Sara Burant reviews Laura Sims’ Staying Alive

Staying Alive
Laura Sims
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-937027-62-9

Laura Sims’ fourth collection Staying Alive is concerned with what happens to and among humans in the wake of apocalypse. Following an unnamed disaster, those who are left must make their way amid the unknown, the profoundly disturbing, the new. With spare language and haunting precision, these poems explore how it might be to experience a catastrophic event, to survive it and to stay alive.

Formally, Sims engages white space to move the poems deftly yet with a halting cadence, often with one or two words on a line. The effect is that of being pursued by silences—that which follows shock and dread, that which supports having to move cautiously into and toward describing and sense- making. The poems never feel drifty; rather, they are anchored in the silences, and echoes, the white space allows. The pacing allows the poems to enact a sense of coming to grips with staggering loss:

The present sheared
Asunder from its parent cliffs and all the past was just
The sound of metal
At the edge of space
At dawn. Every blasted city

Composed of three sections, the book’s untitled, linked poems convey a sense of the urgency of the now and of the now as the site of both first and accumulated impressions. The poems in the first section evoke the initiating catastrophe and the speaker’s, or speakers’, ensuing struggle to understand and respond. Sims refrains from telling us precisely what happened. Instead the poems give us strange and partial accounts of arrivals, flickerings, disappearances. Whereas one poem proclaims “The light! It came from underneath—inside the earth,” another tells us “the ships arrive./In a seemingly endless/Glittery line.” Still another poem describes the occurrence this way:

Flicker in the sky
That swift liquefaction
That masked and expectant
Black muzzle
That overhead the dawn
That limbs and tentacles, followed by
And a devil of a row

The effect is bewildering. We, like the speaker or speakers, exist in a space of shifting perceptions and uncertainty in which we vacillate wildly between terror, astonishment, wonder and fear —and begin to see how thin is the space between these states. By juxtaposing images that terrify with those that surprise, Sims evokes a kaleidoscope of possibilities, a range of responses to the suddenness of it all. “A boat with no one on it brought / A startling, sharp joy: behold // The searchlights’ / Lustrous / Fugitive / Humanity” is followed a page later by “Astonishment / Turned / Into Something // Wet leather // Where men / Had stood for a moment, a moment ago.” Wet leather, a clock, a slipper, a silver spoon—what do objects mean when the human culture that grants them significance disappears? Sims is more interested in what lasts and has resonance than in returning to or yearning for what no longer exists.

By insisting on the valence of the moment, the poems resist nostalgia, attempting to parse what is when it has little if any relationship to what was. Dickinson’s # 510 comes to mind: “When everything that ticked—has stopped—And Space stares all around,” a poem very much concerned with an experience of a death-like state, the result perhaps of some personal apocalypse. Sims’ resistance to a precise event indicates that she, too, is interested in the prevalence of apocalypse, how it ghosts both our material and psychological landscapes, how we live and relive it because we are alive. Relationships end, loved ones die, floods, earthquakes and wild fires destroy homes and communities, as do injustice, terrorism and war. In a sense, our human existence is a matrix of the apocalyptic.

Another function of ample white space is to allow for the buzz and hum of associations, both our own and the ones Sims herself is conscious of bringing into the text. In the book’s Afterword, Sims shares thoughts about her process and inspiration for this book. The collection resulted from a long conversation with other texts, particularly Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The poems often seem to be distillations of the mood and pathos of that book: “In puddles and mud/In mittens and coats/Lies my tribe.” It occurs to me that in risking comparison with The Road, Sims invites the whole of the novel, its poignance and power, into her poetic landscape, thus broadening and deepening her vision. Even the poems’ pacing is reminiscent of the novel’s passages of dialogue between the father and son. And like the novel’s characters, the poems can’t avoid encountering the remains of civilization.

Section two begins with ruins. “COLOSSAL      FIGURES      OBSCURED BY MIST // The world can’t possibly fail,” with its prideful assertion echoes “Ozymandias.” As with that poem, one iteration of the human world does fail, one mode of organizing and being within the social body. Nonetheless, human beings continue. The poems in this section take aim, albeit obliquely, at our currently dominant mode of extraction and accumulation, the “endless” economic growth through which we lay waste to the natural world. Sims suggests that we have forgotten something essential about humanness, that we have animal bodies, that we are of the earth and dependent upon it:

We left mountains
Of carts of junk behind. We bade them
Farewell. They bade us
Weep and know shame
They bade us be hard.
Without power, I wielded my body

My nerve
Rattled through me

Behind it
Was land—

The speaker is waking up to her body, becoming aware of the only “resource” she can claim in this new world. When all else fails, this awareness sustains. It’s a kind of flame burning away what keeps the speaker-survivor apart from what is, until eventually she can affirm “Look // I am semblance / Of life I am // Shaped like a rock like dirt vegetation and urban debris.” The human includes all we think of as natural, as well as the ruins and what came before them, the buildings and machines. In this section of the book a sense of ongoingness is born. The world as-it-was-known has ended, but the world-as-it-is did not. This is a potent, and for this reader profoundly spiritual and wise, distinction. “We’ll be grim set on living” the speaker asserts.

Yet the book’s final section gestures toward hopefulness. The speaker turns toward the wisdom of dreams, the land, myth-making and fire. The vision offered is complex, but at the heart of it is a recognition of human smallness upon the land and under the vast dome of sky. One of the book’s late poems consists almost entirely of nouns and enacts the scale of human life on earth after the disaster:

The land. The grass. The wagon. The wind. The land. The road.

The trees.
The sound.
The water.
The rider.

Animals. The trace. The wheels. The fire. Space. The bowl.

What inhabits the earth-space is much larger than the merely human. The human is co-existent with this largeness and manipulate materials, including language, in response, shaping bowls—and poems—to contain a measure of it, to hold, to feed. A brilliant undercurrent in this poem is its power to suggest other catastrophic endings—notably, the coming of white Europeans to the land that became North America and the resulting genocide of native peoples. Compelling is this book’s insistence on the ubiquity of disaster, apocalypse, and annihilation without explicitly naming them.

The poems want to come to terms with spaciousness, both external and internal. “The wind made a sound, small and lost in such space/Here grew the tall trees/Here hung the large stars” seeks to balance the enormity of human wonder with a visceral awareness of human smallness. If the wind is small, what is the human being, so often at the mercy of wind? And the spaciousness within, the mind’s capacity, must be reckoned with as well: “You were always a murmurous forest/But now you are/This/Incandescence.” The struggle to stay alive is the struggle to stay awake not to our dual nature but to our nature as embodied flames. Images of fire and its light fill this last section, as material necessity, spiritual sustenance, the impulse to create.

With this book Laura Sims joins a conversation among poets including Matthea Harvey, Nathaniel Mackey, Dana Levin and Michelle Detorie, whose work has been concerned with desolate landscapes and/or the conditions leading up to and beyond collapse, ecological and societal. Staying Alive seems most closely allied with Michelle Detorie’s After Cave, a book which also probes what it might mean to be human in the wake of disaster, what it might mean to continue as humans to inhabit this earth. By exploring possible futures, such work paradoxically calls attention to the present, its brokenness and wonderments, both wild and human-made.

In the book’s Afterword, Sims discusses, among other things, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. She’s interested in accounts of animal and plant life returning and the persistent absence of humans there. Objects and built-spaces abandoned after the accident speak eloquently: “You see, they attest, the world regrets your absence.” The poems in Staying Alive speak as well to this absence. Though humans have erred in creating systems and structures damaging to the biosphere, still our existence matters. That we can choose to be “grim set on living,” that we fashion bowls from clay and recognize the stars as somehow alien, somehow kin.