What do you need? the Quiet Man asked
when I knocked again at his door.
What do you want?
He was closing up.
I don’t know, I said.
Woolf, Anbesol, Baldwin, Keats,
I’ll take anything.
I knew sometimes he slept right there in his shop,
with blankets on the bottom shelf,
history above, Bulletin
of the Atomic Scientists to the left.
Papers littered his desk
and the floor where we lay our heads,
letting the pure products of the shapely mind
inform the equally combustible body.
Who is it who says the closer you are
to an irreversible apocalypse the more fragile
We slid the dictionaries from the shelves
and opened them to apocalypse,
the word on everyone’s lips.
As if we could ever bid these joys farewell.
From Human Hours. Copyright © 2018 by Catherine Barnett. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Graywolf Press.
To kneel by the cochineal
head of the dead.
broken along the way.
I tell you the birds
dropped at my feet,
eleven of them, sucked
out of the sky, whole.
I return home.
I report the details.
The men who attempt
to control animals
tell me to bag each one,
though I am afraid
to touch their bright
the blank eyes
in their blank heads.
It is all wrong,
as are the chemical clouds
drifting from the fields
where the cows make
us milk and meat.
The sunsets beautifully hued:
oozy pink, infected apricot.
Day after day of wrong color.
And then farm trucks encircle
the town and spray
a silver-white fog
to neutralize the air.
to the sky
beading the wind.
Copyright © 2018 Hadara Bar-Nadav. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in Tin House, Fall 2018.
Then came the soft animals, the snake
and octopus, slinking along. You’ve seen
the octopus as escape artist, sneaking out
of cracks and holes, hiding in a tea pot,
plotting the big adventure. Now she moves
through chemical reaction, the first soft
robot, taking to the sea. Remember
that the real thing once disassembled
her own aquarium, waiting, bemused,
in the remaining puddle, for her custodian
to come. They say it was simply curiosity.
Now imagine her robot double dismantling
at will. That which we have tried to contain,
swimming off into the deep, re-emerging
like the snake that slithers into your garden;
its trapezoidal kirigami cuts in plastic skin
keep it crawling through bursts of air.
An innocuous slinky in colorful garb,
this robot can sidewind anywhere.
Now ask why everything now harbors
a weapon in your mind—do you dread
the snake under your own bed?
Is it the real tooth and venom you fear,
or this programmed body double here?
We’re told of a fall, a fault built on flesh—
the flesh of a fruit, the flesh of a woman—
now this manmade flesh, a reptilian test
of applied knowledge. Industrial sin
co-starring the latest sensation: a running
cockroach robot, sliding through cracks
to get to you, away from you, through
your walls. Extinction now eradicated,
bought: replacements on order. Enter
“Robotanica”—the world of the wild robot—
woodpecker, dragonfly, kangaroo, child—
unborn, they can all do the job. Two by two,
battery-powered to keep the world moving,
replacing their organic prototypes. Centipedes,
spiders, ants, termites, and robobees, these
are just the beginning of the evolving nation,
as if someone has decided to revise, start over.
This time using human labor, invention.
Copyright © 2019 by Rebecca Morgan Frank. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 29, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
Three days before the hurricane
a woman in white is hauling milk.
The beach wails.
She is swinging her pail.
I am sleeping in a tent of car parts, quilts
when the woman passes through the heavy felt door.
If your dream were to wash over the village, she says.
We listen—seagulls resisting the shore.
Hermit crabs scuttle under tin.
The children hitch their sails in.
Later that night from the compound walls
I see her hitchhiking the stars’ tar road—
black dress, black boots, black bonnet,
a moon-faced baby in a basket.
Thus, alone, I have conceived.
A tent dweller moved to the earth’s edge,
I bathe in acidic waves.
Everyone in the village
watches at the cliff the tidal wave
breach, roll across the sky.
They are feasting on cold
fried chicken, champagne—
I have no dancing dress for the picnic.
The king dozes in his gravelly castle.
The band plays its tired refrain.
Men, drunk on loosened wind
raise their cups to mechanical dolphins
tearing through the sheet-metal sea.
In the shadow of petrels’
snowy specters, drifting monuments
crash and calve.
But I, as water under wind does,
I tear my hair,
scalp the sand—
the sun, eclipsed by dark contractions
turns its disc to night—
fish like bright coins
flip from my hand.
Waking, I find I am alone in the kingdom.
The moon lays upon me
its phosphorescent veil.
The floating world—luciferous:
bleached coral coliseum,
a mermaid’s molten gown—
she turns her widening wheels,
spills her pail of glacial milk.
I could almost swim forever
to her beat of frozen bells.
But a sheet of water
doesn’t travel with the wave.
And the morning like a tender body
slides out of silt:
I press against its damp
rough surface, an ear.
Originally published in OAR. Copyright © 2016 by Jennifer Foerster. Used with the permission of the author.
I’m thinking of the boiling sea
and the dream in which
all the fish were singing.
I want to wake up with my heart
not aching like death,
but I am always falling
in to terror. I’m a good person.
I grieve to appropriate degrees.
I mourn this season. This moment.
I mourn for the polar bear
drifting out of history
on a wedge of melting ice.
For the doughnut shop
which reached an end
yesterday, after decades and decades.
I’m thinking of the light
at dawn. Of the woman
in Alabama who ordered
six songbirds from a catalog because
she was lonely. Or
heartbroken. I’m thinking
of the four that came
dead in the box, mangled.
Of the two that are
missing. I want to tell you
that they were spotted
in the humid air
winging above a mall.
I want to tell you a story
about the time leaves fell from
the trees all at once. I am
thinking of cataclysm.
More than anything, I want to tell you
this. I want to disappear
in the night. I want
the night to vanish from memory.
I want to tell you
how this happened.
Copyright © 2017 by Paul Guest. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 30, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.
What if the submarine
is praying for a way
it can poison the air,
in which some of them have
leaped for a few seconds,
felt its suffocating
Something floats above their
known world leading a wake
of uncountable death.
What if they organized
into a rebellion?
Now scientists have found
a group of octopuses
who seem to have a sense
of community, who
live in dwellings made of
gathered pebbles and shells,
who cooperate, who
defend an apparent
border. Perhaps they’ll have
a plan for the planet
in a millennium
or two. After we’re gone.
Copyright © 2019 by Marilyn Nelson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 20, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
If all you counted were tires on the cars left in driveways and stranded beside the roads.
Melted dashboards and tail lights, oil pans, window glass, seat belt clasps.
The propane tanks in everyone's yards, though we didn't hear them explode.
R-13 insulation. Paint, inside and out. The liquor store's plastic letters in puddled
colors below their charred sign. Each man-made sole of every shoe in all those closets.
The laundromat's washers' round metal doors.
But then Arco, Safeway, Walgreens, the library—everything they contained.
How many miles of electrical wire and PVC pipe swirling into the once-blue sky:
how many linoleum acres? Not to mention the valley oaks, the ponderosas, all the wild
hearts and all the tame, their bark and leaves and hooves and hair and bones, their final
cries, and our neighbors: so many particular, precious, irreplaceable lives that despite
ourselves we're inhaling.
Copyright © 2018 Molly Fisk. This poem originally appeared in Rattle. Used with permission of the author.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
First printed in Harper's Magazine, December 1920.
You are never mentioned on Ararat
or elsewhere, but I know a woman’s hand
in salvation when I see it. Lately,
I’m torn between despair and ignorance.
I’m not a vegetarian, shop plastic,
use an air conditioner. Is this what happens
before it all goes fluvial? Do the selfish
grow self-conscious by the withering
begonias? Lately, I worry every black dress
will have to be worn to a funeral.
New York a bouillon, eroded filigree.
Anything but illness, I beg the plagues,
but shiny crows or nuclear rain.
Not a drop in London May through June.
I bask in the wilt by golden hour light.
Lately, only lately, it is late. Tucking
our families into the safeties of the past.
My children, will they exist by the time
it’s irreversible? Will they live
astonished at the thought of ice
not pulled from the mouth of a machine?
Which parent will be the one to break
the myth; the Arctic wasn’t Sisyphus’s
snowy hill. Noah’s wife, I am wringing
my hands not knowing how to know
and move forward. Was it you
who gathered flowers once the earth
had dried? How did you explain the light
to all the animals?
Copyright © 2019 by Maya C. Popa. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 30, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
[arbitrary line] [perish] knocking among other refugees —the islands —no one to help —thousands buried by water A butchered animal at my feet. Wolves howl. Soot falls from sky. The rescuers are never prepared. And we, here, amid a failure of images. Scrub a spot whiter than before. Demarcate before there is nothing left. Breach into white sand. The dead ache so.
From Good Stock Strange Blood (Coffee House Press, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Dawn Lundy Martin. Used with the permission of Coffee House Press.
we drank in the remains of ruined buildings and we sat in a cave or wrecked houses on farms given back to the bank listening to men who'd been raised in ways that were lost and we strained to make out the use of their news they were crazy or passed out speed notched with a cross they drank from the flask and the mouth they came in and shook off the rain inflamed and dismayed calm and arcane the least one seethed chanting whitman for hours then wept at the dregs of the fire foam formed at the edge of their lips we drank and waited for something to drop you and I looking and sifting for signs written in wax we were young we knew how to die but not how to last a small man who claimed he was blake raged all night and probably he was he had god in his sights white crosses shone in our eyes or acid mandalic in the ruins the men talked: seraphic and broken glowing with gnosis and rubbish we sorted their mad sacred words these dog-headed guides to the life after and the life after that
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Conway. Used with permission of the author.
Some did not want to alter the design
when the failure message
said massive problem with oxygen.
Some wanted to live full tilt with risk.
By then we were too weak for daily chores:
feeding chickens, hoeing yams,
calibrating pH this and N2 that . . .
felt like halfway summiting Everest.
We didn’t expect the honeybees
to die. Glass blocked the long-wave
light that guides them.
Farm soil too rich in microbes
concrete too fresh ate the oxygen.
We had pressure problems,
recalibrating the sniffer. Bone tired
I reread Aristotle by waning light.
Being is either actual or potential.
The actual is prior to substance.
Man prior to boy, human prior to seed,
Hermes prior to chisel hitting wood.
I leafed through Turner’s England,
left the book open at Stonehenge.
A shepherd struck by lightning lies dead,
dog howling, several sheep down too.
The painter gave gigantic proportion
to sulphurous god rimmed clouds
lightning slashing indigo sky
while close at hand lie fallen stones
dead religion, pages dusty
brown leaf shards gathering
in the gutter yet I cannot turn the page
wondering what I am and when
in the story of life my life is taking place.
Now what. No shepherd. No cathedral.
How is it then that I read love
in pages that lie open before me?
Copyright © 2015 by Alison Hawthorne Deming. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 23, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.