Catherine Pierce begins her newest collection at the end of the world. The poet is six degrees separate from posterboard-toting, apocalypse-touting street preachers—but she sympathizes with the shape of their concerns.
“Alternative facts” debase the discourse. Sexual predators accept lifetime Supreme Court appointments, twisting both ends of “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” A blistered planet grows ever hotter. The end of existence as Pierce knows it draws near, but she feels fine. Or at least a facsimile of fine.
“In the beginning, the ending was beautiful,” she writes, opening her book and the poem “Anthropocene Pastoral.”
Danger Days chronicles Pierce’s ride through these days, straddling the pendulum, holding on for anything resembling dear life. In some poems, her soul is black-and-blue, bearing existential bruises; in others, she fumbles with something like euphoria.
The poet’s ability to feel her way through this moment—to feel anything at all—rests on her awareness that history is lousy with moments like this. Names and details change; but dread never takes a generation off. It’s always quarter till the hour of our demise, Pierce proposes, so we keep rooting out the stuff of survival.
“Anthropocene Pastoral” carries on and so does Pierce, lining out the impossibly human spirit of the book. We cannot help ourselves, seizing pleasures even as the shadow of the valley of extinction creeps toward us.
“At least / it’s starting gentle, we said. An absurd comfort, / we knew, a placebo. But we were built like that,” she writes.
“Built to say at least. Built to reach for the heat / of skin on skin even when we were already hot, / built to love the purpling desert in the twilight, / built to marvel over the pink bursting dogwoods, / to hold tight to every pleasure even as we / rocked together toward the graying …”
Pierce describes her love-hate relationship with this world in ways sure to resonate with any soul living here. The title of “In Which the Country Is An Abandoned Amusement Park” stakes its claim; so does “High Dangerous,” perching just outside the domain of childhood, warning that what we find most beautiful might also be what kills us.
Consternation over our combustion comes from an inborn desire to wring out every possible joy. Within several poems, it also derives from the burden of affection and accountability Pierce carries for a generation that cannot yet bear its own weight.
“Gestational Size Equivalency Chart” expresses the fragility of these stakeholders. “Your baby is the size / of What if. The size of Please Lord,” she writes in early lines. Swelling into a gorgeous, gutting rhapsody, the baby in question reaches “the size of that moment in ‘Levon’ when / the strings first kick in.”
Children grow to occupy the space around them. Yet the gap between our smallness and the force of the universe, with its infinite possibilities for caressing and crushing us, maintains its size too. Pierce writes:
is the size of the Gravitron, and your fear
the first time you rode it that your heart
might drop right through your body,
and then your elation when it didn’t,
when the red vinyl panels rose and fell
and you rose and fell with them.
Parenthood provides a front-row seat to the planet’s many unsteady revolutions. The view is spectacular, Pierce radios back to Earth in “How Becoming a Mother Is Like Space Travel.” But the precision necessary to bring everyone home alive feels daunting. Ending a litany of uncanny similarities, she removes her visored helmet—and ours: “He left the planet / as himself. He came back / as himself, rearranged.”
Bearing witness to cosmic crumbling, Pierce nimbly toes the line between hopelessness and mania. Her subjects know existential panic with “all the senses short-sheeted” (“Tunnel Vision”). Then in “Spaceship Earth,” the speaker whirls through an EPCOT-like design, encountering architects of Western culture: Phoenicians, Romans, “animatronic monks” who “copy manuscripts.”
One monk has fallen
asleep on his desk. It’s so peaceful inside
the dark globe, track softly thudding
beneath us, and I thrill as we pass marvel
after marvel. O beloved papyrus! O Gutenberg!
These cultivators make the best mold Pierce knows. We abide these days by creating our way out of them, into blank spaces and new sensations.
“We did not invent grieving, / though we did invent hymns and chants / and lanterns to help navigate it. We did not / invent ourselves, not the collective-fact-of-us, / but we spend our days inventing,” she writes in “What We Invented.”
We push, probe, reach and taste to feel most ourselves during moments that conspire to make us forget our humanity. In “Let Someone Say You Are Electric,” Pierce conveys that very message to readers—and the self reflected off the surface of the page: “Put that diamond / next to the others. Make a trail / of gleaming and follow it to yourself.”
The results of all this recreating and reveling are mixed, Pierce admits. Some days we falter and direct our unbidden howls heavenward: “Dear Lord, for years I have prayed / the way a rabbit runs from a dog. / Dear Lord, I am tired” (“Prayer”).
On others, we form a grammar of rapture, acting and asking to be acted upon. “High desert me. / Dell and dune me. Hurricane me / homeward. Whitecap me out / of my small fretting, magnolia me / away from what mires,” Pierce writes in “Dear Place, I Ask So Much.”
Pierce paints the actual end in charred colors and undulating lines. The waves are sublime, the breakers frightful. “Fable for the Final Days” describes the fateful “heat / rising and rising and our houses / shuddering.” But Pierce also tunes her antennae to “the one / satellite radio station playing / ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ on repeat / for four days until the static.” What a way to go.
Danger Days suggests there is no such thing as the poetry of resistance; neither is there a poetry of relief from all the clanging alarm bells. There is only the poetry of being human. “The world is always leaving us / and so we build it back,” Pierce writes in “All of This Building.”
Danger Days belongs to a sub-genre that is more lived-in than literary; Pierce’s verses bear greater resemblance to experiences than other poems. They keep company with last kisses before love dissipates; the final taste of fruit before a season’s change; any of the simple ecstasies that enable us to “muscle up to Armageddon,” as Shawn Colvin once sang. But in the face of Armageddon—or a thousand daily devastations—Pierce’s poems make their stand. And their struggle is never in vain.
Aarik Danielsen is the arts editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri and teaches at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column, The (Dis)content, for Fathom Magazine, and has been published at Image Journal, Rain Taxi, EcoTheo Review, and more. Find him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen or at aarikdanielsen.com.