In her engaging review, Maya Popa gives a detailed picture of the premise and plot of Traci Brimhall’s recent book of poems, Our Lady of the Ruins: it is the end of the world and a select few know it. These select few are women, and they are still in the process of cleaning up after the apocalypse.
Why the apocalypse? Why has Brimhall written about it? Why has Popa selected a book that struggles with that odd theme?
Perhaps because it isn’t odd at all. Brimhall’s work takes up a peculiar but persistent theme in our culture. From television shows about the Rapture, to recent works like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, to deeper antecedents like William Blake’s poems or E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” American culture appears obsessed with images of the end of the world as we know it. There are so many richly imagined ways for all, or almost all, of us to die: raptures, zombies, viruses, aliens, and most often, self-destruction.
Why imagine the apocalypse when there are so many tragedies that have actually happened? Why envision new horrors? Apocalyptic visions intertwine with faith and bearing witness, themes prominent in the work of Brimhall along with a network of other poets and essayists. Like characters in other apocalyptic fictions, Brimhall’s speakers prophesy a tragedy that hasn’t happened yet. They confirm our cultural suspicion that something awful is going on that is hidden from our sight. No one can bear witness to this creeping horror, whatever it is, though we sense its presence behind lab walls, the NSA, the paywalls, all those screens. So we have to keep imagining it. There may even be a longing for the end of the world, a clean slate.
A key feature of Brimhall’s apocalyptic vision, and of others in this genre, is the presence of survivors to narrate the tragic events. This interest in bearing witness is one of many themes that connect Brimhall’s work to that of Carolyn Forché, who chose Brimhall’s book for the Barnard Women’s Prize. Forché’s new anthology, Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, coedited with Duncan Wu (Norton, 2014), gathers poems that bear witness often to real atrocities: the ends of worlds for groups of people and ways of being. (Look for a full review in the print Kenyon Review later this year.) The dark images in Brimhall’s apocalyptic poems also recall those in Forché’s Blue Hour, a volume that opens with visions of ghosts and ghostly children, barbed wire, and “Endless histories toward.” Brimhall’s book takes place in Forché’s l’heure blue, a twilight, transitional time. This is a time of meditation, often focused on mortality, the afterlife or its absence, and, by implication, faith.
Both authors’ works wrestle with the desire for faith, for spirit, and for the afterlife in a manner that calls up many of the meditations in A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith (edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler), featuring an essay by Forché. For these authors, a desire for faith, fulfilled or unfulfilled, is in itself significance. Whatever the source of the desire—whether a remnant of religious upbringing, insidious cultural structures, or natural instinct—poets like Forché and Brimhall keep working to bear witness to the strange things it makes us imagine.