Laughing Towards Apocalypse: Al Rempel’s This Isn’t the Apocalypse We Hoped For

Rempel’s playful title is well chosen. Is he living in an apocalypse somehow different from one hoped for? Is it a disappointing apocalypse? Is he not living in an apocalypse at all? Does he miss it? Whatever it is, “fat bees hover above satellite dishes purple in colour,” as he writes in the title poem, and his pockets are stuffed with “blister packs of synthetic gum.” This is not quite like Eliot’s universe—the one that ended not with a bang but a whimper. Rempel isn’t whimpering. He’s cheering and celebrating, actually. Sort of. “I’m happy, you know,” he writes in “The Terminal,” “at least I think I am.” This is the kind of understatement for which Dave McFadden was loved two generations ago, and here it is updated for a new generation, with even more bite.

Rempel is a master at setting up straw men and then knocking them down. These are oral performance tricks, played almost pitch perfect. Reading this book is like watching both the poems and Rempel onstage, playing the crowd. “We should talk about the light,” Rempel writes, “It’s gone” (“The Terminal”). That’s apocalypse. But then he lets a crack of light in, with “a flash of orange at sunset / then a thin strip of ochre / then rain.” This diminishing series sounds as post-apocalyptic as A. E. Coppard or the dystopic poems of Edwin Muir. It isn’t. Coppard gave us psychedelic visions of post-Nuclear dream worlds. Muir gave us post-Hiroshima Biblical narratives, haunting as the dawn of the world. Rempel remains grounded. His world is a place where “skin has the same mechanism / as shrink wrap.” Rather than searching for closure, or even meaning, he is comfortable in a place and time that exist simultaneously as apocalypse, presence, and oblivion. He ends “The Terminal”—a clever B.C. Ferries version of the myth of Charon—with a characteristic flourish: “what is it? you ask,” and the answer: “It’s dark.” This is an intimate moment between lovers who have no answers. They live, and somehow thrive, within that darkness.

Not all poems in the collection work with such surety. “Ain’t Gonna Be,” for example, reads like a script for a missing performance. It withers on the page because it fails to differentiate nuances of voice and timing. “A Novel in Excerpts” reads like practice knives thrown at a wall in a language poetry bar. “Salmon Forest,” which honours the aesthetic of Ken Belford, folds in on itself with compression. These are scripts, too—although for social rather than dramatic performance. They read like contemporary fashion, in a book of lived performance, humour, and exquisite timing. Rempel meets apocalypse head on and shows how it can be more than survived. It can be redeemed in simple, honest words and gestures and be made human. This is a new world.

Harold Rhenisch is the author of The Spoken World (Hagios) and 10 other volumes of poetry. He is currently developing community writing programs as writer in residence at the Okanagan Regional Library.


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