In the decade following the end of the world, a mother writes a letter to her daughter. An event has occurred—a bright flash, a mushroom cloud—and the world we know has become a poignant memory. In this arduous and dangerous new existence, life is precarious and the letter is urgent, wistful, keenly human. In a long poem that takes its place in a growing corpus of post-apocalyptic literature, Lang asks who we might become at the moment of our civilization’s unravelling. What will we record for those who come after us?
Chances are, we won’t be as eloquent as we’d like. In the post-apocalypse, much as in the post-modern, there are pressing matters to attend to our attention will be compromised. Daily tasks include scrounging for food and water, amputating septic limbs and raising a child while preserving and passing on the breadth of human knowledge. Lang’s scattershot lines convey the difficulty of these tasks in strings of punctuated thoughts jotted in sleep-deprived moments, the narrator’s phrases stitched together with the same provisional haste as her sutured patients. (“Yr. Mum really wants to sleep. ⁄ It is 1AM/0100. ⁄ But someone needs a basic abdominal exam.”)
The maps, writing systems and diagrams that intersperse the text are scrawled in a medic’s notoriously messy hand. One gets the sense that the lines themselves are prescription notes, broken with backslashes that evoke the constant interruptions of an overcrowded makeshift clinic, the narrator’s breathless anxiety and her unrelenting, overriding need to speak to her daughter and absent husband of her experience. The result is jumbled, at times almost nonsensical and, as a survival guide or how-to manual, generally unhelpful. (“Corn husks against all the walls. ⁄ Layer of soil in every wall. ⁄ These windows. ⁄ ‘Chop wood, carry water.’”) How could it be otherwise? This is no simple manual but a multi-layered requiem for a lost civilization. Again and again, her patients are forced to relinquish their limbs, amputations that mirror the loss reverberating through the book. (“Of course I miss Dad. ⁄ Like you wouldn’t believe. ⁄ Like a limb.”) It is a gritty tale of making do in the absence of infrastructure, technology and social order as well as a meditation on personal loss: relationships sacrificed to work, impending personal death, rampant loss of human health and life on all sides.
Above all, the poem mourns a lost quotidian, the remembered pleasures of everyday life that, in this transformed world, can neither be relived nor handed on. In this, the poem is both reflection on and critique of a contemporary society in the throes of profound and rapid change. Yet in the crumbling structures of Western modernity that form the landscape of this book, I can’t help but hear the echoes of a larger human story: My child, the world I knew is beyond your imagining. We have been brought low by circumstance and I have little to leave you. These mothers have been Xhosa and Iroquois, Iraqi, Somali, Syrian. All that I knew is gone. And yet you must go on. Here is what I remember. Some will be clear, the rest is a tangle of my love for you and grief. Perhaps the apocalypse has already happened—perhaps it is happening even now.
Emily McGiffin’s second collection of poetry, Pteropod, is forthcoming from Pedlar Press this fall. She currently lives in Toronto.
URGENT, WISTFUL, KEENLY HUMAN: ARC.