by K.A. Hays
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 88 pp., $15.95
During the most catastrophic economic crisis since the Great Depression, the publication of an apocalyptic work of literature may come as no surprise. However, while engrossed in K. A. Hays’ debut collection of poetry, you will find no overt references to the stock market crash, unemployment, or desperate economic stimuli. And thank god, if there is one, for that. These poems do not respond to unusual circumstances; instead, they render the feeling of impending doom, which has haunted humanity throughout history, as utterly remarkable through their balance of delicacy and strength, horror and beauty, and resignation and hope. The speaker of these poems longs for salvation as passionately as she longs for the apocalypse to get it over with already, afterlife or no. This book is a world of falling houses, noisy birds, and crashing seas, but instead of becoming hopeless as you read, you will be thankful for this voice that has articulated the ineffabilities you’ve always felt at your core.
In the collection’s first poem, which is also the title poem, the speaker invokes the apocalypse, inviting it to:
Gust through— good. Give us
over to the oaks, sway the old
sheds, the mansions— shake them down
to meadows, unmake us, melt off
what was wasted of our waking years—
but know we’re no worse
than former fools.
By using caesura as extreme as that of “Cædmon’s Hymn,” Hays reminds us how much faith has changed since the seventh century, when, as the story goes, that unwitting herdsman was blessed with religious song. It is important to note that Cædmon was illiterate. Hays’ mention of “former fools” introduces the complexities of ignorance that she grapples with throughout the book. In the title poem, Hays makes it clear that our struggles and our failures are nothing new, all while refusing to blame any sort of god, past or current generations, or even the apocalypse itself.
After the opening poem, the book is divided into four sections: “Letters,” “Labors,” “Mind,” and “Fowls and Lilies.” In the first section, “Letter from the End of the World” addresses the apocalypse’s aftermath:
We wail like children on the beach
who had intended the slow spoil of a city
of sand, but were slighted by the sea
flinging through too soon
The speaker wishes she could rescind the request she made in “Dear Apocalypse” now that, in the world of the poem, the end is at hand. She drops the title poem’s objectivity as she accuses uncanny forces, such as “the great arbiter, / … in whose image // we fear, squinting, we were not made.”
Hays emphasizes this separation from god and everything religious in subsequent sections as well. For example, in “Outside the Basilica di San Petronio,” a poem in the final section, Hays writes, “Dear saints, / keeping always and perfectly away.” This poem, like nearly all the poems in “Fowls and Lilies,” features birds (pigeons, in this case, that the young girl in the poem can never quite reach). But creatures of flight are not caged in this section. Winged insects, grackles, juncos, ducks, thrushes, and nuthatches populate the first three sections, which is a testament to the book’s unity, as is Hays’ consistency of form.
Almost all the poems in the book appear in controlled, 1-6 line, double-spaced stanzas, whose lines are usually of medium length. The white space that results from all this double-spacing gives the poems a fragile appearance, even when the diction is most violent (e.g., “that monster, the cane begonia, / with jagged leaves like the wings of vultures”). Despite Hays’ free verse, the poems look as delicate and ordered as songbird skeletons, and most often, the form is just right. With poems so meticulously wrought in both form and content, the reader sees, hears, and feels the speaker’s anxiety.
In addition to making metaphorical use of creatures of the air, Hays also investigates creatures of the earth. In “Pastoral,” after describing a despondent rural scene, Hays writes,
Only the worms loop on
with confidence, poking up from the earth, the blissful
gods of mud (the maker of man). They bring
the dung and fouled leaves through their bodies.
I smell their castings even in the burrows I dig
at two a.m. and curl in, hoping to wake
rose-tinged, translucent, devolved.
This desire for a less sophisticated mind reappears in section two (“Labors”). “The Way of All the Earth” begins, “In various ways we’ll be taken. Fine, except / that we know it.” With moves like this one, Hays makes the apocalypse universal and perpetual, because whether there’s an Armageddon or not, we will all die. The speaker of this poem concludes that it would be better to live like a turtle and hibernate in the mud for half the year, because then we would be “happy as stone” and could “stay alive by being nearly dead.” The speaker curses her perception, her knowledge of the past, and her ability to worry for the future throughout the book, but the painstaking attention she pays to the natural world only shows her love for it and the faculties that enable her to experience it.
It is this tension between love and hate for the world and the creatures in it that makes Dear Apocalypse so compelling. Nothing is ever purely beautiful or terrible, and the speaker’s doubt and tentative syntax intensify in the third section, “Mind,” to show this complexity. In “Imagine How Easy it Must Be for Weather,” Hays writes,
Surely we all fear the reach of madness.
But what if it made us as confident as the wind billowing
a hurricane, far past the flat snare of beaches,
over the triangle where ships go off radar
and laws get sucked down?
The preponderance of questions in the middle of the book clarifies that while weather and animals may be confident, we humans are not, thanks to our continuously churning minds. The speaker often yearns to live like a fowl or a lily, without any thought for her condition, but she can’t stop observing, observing, observing.
The poems in the final section, “Fowls and Lilies,” are almost entirely observational. Previous sections are also packed with concrete images from the natural world, but Hays calls for the thing in itself—whether it’s the sea, a tundra swan, or a man sitting in a lawn chair—most loudly in the final section. By drawing even closer to the concrete in the final section, the speaker strives to hold the earth more closely, even when what she perceives is ugly. She even asks, in “Theology,” “why should there be a god?” The animals, people, and landscapes she observes are just as instructive and mysterious as a god. After gazing at so many birds in the heavens in this section, the speaker paradoxically finds solace on the ground. To hark back to an earlier poem (“The Labor of Waking”—possibly the book’s best gift), the speaker has “come to love / this waking life enough to dread its loss,” though she would never admit that outright.
As a whole, Dear Apocalypse’s structure is artful and intelligent. The bangs and crashes of the first section quiet down as the book proceeds, but beware of aftershocks. “Fowls and Lilies” contains a few redundant poems and is relatedly too long, but even these imperfections can’t mar the beauty of this exquisite and important work. Read this book, and you will feel like you’ve just returned from a spiritual retreat to a pastoral land by the sea. Your head will swirl with questions and images, you will flinch from moments of ferocious diction, but in the end, you will feel the relief of catharsis.