It seems that stories about the end times are everywhere, and they carry familiar tropes with them: the plucky band of misfits who become a family, the unlikely hero, the ruins of places we once recognized as home. But from this book’s first section (entitled Disaster Studies), Gailey’s speaker shows a different hand, letting the reader know that there really is no such thing as being prepared. Whether they come through disease, daily annoyances, or life-altering experiences, all of our ends are unavoidable. “It’s not the life you planned,” the speaker tells us, and “When later asked, Are you okay? I said, Everything is temporary.” And with the poem “In Case,” we receive a reminder of the futility of all the things we are taught to do in case of disaster.
Yet this field guide is full of reasons to keep living, even through the most challenging of times. Wonderful details of everyday life abound, proving that we are still human, even when everything is going wrong. In “Are We There Yet?,” the speaker explains “the sky-blue Plymouth of our lives is lined in sticky vinyl and no one is playing the music I like.” The mix of discomfort and familiarity in many of these poems constantly grounds us in a very possible and realistic future instead of some stereotypical apocalyptic landscape.
Gailey uses some repeated conceits to keep this narrative fresh. Some of my favorite poems are postcards from places that the speaker takes refuge on her journey. These poems include touches of humorous pop culture and little bits of pre-ruin life into the narrator’s dire circumstances. In “Post-Apocalyptic Postcard from the Viceroy Hotel, Santa Monica”: “there were still flavored syrups at the Coffee Bean; almond, raspberry.” Other postcards reference Anthropologie, Food Network, HGTV, and American Girl, our consumer culture surviving everywhere the narrator takes us.
In the section titled Cultural Anthropology, Gailey continues to show off her skill at mixing pop culture references with thoughtful and serious subjects. The reader gets zombies, teenage vampires, Martha Stewart, Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, Ina Garten, aliens, and fairy tales, but the poems are never shallow. The fairy tales show us that “the body is the place of violence.” The alien autopsy shows us that “dissection is an art, how taking things apart/is ultimately an exercise in putting things back together.” And in a poem extolling the persistence of Wile E. Coyote, we discover “even the most sophisticated scientists’ helplessness in the throes of desire, unsatiated appetite.”
But this is not just an imaginary end time story. There is personal struggle here, which is very real – neural lesions, injections of radioactive blood cells to attack disease, and a shorting out of circuits, “the wrong word in my mouth/when I try to say your name.” However, these poems are not dressed in black. They are not mourning, not yet. Although “we are all at war with ourselves and with each other,” we seek answers, we “trust the doctors, the governments; we give our lives into their untrembling hands.” This is a speaker who sees beauty even in futility: “I feel a little less alive each morning. Every stone becomes a church. Every star that winks out is named after you.”
In the end, this field guide doesn’t teach us how to build a fall-out shelter or how to make a fire with rocks. It teaches us that, in order to survive any staggering blow, what matters most is observation and human connection. Even as the speaker gets to what seems like acceptance of the end of her world, she continues to observe and to wonder: “Even with the barns burning, the last glow on the horizon, I could not stop taking notes.” And in the book’s last poem, we get a beautiful reminder that all the things we think we need cannot destroy the one thing we cannot live without: “All I need right now is you, the simple weight of your hand, the warmth of your breath, and this last cup of coffee to tell me–we are miraculous.”
Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress Publications, 2013) as well as seven chapbooks, most recently Tinder, Smolder, Bones, and Snow (dancing girl press) She serves as the reviews editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection and teaches middle school in the suburbs of Chicago.