It’s the end of the world and Catherine Pierce knows it. Her most recent poetry collection, Danger Days (2020), provides an unflinching reckoning on the fraught relationship between humanity and nature and how war between the two ensures the eventual destruction of both. At times bitter, sardonic, nostalgic, and fiery, Pierce uses both the past and present to paint a future in which humanity must suffer the repercussions of their material excesses. It is a bitter prophetic pill, sweetened with dry wit, conversant form, and tender thoughts on motherhood.
Exploring the origins of apocalyptic endings, Pierce’s poems often investigate the contradictory qualities of beginnings. “Anthropocene Pastoral,” a ruminative and oddly romantic account of a natural disaster finally realized, claims: “In the beginning, the ending was beautiful” (3). Rather than fearful, the poem’s speaker appears almost entranced by all the wondrous symptoms of their failing world: deserts blooming with flowers, air overcome with flora (3). “At least / it’s starting gentle,” they note (3). Envisioning a somewhat different kind of catastrophe, “Fable for the Final Days” opens with a similar statement: “In the end, it was an asteroid” (71). Alongside the horrific details provided is a tragic denial made domestic, humans playing board games like “Clue, Battleship, Sorry,” as outside “streets [are] humped with bodies” (71) and “the soil [is] still sizzling with roaches and earwigs” (72). Perhaps no poem better argues the complexity of beginnings than “All 21 of Mississippi’s Beaches Are Closed Because of Toxic Algae,” which borrows its title from an actual CNN headline. Arranged in couplets that almost look like journalistic subheads, the poem repeats many of its sentences with the phrase “it begins” (“It begins with a sister’s / call from a car,” “It begins with a gone / jetty”) until the words become an almost anaphoric chant, culminating in, “It begins and keeps beginning. / With a sidebar headline and a bummer” (29).
Pierce examines many of her fears through the lens of motherhood, adding a deeper layer to her collection that is at once compassionate, witty, distressed, and intensely personal. “Strategies for Motherhood in the Age of This Age,” a sardonic tongue-in-cheek survival guide on how to be a mom when disaster feels imminent, campaigns for resiliency even as it notes the prevalent sadness of its world: “Now with that starving polar bear / now with the ‘Gun-Free Zone’ signs on the doors / of the kindergarten… So what if we recite state capitals / in the shower’s echo chamber, or avoid the sad / billboard eyes of the boat donation girl?” (18-19). In “Instructive Fable for the Daughter I Don’t Have,” a speaker pleads with their child to appreciate nature in all its gritty glory as long as she can, urging her to “wear your hair uncovered. / Wear your mouth unset. You may not find / the jewels, the mirror, the stag. But you may find / a bare possum skull… You entered the woods lost. Leave that way” (47). “Inheritance” is an epistolary poem to Pierce’s children that acts as both apology and warning, ironically noting that “when we were children… we understood that the future / was a country our parents would have / to navigate but had nothing to do with us” (15). Pierce’s maternal poetry does little to soothe the anxiety wrought by the rest of her collection; rather, the poems act as a reminder of the complications of becoming a mother in a world that seems to hold such little regard for life.
Despite the gravity of its themes, the collection is not entirely devoid of playfulness. A series of four poems is written in the style of encyclopedia entries from a fictional “Compendium of Romantic Words.” Other poems engage in conversational play with their titles: “I Spend My Days Putting Away,” begins with the line “the small blue car here” (33), while “I Kept Getting Books About Birds” starts with “as if recognizing the yellow-winged one / at the feeder… might somehow / become enough” (65). “Poem for Quicksand” employs the formal romanticism of an ode, complete with its archaic opener: “O you gorgeous torture” (64). The result is a masterclass in balancing horror and humour, a demonstration of Pierce’s ability to cover a broad range of emotions that ultimately makes her poems feel complete and completely human.
Brief moments of levity aside, there is little hope for future happiness in this grim collection. Pierce warns us that dangerous days exist and will continue to exist so long as they are ignored. Effective and explosive, Danger Days covers the death of this world from a variety of nuanced angles. But while the subjects of the poems often change, one sentiment remains unaltered: it’s the end of the world as we know it, and Catherine Pierce does not feel fine.
Pierce, Catherine. Danger Days. Saturnalia, 2020.
Review by Gunnar Ohberg. Gunnar Ohberg is a member of the University of Saskatchewan’s MFA in Writing program. His poems and short stories have recently been featured in The Racket, The Mark Literary Review, and in media res. He is currently working on a dystopian novel set in South Carolina. Sometimes he plays in rock bands.