Field Guide to the End of the World
In an essay called “The Lighter Side of the End of the World, Jeannine Hall Gailey explains why she started writing the poems in Field Guide to the End of the World:
“When I started writing my latest book, Field Guide to the End of the World, I was thinking of the grimness of the news footage, politics, civil wars…even the weather reports sounded frightening, with their floods and snowpocalypse, the occasional meteor passing close by the earth. The grimness of today’s YA literature and movies, in which every government is sinister, every adult is out to steal your blood or control your mind and life isn’t about happy endings, but rather a set of confusing and meaningless experiments run by shadow organizations. The dour headlines of scientific news: endless stories of killer antibiotic-resistant germs, global warming, that we’re heading for a sixth extinction, also inspired more than one poem.”
The idea of a “field guide,” that there will be a need and there is still a person left to take notes, is kind of funny all by itself. In the title poem, “Field Guide to the End of the World,” we’re told that “The Kingdom may already be at hand. Marshal your resources.” Being able to see when the end begins is a matter of perspective, and maybe survival.
In “Martha Stewart’s Guide to Apocalypse Living,” we get recommendations for going out gracefully, ending with “Now’s the time to get out your hurricane lamps! They create a lovely glow in/these last days.”
There’s a fan letter to a movie star, “Letter to John Cusack, Piloting a Plan in an Apocalypse Movie” which includes the realization that “I suppose we must finally shed our black trench coats and bad attitudes, because why be subversive anymore? We must create our own shiny new future, maybe featuring spaceships.”
My favorite part of Gailey’s premise is that it’s the end of the world for every kind of being, not just mortals. One of the best poems in the volume is about what is happening to vampires as the world ends:
Introduction to Teen Girl Vampires
They turn feral while defending their human boyfriends, harmless and blond
in Varsity jackets and crew-cuts. These girls just want to be loved, and fed,
in that order, and can we blame them? A nurse here or there won’t be missed,
or the guy playing “second policeman.” Bram Stoker equated blood and sex,
Mina chaste and clever while hunting her Dracula down, his bite awaking
impulses that ignited and were ignored. These days, teen vampire girls enjoy sex
with abandon, tossing lovers around like tree limbs. These days, the girl
doesn’t succumb to the monster, she is the monster, teeth gleaming in the moonlight,
coquettish limbs and curls masking superpowers. Oh, she still wants to be
the prettiest girl at the prom, and perhaps she mourns some future idea
of motherhood. But men line up for the promise of her bite, her blood.
And she has nothing to fear; she cannot be broken, tarnished by age, her heart
impenetrable to anything except for that wooden stake.
The poems are not only about survival. In “Introduction to Time Travel Theory,” we get a list of the reasons we should want to go on living, “to explore our ‘what if’ Imaginariums, to wormhole our way/out of problems and ensure the miracle of our own birth,/the end of the war that destroys our planet.” What we love is also listed, like the poem’s reference to the running joke in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel about “the universe in which there are no shrimp.” And hope is on the list, like everyone’s secret hope that soon “alternate-future-you rides a dragon into a time loop/or carries a samurai sword engraved with an important code/only you will be able to decipher.”
Some of the poems are more personal, about the disconcerting failures of the speaker’s body: “If my own light is burning out, then it feels right/that the earth should too.” Some are about living in California: “I’ve gone all the way to the edge, you see, where they grow/oranges and avacadoes and the sun always shines.” A few are about dreams: “we dream of robots, of zombies, of plagues and comets,/of tidal waves that wipe out our world. We dream of the end/because we long to disappear.”
Near the end of the volume, I enjoyed the humor of “But It Was An Accident,” which begins with:
“Yes, I was the one who left out the open petri dishes of polio and plague next to the pasta.
I leaked the nuclear codes, the ones on the giant floppy disks from 1982.
I feel asleep at the button. I ordered tacos and turned out the lights. How I was I to know that someone was waiting for the right time?
I thought the radio was saying ‘Alien attack’ and headed for the fallout shelter, and failed to feed the dogs.
I followed evacuation plans. I just followed orders.”
In “Remnant,” we get “those tubes/of sunlight that show up on the path, lighting the way” while in “The End of the Future” we see that children “have been taught to fear everything—salmonella in the peanut butter,/allergens in the air, the creepy guy next door who, let’s face it, probably/is a pervert.”
The volume has an “Epilogue: A Story for After,” in which “There are no more shotguns or dusty trails lined with diseased corpses. A ship arrives on top of a mountain, heralded by doves, an airplane lands on another planet, seatmates dazed by the lack of gravity.”
It’s like the ending of Shelley’s “Ozymandius” has been reimagined, the eternal truth made new again with the addition of modern images and allusions and by paying close attention to “what fools these mortals be.”