our souls,’ I’ve been thinking about it,” Choi said. “What does it mean to grow the soul?”
In a speech that author and activist Boggs gave in 2003, she explained the notion of “growing our souls” in terms of the revelations forced on civilization by the atomic bomb, quoting Albert Einstein’s warning that humanity was “drifting towards catastrophe,” but that “the solution to the problem lies in the heart of mankind” and the expansion of “our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures.”
The root of the word “apocalypse” means to “uncover” or “reveal,” a suggestion of other worlds to come that is woven into the title poem of Choi’s collection, where one apocalypse burns into the next, like burst stars. “By the time the apocalypse began, the world had already/ ended. It ended every day for a century or two. It ended,” she writes, “and another ending/ world spun in its place.”