The reason I know what Staying Alive is about is that Laura Sims tells us in an eight-page afterword. "I've spent many weeks, months and years of my life worrying about the end" (p. 72), she writes, and earlier in the afterword, "What matters more is what . . . humans do in response to these driving anxieties . . . " (p. 66). The afterword engages directly with the library of texts that inform, and in some cases form through appropriation and quotation, the rest of the book; it articulates, autobiographically, the effort to come to terms not just with one's personal end but with the end of human civilization and perhaps—at least in possibility—of the human species.
The bulk of Staying Alive, the poetry part, is in three sections, each introduced with an explicitly cited, standard-form epigraph—quotation marks, author attribution—and each containing poems in sparse, jagged, widely spaced lines:
A prolonged ululation: pantry vessels
Ring and shift as the social body
And gutted (p. 12)
That phrase "a prolonged ululation" is from H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, but I know that because I recognized it, not because Sims differentiates it or any other instances of other writers' language (other than the epigraphs) from her own. (In the author's note, she writes, "Some of the words, lines, images and ideas in Staying Alive were informed by and/or appropriated from the following books, articles, films and TV shows . . . " but doesn’t otherwise give us the extent of her paraphrase.) Without that differentiation, reading a line I recognized was like stumbling on an artifact, something whose original context is elsewhere or vanished. To some extent, this adds a sliver of unease to the lines that follow it: are they, too, "from something"? Does their removal make their origin elsewhere cease to matter?
These poems are like a library that has partially burned, with scraps of its source texts floating and colliding in the air or painstakingly gathered in an aftermath to form an impression of what happened here, what was important enough to write down. Sims draws from fantasies, protests, protocols, oral histories, manifestos, analyses, cautions: Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, the survivalist manual How to Stay Alive in the Woods by Bradford Angier, Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009). Titles like The End of the World, Tropic of Chaos, and A Paradise Built in Hell stud the list. Given these fragments of texts and ideas that cluster around cataclysm, exile, and the end of at least one civilization, we—I, at least—try to make the remnants into a story. She gives us just enough "we" to make me look for this—to figure out what we did, we humans, we remnants, we unhappy few.
In this version of the end, we don't see the cataclysm coming, nor does her "we" have any ability to speed or slow it: all we can do is react. The book's first section paints fragmentary scenes of amazement, in which neither we-the-speakers nor we-the-readers can fully process what we're seeing, feeling—the transformation of men into "wet leather" (p. 17), "not simply torn between longing and safety / but torn" (p. 19). Sims uses syntax and line breaks to jolt meaning by doubling it:
The earth became a sea that rocked our house and power
fled the grid and pummeled
into me . . . (p. 15)
The very terms of substance and force heave, transform, and travel; something that was in the mind, a fear, temporarily but irrevocably enters the physical body. Violence and dissolution that were metaphorical or metaphysical for the "we" in question become real. (That they are already real—deadly fire from the sky and ruptured human flesh are daily, and human-caused, occurrences in many parts of the world—does not form an explicit part of this text. In the list of possible endings in the afterword, "Aliens could invade" is placed on a par with "We could run out of food, water and fossil fuels as the warming earth's population continues to expand" [p. 72].) As I read to the end of this first section, I piece together a sense of fleeing, making a painful way away and not toward—a reactive motion, longing only (and impossibly) to go back. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here, and you also can't go home.
There's a meditation practice that Roy Scranton writes about in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, which he learned when fighting in Iraq and has adapted to his predictions for ecocatastrophe and the end of human civilization. It's called hagakure, and it involves, according to Scranton, "imagining oneself as dead, imagining that vividly, and in various ways. It’s a practice that involves lingering, possibly morbidly, over the reality of how one could die in order to get used to that reality and get familiar with it."
I thought of hagakure, which I practice myself, when I read Staying Alive: imagine the worst so it won't be a surprise. "I want to go ahead of Father Time with a scythe of my own," which Sims attributes to H. G. Wells, is the epigraph for the first section and emblazoned on the banner under which Staying Alive makes its way down the road. The second section features "radioactive    ambulances" (p. 39), "the growing desert / of houses" (p. 40), but toward the end of the section, "we" begin to make grandiose claims:
We'll stand between death and its shining ideals
We'll fatten from hunger and light the whole earth
With our comrades' debris (p. 45)
There's a voice here, then, that seeks to hasten destruction, to bring it on faster—to outpace Father Time, which (as the afterword acknowledges) brings an end to all things. "We'll bury the headquarters, schools, and the baths / and the water main" (p. 45). Is this a promise or a threat? What will we last long enough to bid farewell to?
It's in the third section that we-the-speakers enter a world cleaned, rather than gutted, by the violence we-the-readers have seen in the first two sections:
The campfire lost its shady groves and its rushing sound
Trees hung over it
The great sky emptied its bowl of light onto wild
Grasses and buffalo. It pushed us west and then (p. 55)
The land here is landscape, serene resource; the lines here hang more softly, luminously, and both plant and animal life persist in wildness. In the afterword, Sims challenges this pioneer vision, but the damage of a land conveniently emptied is done to the story. Staying Alive is overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, written in the past tense: a record kept by someone. In order for there to be a story at all, of course, someone has to survive; someone has to be able to piece together, however erroneously, the fragments of the library. So what the library contains also matters: how many narratives have we read where the protagonists' survival soothes, if not justifies, other wounds and absences? If the human species is the protagonist in this story, who or what is everything else?
I started this review with the afterword, and have kept bringing it up, because, in some ways, it makes the rest of the book superfluous: section by section, it places into smooth narrative what we have previously seen in fluttering and clinging scraps; it explains dreams and debunks fantasies that, when we see them first, are left to our interpretation and our unsettlement; it undoes the rest of the book's undoing.
It would be wrong, and unfair, to call Staying Alive optimistic or hopeful: it lives in human precarity, it acknowledges the inevitability of endings, it allows itself to fully imagine the horror of the interruption of a known order and the destruction of the possibility of safety. At least in the afterword, Sims challenges the "intoxicating vision of a new world, a fresh world, a clean slate, one that is hard to resist. Hard not to long for, even if it never existed, and if it never could, in the wake of whatever may come" (p. 71). If nothing ends them earlier, both the dream and the dreamer will be swept from space when our sun begins to die:
For felling I'm
Where the melting sun
Only one time
Makes of me
Then subsides (p. 61)
The form of this text as well as its explicit assertions acknowledge remnants and debris, the harsh signature and the (galactically speaking) brief tenure of human presence on the earth. They make the end a fact. But in the library there are these books that tell us we're important, and these poems and sentences—unlike the endings they describe—cannot destroy them completely.
Kate Schapira is the author of four books of poetry: The Soft Place, How We Saved the City, The Bounty: Four Addresses, and TOWN. Her eleventh chapbook, Someone Is Here, just appeared with Projective Industries. She lives in Providence, RI, where she teaches writing, co-runs the Publicly Complex Reading Series, and offers Climate Anxiety Counseling.
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