New Michigan Press, 2017
Paperback, 52 pages
Reviewed by Joe Sacksteder
The minds of our artists edge towards the end of our species. Offsetting the big-budget, post-apocalyptic blockbusters, or those narrowly pre-apocalyptic action flicks in which the heroes inevitably side with freedom without suffering the consequences of that freedom multiplied by billions, an endless parade of subtler and more lyrical elegies have shown us a glimpse of what’s probably coming. Into the Forest, It Comes at Night, and A Silent Place are recent films that come to mind. Offsetting plot-driven novels of the end-times like the spectacular Station Eleven, a number of more language-intensive writers have used our various potential dooms as the backdrop of their virtuosic poetry and prose. Claire Wahmanholm’s Night Vision, winner of New Michigan Press’s 2017 chapbook competition, joins such texts as Lucy Corin’s 100 Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby, and Blake Butler’s EVER in raising the anticipatable fallout to grotesque new surrealities, causing readers to feel—more viscerally than economic prose can accomplish—the confusion, isolation, disorientation, and fear that will set in once our logistics fail us.
Whatever the nature of this chapbook’s ambiguous but pervasive disaster, the opening sentence of the first prose poem, “Beginning,” drops us right into it with, “A pulling began from nowhere.” And, despite the fantastical nature of the pulling’s symptoms, the human reaction strikes the reader as uncomfortably contemporary: “Now we began to wonder whether we had done wrong things. Or rather, we began to wonder which of our wrong things had been wrong enough.” Most days we awaken to new articles suggesting with very specific statistics that the doomsday clock is an optimist. “Something was going to happen, had already begun happening, but no one wanted to be here when it finished.” After me, the flood—how old or sick do you have to be in 2018 to still murmur this sardonic hope/curse? Because of the pulling, geologic shifts quicken, subjects ossify into statues, ideologies become relaxation tapes, fissures open in the ground and in bodies, the rest of the animals go extinct, and the earth turns ever more slowly on its axis.
Throughout the text, the societal is inseparable from the corporeal; as the center fails to hold, its civilians revert to “bog bodies,” “carbon sinks.” A depersonalized narrator or narrators undertake strange rituals and suffer collective hallucinations. The group drags around a dead jellyfish like an orca whale that won’t let go of its dead calf, causing a shady memory to surface from the narrator’s childhood, a sack of condemned kittens. “Beneath each memory of the kittens was an anti-kitten,” they speak as if mired in a fever dream, “an anti-memory, a shadow-shape that darkened the desert.” They are drawn towards the menacing locus simply known as “the factory,” which is perhaps the source of the relaxation tape, its purposes unclear but suspect with its “rooms of animal suits, rooms of hooves, of horses,” its “dark drains.”
What distinguishes Night Vision from the aforementioned texts is the erasures it performs on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. While at first glance these erasures might simply seem to be very adroit executions of a technique we’ve seen many times—“o ye brave sailors in an unexplored sky. we strayed far from home”—the source text suggests more consequential readings. I was so inspired by Cosmos the first time I encountered it as a freshman in college that I briefly changed my major to physics—the most meager addition I might make to humanity’s accumulated understanding of the natural world suddenly seemed vastly more important than anything in the artistic realm. While that plan didn’t pan out for me, the hope and exigency of the Gospel of Sagan forever reoriented me into viewing science as, to riff on another of his titles, a candle in the dark. With the forces of darkness really huffing and puffing these days, the violence done by Wahmanholm unto such a rallying cry—for the sake of causing a poetic undercurrent to emerge—thus critiques the very aestheticizing of apocalypse in which Night Vision appears to participate, offering a prescient warning for artists about the dangers of falling in love with our own destruction. The seeming oxymoron of the title’s phraseology implicates poetry as one of the obscuring forces that the alert poet of the end-times must see their way through. Night Vision will help you see in the dark.
Joe Sacksteder‘s books are Make/Shift and Driftless Quintet, forthcoming in 2019 from Sarabande Books and Schaffner Press, respectively. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Utah where he acts as managing editor of Quarterly West. Recent publications include Salt Hill, Ninth Letter, Denver Quarterly, and the Florida Review.