Laura Sims’s fourth collection of poetry, Staying Alive (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016) enters the conversation of dystopian literature with a challenging meditation on the language of collapse and resilience. Staying Alive is composed of three sections and an afterword, beginning in eerie abstraction after the action of apocalypse has begun. At the reader’s arrival, we find already “The red glow from the East the burning docks” and “Wet leather // Where men / Had stood for a moment, a moment ago.” Sims’s broad swaths of white space on the page function as a heavy blankness, in which language flicks in little flints of image against a landscape that has fallen entirely dark.
The scenes of destruction soon shift, however, to an investigation of the psychology and process of re-inventing a species, which is where most of the book’s attention rests. Sims writes, “We had the wild feeling of harnessing / The fury of the boars. And then (against the quiet hum / The gods reared up a new people from stone.” The language marks an interesting space between archetypal breadth and specific attention to the oddity of the industrial remnants of humanity, as in a single remaining chandelier or an abandoned roller coaster. Although located in loss, Sims’s world is rich in production and magic, narrated by a speaker whose authority and distance provide contrast. Where the mechanical remnants of apocalypse have taken priority over the individual softness of experience, the collective we “[gives] our meat to the meat plant” while “The great machines / Make greater machines / And so on.” Against these images, readers are pressed to re-assess our views of the body as not a person, but an operator that requires fuel; of the land not as a surface, but as a body filled with blood.
The post-apocalyptic world of Staying Alive is one in which all is ruin and rapture, and in which temporary peace of the mind is forever disrupted by the intemperance of the modern body. Sims asks for our pressing consideration of the philosophical problem of our own evolution, which perhaps has led toward our own extinction rather than improvement; we are asked whether Rousseau’s original man yet exists within our cushioned selves, and whether we could, as she suggests, begin again in painted caves. Sims’s answers begin in the images: “Instead we happened on a man whose palms // Filled with berries.” Animals are driven off from the new vestiges of society and back “Through deep forest aisles through / Opaque cones of smoke.”
Sims writes in the collection’s intriguing afterword of the various crises and survival texts that formed the ecosystem of thought and language around this manuscript, including The Road, survival books, 9/11, and footage of the Chernobyl site. In most of these iterations, the collection is obsessed with the catastrophes that humans have created for themselves, and continue to create. At Chernobyl, the animals thrive (albeit with deformity) in the absence of the human devastation that preceded; the book’s frame provides a view of how this vision may consume the whole planet.
Staying Alive is a resonant, sharp entry into the psychology of loss on an unimaginable scale, and into the question of whether civilization has retained enough knowledge of the primitive self to bear any chance of a future. Sims acknowledges the trauma and devastation of the collapse, as well as the poignant hurdles to re-creating civilization, while also indicating the ways in which our current path cannot but end this way. These terrors seem in many ways out of the reach of the ordinary person—few have the singular power to create nuclear disaster. Yet Sims encourages us to look at the reality of our modern circumstance, in which, truly, a few hands can create massive catastrophes and columns of fire, on scales before reserved only for the actions of the earth or gods.