After Apocalypse Tristesse

Apocalypse du ballet from Un autre monde, Grandville

Not even the word fucked, written in The Yale Review, can save poetry. Ama Codjoe makes a brave attempt at such a redemption in “After the Apocalypse,” a poem that begins in imagined excess and the desire to misbehave.

After the apocalypse, I yearned to be reckless. To smash a glass
brought first to my lips. To privilege lust over
tomorrow. To walk naked down the middle of a two-lane
road. But, too late, without my bidding, life cracked open,
rushed, openmouthed, like a panting dog whose name
I did not call—my lips shut like a purse. The last man
I kissed was different than the last man I fucked.

Is that not what we all crave, in this epoch of stage-rushing, to senselessly alt-storm a bastion, to transgress, to turn atavistic for no good reason, to feed the id, to “yearn to be reckless?” One wishes that fucked, the word thrown into the conversation like a giddy firecracker, still held its original power. But alas, like much poetry that believes it’s about to take us to the fringe of cognition, it usually fizzles, unable to summon the psychological titillation that Plath, Sexton and Lowell caused on the first appearance of frank poems about taboo subjects. (“Suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build”).

The hypothetical spectacle of Codjoe’s speaker walking naked down the road and dismissively, “frankly,” referencing her recent coital encounter, fails to reverberate, much less shock. It’s only a passing word, after all, one over-mined in popular speech and media. The brazen, brass-clad, Anne Sexton-like gestalt that could have been built around it fails to materialize. There is an infantilization of the reader in the lines “The last man / I kissed was different than the last man I fucked.” Would that “Apocalypse” could summon the caustic verve of Catullus in Carmen 16: 

I will sodomize and face-fuck you,
bottom Aurelius and catamite Furius,
you who think, because my poems
are sensitive, that I have no shame.

But Codjoe has qualms. Quickly the brashness devolves into anomie, her allowing how “our heartbeats / quieted in private fatigue. I’d be lying if I said I don’t recall / his name.” The times don’t seem to allow the expression of boundless animal desire and impulse without one engaging in an immediate moralizing streak, self-indicting. When Plath’s poems self-excoriated, they flayed the skin and scathed the soul. There were no moody half measures. (“Black sweet blood mouthfuls, / Shadows. / Something else / Hauls me through air— / Thighs, hair”).

Codjoe’s use of “apocalypse” in the loosest possible sense is juvenile, not bearing the weight of theological eschatology. Rather, it’s to be understood as a personal tragedy, or worse, personal melodrama, as if the poet herself were the primary casualty. Her attitude bespeaks the desire to return to childhood, to no consequence, asserting a less sophisticated form of nihilism.

In “After the Apocalypse,” the vibe quickly turns maternal, familial, genealogical, dutiful. The speaker “mothered my mother, became / grandmother to myself, distant and tender, temples turning / gray.” The pleasure seeker is quickly left behind. She tries to rise to rage, to forge out of these beginnings a composition eloquent about race and politics, but the worst she can do in her sudden political humor is to express, childlike, “the urge to dance on the president’s / grave.” Later on, the stock market dips, “Whiteness did not change,” etc. She doesn’t have the libidinal energy to fulminate. Instead, she offers a desultory catalogue that fails to focus on anything in particular. A series of effete must-bes and might-have-beens gets ticked off. The wet firecracker of the word fucked has long since been swept into a storm sewer, lost to posterity.

It’s only mildly dispiriting that this same poem appeared in The Best American Poetry. Mildly because it’s predictable. One’s first impulse is to wish that contemporary poetry could truly be more self-revelatory, without jumping straight to a risk-averse, predictable, social dimension in which personal anguish (or mere chronic malaise) gets displaced willy-nilly onto a set of wrong things happening to a vague collective in a blurry world. The fire-eating prophets have been replaced by chronically discomfited town criers. And without having satisfactorily dealt with the location of the “I.” Relatively recent, fierce, disturbing books of poetry such as Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal or Justin Philip Reed’s The Malevolent Volume manage to stay visceral while thinking abroad, by creating a skillful, grotesque mask of the self, but the current examples are few.

But there are other, older antidotes besides fiery prophecy or the suffering fleshly vatic self. The welling-up anew of confession may not be the ideal approach for our times, nor the beleaguered “I” as despondent subject its best vehicle. To return to sincere woe as effectual would require going all the way back to Antigone and her stark Greek chafing against the state’s denial of the public self, complete with chorus and punctuated with dithyrambs. But the general mood of now is not conducive to epic. Too many egos are rushing the stage, splitting focus while paradoxically hoping to upstage all others, in essence offering their work as poetry influencers. 

What suggests itself promisingly instead is the calculated gaze of satire. “The Literati,” by the mid-twentieth century Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas springs to mind.

They prostitute us all
waste their spirit on circumlocution,
explain it all. They ramble on
like machines full of oil,
and slobber metaphysics on everything.

I would like to see them on the southern sea
on a night of royal wind, their heads
emptied into the cold, sniffing
at the world’s loneliness,
with no moon,
and no possible explanation,
smoking, helpless, terrified.

The turn to the third person here is as refreshing and bracing as that royal wind. It brings us to our senses. We know from tone alone what the world’s loneliness is and don’t need to be dragged through a tarry pedagogical marsh line after line. “No possible explanation!” What a relief! This poem’s very impersonality is the key to its success. “They” know who “they” are well enough (in fact, it might be us) and when “they” read this poem they can be offended or get a behavioral clue. Sometimes the most bracing tonic is to walk around embarrassed and stupefied, before coming to your senses about what’s the right thing to do regarding self and world. It’s not that complicated, once you open your stubborn mind after a salutary head knock, and it doesn’t require us to track at close range the shifting moods of the poet’s fitfully aggrieved psyche, thinly disguised as the consciousness of “the speaker of the poem.” It’s hard not to commit the biographical fallacy when the verses are begging you to do so at every enjambment. 

Even more cutting into the flesh of the present perpetrators of plaint is Rosemary Tonks’s excellent and wittily self-knowing “Black Kief and the Intellectual.”

I shall fill up that pit inside me
With my gloomiest thoughts; and then
Spread myself, prostrate, inert, on top of them.
Ah, miserable at last! Felicity.
Those who drink the sea with its fishy breath
Cannot know with what dread I gorge to death
On ideologies — bitter dogma, dialectic, creed;
H.P. sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, chutney,
Filthy kitchen work that swindles, that says ‘feed’,
Dried-up certitude, monkish inhibition, duty,
That helps us to fall downhill, mad as swine.
There, alone, I see my obligation. But let me begin
By describing my tiredness . . . a word on my depression.

The final four lines could handily serve as the epigraph to many poet autobiographies of our day. Poets (not even counting soi-disant) aren’t necessarily intellectuals, yet to the extent they attempt to move from autobiography-contingent material into the world of ideas, they fit the model of Tonks’s poem. We’re not a generation primarily defined by quality of thought, nor philosophical ambition. Tonks’s trenchantly joyful self-skewering enlivens the soul with mordant laughter, by means of its monomaniacal glutting on “bitter dogma, dialectic, creed; / H.P. sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, chutney.” Credos, like foodstuffs, take on the gamey taste of the refrigerator itself, and they have an expiration date, a metallic forewarning taste in the mouth, an incipient toxicity. In the same way that the lust of Codjoe’s poem presumably would begin to smell of yeast. One wishes that her self-narrator could cry out, as Tonks does, “Ah, miserable at last!” in the midst of her melancholic funk. For satire at its heart is less about mounting a systematic critique of social flaws than it is about administering the electric shock of utter self-recognition, without the mitigating tease of one’s sensitive pathos and downhearted demurrers regarding possibly being the root cause of the general malaise rather than its victim.

Self-exploding brio is precisely what makes “Black Kief and the Intellectual” soar. Poet as saboteur. To quote Rosa Coldfield, it holds no brief for itself. That attitude exuberantly presents the poem’s crowing persona as Exhibit A in the hall of justice. This obsessive will “gorge to death / On ideologies,” a glutton for punishment. Then comes the kicker “. . . a word on my depression.” This final throwaway utterance implies an entire, long new stanza, one that needn’t be supplied because we can write it in our own minds, filling in the blanks with our personal lament, long-winded or snappy, as the case may warrant.

Well-practiced satire knows how stage its cry. Adept theatricality is the mechanism of its ingenuity. Sometimes, as in the case of Rojas, it lambasts fools and hypothesizes the means of their possible enlightenment. But even more powerfully, in the deadpan manner of Rosemary Tonks, it stages its own cluelessness knowingly, with aplomb, and invites us to draw our own conclusions.