Dear Atom Bomb,
I confess-you were my high school obsession.
You bloomed inside my chest until I howled. You shook me
with your booming zillion wattage. You were bigger
than rock and roll. I lost days to you, the way you expanded
to become more than even yourself. In Science class
movies, you puffed men like microwaved marshmallows,
raked blood from their insides, and always I could feel
your heat like a massive cloak around my shoulders.
You embarrassed me. You were too depraved for dignity,
not caring whose eyes you melted, whose innards oozed;
you balled up control in your God-huge palms
and tossed it into the stratosphere. Oh, Atom Bomb,
I miss you. These days my mind is no incandescent
blur but a narrow infrared beam spotlighting
bounded fears: cancer in a single throat; a shock
of blood on the clean sheets; a careless turn from
the grocery store lot into the pickup with the pit bull
in the bed. Oh, Atom Bomb, come back. Take me away
from the twitch in my leg, the cracking lead paint,
the lurking salmonella. Sweep me up in your blinding
white certainty. Make me sure once again that
I'll live till the world's brilliant end.
"Sixty-five years after an American P-38 fighter plane ran out of gas and crash-landed on a beach in Wales, the long-forgotten World War II relic has emerged from the surf and sand where it lay buried... [U]nusual weather caused the sand to shift and erode."-AP article
The planet is warming toward a million revelations.
What next? The Nile, perhaps, will dry up, lift
its water veil on the aquatic circus that's spun
for centuries below the current: fire-eaters, jugglers,
a procession of pachyderms, revealed and stunned.
Mount Rushmore will collapse with wrecking ball drama,
and in place of the faces will be every lost pet,
all the vanished dogs and cats and pythons thriving
in a stone-sealed country of hydrants and mice. When
the South Pole slips away like an ice cube held
in a mouth, we'll find the world's largest emerald,
twice the size of Nebraska and greener than smog.
At the bottom of the Dead Sea, a simple aspen grove,
leaves rattling like coins in the new wind. And when
the warming air gently tongues away centuries of rock
and water, when the earth splits like a walnut to reveal
an ostrich, maybe we'll crack, too, let slip the parts
for which the world has no use: a high school girl's need
for a necklace of wriggling earwigs; a woman's deep
hunger for a handful of loam; a man's suffocating love
for bioluminescent squid (not to have one, but
to be one, to fly through starred darkness and light
his own way)-these longings so wrenching they are
nearly despair. There are things we keep chained,
because who would want to believe them? But here
at the end of the world, let the earth melt down.
Here at the end of the world, let us crumble open.
How it Ends: Three Cities
#1: Austin, Texas
This morning we woke to the grackles. Their mouths open, tails oil-black against the blacker pavement. Some had closed their eyes; others had died staring. Cars stopped on Congress and were left, hunched like boulders. The elms, always bright with cries, were still. We didn't call work, just sleepwalked to the Red Pony Lounge and dropped into silence. Now someone puts Sam Cooke on the jukebox, "Cupid," and I think of the girl with the gun. The man across from me reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a bird. Everyone shrieks, draws back, hisses about disease. I touch its small head. Its eyes are closed. I want it to wake up. To see what's left, even if it's only this bar, this green drink rimmed with glowing salt, this long-gone song caught up in smoke like light.
#2: New York, New York
By lunchtime, the city is swathed in sweetness. A woman says Bit-O-Honey. Her son says roasted almonds. Old men find one another to talk of fifth grade snow days. In Queens, a young man veers from a funeral motorcade in search of lemon meringue. A paralytic woman rises, walks to the freezer, scoops mouthful after mouthful of Rocky Road. In Central Park, a man takes a bottle from his backpack. He builds a perfect snowman and bathes it tenderly in maple syrup. He leans in to kiss it. A feuding couple falls silent in front of a window display of petit fours, chocolate tortes, marzipan apricots. After eating, they brush sugar gently from one another's mouths. A middle school teacher opens the window and students stream from it, called by the air, drifting skyward on the aroma of vanilla extract, as clear and sharp as winter.
#3: Okemah, Oklahoma
At first the animals don't seem strange. Most twilights the town is full of stray dogs, alley cats. But the hamster? The iguana? Only when she sees the guinea pig emerge from the garden soil, shake itself off, and trundle down the sidewalk, does she begin to understand. Across the way the one-eyed tabby bursts from beneath the oak. Goldfish leap down the street's puddles. Hermit crabs scuttle over lawns, and cockatiels preen dirt from their wings. She hears a sound from the movies, and turns to see Major Luther's old appaloosa galloping down Birch Street. It seems wrong, she thinks, for them to come back only to vanish again. But then Preacher Man, her golden retriever, dives into her lap, and as the stars go black she is laughing.
BIO: Catherine Pierce is the author of two books of poetry, The Girls of Peculiar (Saturnalia 2012) and Famous Last Words (Saturnalia 2008), and of a chapbook, Animals of Habit (Kent State 2004). Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry, Slate, Boston Review, Ploughshares, FIELD, The Cincinnati Review, Ninth Letter, Court Green, Crab Orchard Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Barrow Street, Blackbird, Third Coast, Sixth Finch, Mid-American Review, Mississippi Review, Arts and Letters, and elsewhere. Catherine grew up in Delaware, then earned her B.A. from Susquehanna University, her M.F.A. from the Ohio State University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. She now lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where she teaches and co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.
In Awe of the End of the World: an Interview with Catherine Pierce by Zach Macholz & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Zach Macholz & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: The poems that really stand out to me, especially because most of the poems live in the realm of adolescence, are the ones that seem to imagine the end of the world-"Dear Atom Bomb," "Emergence," and "How It Ends: Three Cities." Was the end of the world something you spent a lot of time thinking or worrying about when you were young, or is this more of an adult concern channeled back through a younger self?
Catherine Pierce: I did spend a fair amount of time worrying about nuclear devastation as a child-the first (maybe only?) bit of "celebrity" mail I ever received came from then-President Bush-the-first, in response to an impassioned letter I'd sent him asking him to please not bring atomic annihilation down on us all (I'm sure I phrased it differently then). I was probably 11 or 12. In response, I got a form letter that opened "Dear Young Citizen" and included a signed photo of him and Barbara on their ranch. I was not reassured.
Later, when I was a freshman in high school, there was a one-week period during which my science and history classes dovetailed-in both, we were discussing the atomic bomb, and I was riveted. At night, I couldn't shake the images (we'd watched Fat Man and Little Boy, and I kept seeing John Cusack's character swelled and deformed by his fatal dose of radiation), or the stories of the aftermath in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My childhood fear of nuclear devastation shifted into a somewhat more nuanced understanding of its horrors-that it wasn't just being killed by a giant bomb that was terrifying, but all the millions of ways the bomb could continue resonating and destroying even decades afterward. I was haunted. At the same time, I have to admit that I wallowed in these feelings of horror and sadness, even as I was buffeted by them. I love mountains partly because they're larger than I am; they put things in perspective (there's a poem in the book about this idea, called "Scale"). The atom bomb gave me something to worry about outside of myself (and I was a child, and then a teenager, who lived very much in my head), something I couldn't in any way control-there was an appeal to that.
ZM & AMK: Are any of these three poems indebted to the work of any other particular authors who also write about this subject?
CP: There are lots of people out there writing amazing and varied work on this topic (I'm a big fan of Brian Barker's book The Black Ocean, which includes some chilling and lovely end-of-the-world poems, and I also loved Kevin Brockmeier's novel A Brief History of the Dead), but I wouldn't say that these three poems are consciously indebted to any particular apocalyptic writers.
ZM & AMK: Many of the poems in the book deal with the themes of self-identity and escape. How much do you think your sense of "the end,"-when it might come, what it might look like, how people will react-affects your identity as a poet? How does your sense of "the end" and what and when it might be guide your writing?
CP: Well, I suspect that most people think about "the end," whatever that means, more often than they might even realize-every time you slam on the brakes to narrowly avoid a collision, every time you go to the basement because the tornado sirens are sounding, aren't you thinking, in some way, about the end, or at least about your own? And that awareness of mortality, of the fragility of each good day, is absolutely something that informs my work. As far as the larger "end" goes, I imagine that the world will end, if and when it does, in a slow, centuries-long burning out brought on by all the expected things: pollution, destruction of natural resources, etc. And this is, of course, a tremendously depressing idea. So I think there's something almost comforting to me about imagining an alternate ending, a more definitive and perfect apocalypse wherein the laws of reason break down and the world ends in miracle-rivers vanishing to reveal circuses, long-gone golden retrievers coming back for one last tug-o-war.
ZM & AMK: Is the process of writing an apocalyptic poem distinctly different from writing a non-apocalyptic poem?
CP: One of the key challenges for me in trying to write about the end of the world is finding a way to skirt the more expected milieus and images, and yet still work to achieve that tricky balance of thrill/longing/fear that accompanies some of my favorite apocalyptic literature and film. That attempt to find the less expected avenue into a topic is a part of my writing process with any poem, but the apocalypse is such a big and well-traveled subject that I feel that process somewhat more acutely.
ZM & AMK: "Dear Atom Bomb," seems to romanticize a childhood fear of nuclear apocalypse. In particular, there seems to be a fondness for how quick, clean, and impersonal this particular end would be. And yet I think you're too young to have done the whole "duck under your desk" bomb drill that we associate with the Cold War era. What's the genesis of your romance with the atom bomb?
CP: You're right that I wasn't a part of the duck-and-cover era, but I'm fascinated by it, and always have been. Part of it, I think, is my attraction-apparently shared by millions of Mad Men-watchers-to the 1950s and 60s. When I was a child, I was drawn to what I viewed as the simplicity and charm of the era (also to the music, clothes, cars, TV shows-still am). But as I got older, and began to understand how complicated and tumultuous and sometimes downright ugly those years were, my fascination only deepened. I've always been attracted to that tension between beauty and horror, placidity and chaos. (Blue Velvet has one of my favorite film endings of all time-after all the murder and mayhem, a robin perches outside the kitchen window on a sunny new morning, and the two young protagonists gaze at it, and each other, fondly-but the bird holds a writhing beetle in its beak and is obviously, grotesquely, mechanical.)
But, too, I've always been in thrall to the atom bomb partly because it's incomprehensibly powerful-stronger by far than man or machine-and so, though it's the result of science, it seems almost like magic (terrible magic, but magic just the same). How else could it exist, or do what it does? And I think, in a way, it all comes back to that, that sense of astonishment in the face of something unfathomable.
ZM & AMK: "Emergence," seems to be, at least in part, about our desires-perhaps our most personal desires and strangest dreams-in the face of the end. Does the final line-"Here at the end of the world, let us crumble open"-indicate a desire for people to be free of guilt and fear in regards to expressing and fulfilling those longings? Or is it more about letting go of them?
CP: It's more about, as you said, becoming free from that fear. I wanted the poem to suggest the ways that destruction might ultimately reveal something beautiful (the word "apocalypse" comes from a Greek word meaning "something uncovered")- the destruction both of the world, and of our deeply ingrained human fears.
POW: "How It Ends: Three Cities," imagines several phenomena that are eerily familiar-the death of mass amounts of birds; unrecognizable, sweet smells; and the strange behavior of animals. What is the significance for you of these particular phenomena? And while New York seems a fairly obvious choice to imagine the end of the world happening, what led you to imagine Austin and Okemah, in particular?
CP: That poem was inspired by a couple of actual events. There was a widespread death of grackles in Austin in 2007; at the time, various theories flew about (poisoning by an aggravated developer; a strain of bird flu), but no one was sure what was going on. And in 2005, an unexplained sweet smell did permeate New York City for a day or so. These mysteries were later solved (the grackles died from a combination of parasites and unusually cold temperatures; the sweet smell was from a New Jersey "fragrance processing plant"-such disappointing and pedestrian answers!). But I love the idea that there are still mysteries in the world, wonders that can't be explained by science or history, and this poem was born out of a desire to maintain, to protect those mysteries. The last of the three sections, in which long-dead pets emerge from their burial places to reunite with their owners, obviously isn't based on an actual occurrence. For that one, I wanted one more surprising harbinger of the apocalypse-something so impossible that the girl in the poem would know that this can only mean the end, but something that is, at the same time, comforting, sweet.
As I mentioned, Austin and New York are where the real events actually occurred. I wanted a much smaller place for the final section, but it still needed to be a town, so that there could be entire colonies of dead pets to resurrect. I'd been through Okemah (Woody Guthrie's hometown) on a road trip a few years prior and the place had always stayed with me, so I paid it a little homage.
ZM & AMK: "How It Ends," also appears to be the only prose poem in the book. What about the prose poem form lends itself to this particular subject matter?
CP: I suppose the easiest answer is that it's the most narrative poem in the book, so it got the most narrative form. That's reductive, though (of course narrative poems don't need to be written in prose). There's an element of the fable in each of those three stories, and I think that style of telling, more than the subject matter itself, is what led me to use the prose poem form-I wanted to get out of the way and let the story-feel take the focus.
ZM & AMK: Do you find yourself striving to do particular things differently from a formal standpoint when writing an apocalyptic poem? In other words, do you have any particular aesthetic goals in mind regarding language, imagery, metaphor, stanza structure, or lineation, when composing an apocalyptic poem in particular (versus any other kind of poem)?
CP: I don't, because I don't think of the end-of-the-world poems I've written as being of a piece, aside from the fact that they share a certain subject matter. Formally, aesthetically, I try to let the poem govern itself-which sounds far more mystical than I mean it to sound. Like I'd mentioned above, "How It Ends" needed to be in prose poem form in order to convey the fable-esque tone I was hoping to achieve; "Dear Atom Bomb" needed a direct address, a stanza break between lines 12 and 13, etc. But those choices were a result of the individual poems and what they required, rather than of the larger subject matter.
ZM & AMK: The woman in the final section of "How It Ends," is laughing "as the stars go black." Between this, your love letter to the atom bomb, and the sense I get from "Emergence," that you imagine there is a kind of release or relief that comes with the end-is it safe to say you're not entirely afraid of the apocalypse if it happens tomorrow? Do you, in some senses, welcome it? Is thinking and writing about it an integral part of being a poet?
CP: What writing these poems has allowed me to do is imagine a version of apocalypse in which beauty exists alongside, or because of, destruction, and in which the denizens of the soon-to-be-gone world are brought together in a sort of communion (as in the bar in the first section of "How It Ends," or at the conclusion of "Emergence"). But these versions are, of course, pure invention, and so is the comfort I've put in them (and taken from them). Do I welcome the end of the world? I don't. When I imagine it, I'm afraid, as I think most people are. But I'm also in awe of it. I don't know that thinking and writing about the end is necessarily part of being a poet, but I do think the capacity to be awed by the world in all of its wonderful and terrible aspects is a prerequisite for the job.