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Preface, "Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days"

 

Great is the art of beginning, 

but greater is the art of ending.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Earthquakes.

Global warming.

Peak oil. Nuclear winter.

Giant, irradiated, man-eating ants...

Every generation invents their version of the apocalypse, and every culture has its writers, regardless of period, genre, or biography, who write about it.

Dante's Inferno journeys into the underworld much like Primo Levi's "Memorandum Book" and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

William Butler Yeats's, "The Second Coming," announces 

 

   the centre cannot hold

   Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
   The ceremony of innocence is drowned

 

while Orson Welles declares in War of the Worlds "We know now that ... this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man's...We know now that ... [we] were scrutinized and studied,   perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water" and many of those listening to the broadcast that followed flooded the streets in a panic-  chaos, they believed, loosed upon the world.

In Hamlet, the ghost of our hero's father haunts him with his posthumous directives much like the dreams that disturb "the man's" sleep in Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas bares striking semblance to Mary Shelley's The Last Man, Orson Welles's The Time Machine, and Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles rolled into one.

And let's not forget the cataclysms of our religious texts adapted by authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Aldous Huxley, Ayn Rand, and Don DeLillo. 

It seems that of the procession of factors that divide us, that of the myriad elements that polarize humanity, the one thing we share is our fear of its end. 

"Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending," Wadsworth once wrote. These words (though, yes, I am applying my own interpretation to) are atypically apt, particularly given he wrote them one-hundred-and-thirty years ago.

The art that becomes of our end speaks to the human struggle and triumph in a way little other art can. This is not because such art is of particular beauty or is peculiarly apt. This is because such art speaks to an almost universal audience often yearning to be united by an unbreakable philosophy, to be bound together (and individually) by an essential law.

Our writers have responded.

When the terrors of the Atomic Era were at a fever pitch in the United States, countless novels, films, and poems addressed the possibility of fallout, meltdown.

As Y2K approached in 1999, people built bomb shelters, stock-piled non-perishables, and the documentary, Y2K- A World in Crisis, was a hit even after our fears of global technological collapse proved unfounded.

Many Americans turned to W.H. Auden's "September 1937" when 9-11 struck. While this poem was largely misread, it spoke to those of us who observed the destruction of those towering symbols of American pride, wealth, and security and couldn't help but wonder if "the walls" were coming down.

When astronomers developed new methods do detect near-earth asteroids, Deep Impact and Armageddon competed at the box office, Final Fantasy VII centered around a planet devastated by a meteor impact, Asteroid was a hit NBC mini-series, and novels such as Arthur C. Clarke's Hammer of God and Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer were suddenly topical.

More recently, fears over global warming, peak oil, and man-made epidemics have been explored in films like 28 Days Later and the lesser-known Pontypool as well as in novels such as The City of Ember and Blindness.

As our banking system has collapsed and gridlock has stalled in Washington, zombie fiction and writings of the "End-Times" have experienced an almost unprecedented revival.

2009's film, 2012, explored what will happen on December 21, 2012.

Soon, it actually will be December 21, 2012. And, despite the world's failure to rend itself in twain (we hope!), Matt Ridley's observation that even though "predictions of global famine and the end of oil on the 1970s proved just as wrong as the end-of-the-world forecasts from millennial priests... there's no sign that experts are becoming more cautious about apocalyptic promises"[1] appears all the more likely.

Our obsession with our end, it seems, is as deeply routed in the American psyche as is our fascination with our beginnings.

The question is why?

Why is it that Americans take events such as Superstorm Sandy or the 2000 Presidential election- fairly common events in our own history and in other parts of the current-day world- and fear the end of days is upon us?

This is the question that Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days investigates. These poems and stories dwell in the physical and psychological realms we occupy and, eventually, no longer will. Apocalypse Now examines America's obsession with life and death, with our creation and our demise.

Apocalypse Now isn't a mere gathering of cataclysms.

As Francis Ford Coppola's film, Apocalypse Now, explored the devastation of body and soul in Vietnam while introducing much of its audience to Joseph Conrad's often-overlooked Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days invites a wide range of readers to immerse themselves in contemporary visions of the end of days.

While a number of apocalyptic anthologies have been published, Apocalypse Now is the first of its kind to bring together the literature prose and poetry of the apocalypse by some of America's finest (though not necessarily well-known) literary voices.

As Cormac McCarthy's The Road attracted an audience so broad it garnered an Oprah Book Club Selection and the Pulitzer Prize for 2007, this anthology introduces readers who enjoy genre fiction such as Left Behind and The Stand to a more literary approach to the subject in prose and poetry.

The anthology's opening poem, Rodney Jones‘s "Apocalyptic Narrative," dwells in a post-apocalyptic United States in which our hero survives via c-rations and government cheese in an abandoned cave. Joyce Carol Oates‘s "Thanksgiving" depicts a father and daughter who venture out to buy food for their Thanksgiving dinner because the mother is ill. This seemingly ordinary trip becomes decidedly unordinary when our assumptions about their world quickly crumble.

Missy, the single mother of Margaret Atwood‘s "The Silver Astroturfer," spends her days in her basement of computers churning out copy under various aliases ("ExCodFisherman" or "LeglessVeteran" or "LadyDuckHunter") in order to manipulate the daily news. Davis McCombs' poems tell the story of a dying tobacco industry in the South and of the killing of the last gray wolf in Edmonson County, Kentucky. 

Judy Jordan‘s poems examine humankind's slow destruction of the earth while Paolo Bacigalupi‘s story, "The People of Sand and Slag," looks at how we would live post-global warming via three explorers who utilize the environment itself to remake their decaying bodies.

Chet Weise‘s poems tell of the sorely under-reported floods that overwhelmed Nashville, Tennessee in May 2010, killing twenty-one people. Pinckney Benedict‘s "The Beginnings of Sorrow" is a deeply disturbing take on metamorphoses as well as apocalypses both large and small, centering on a rural couple with a dog possessed by his master's deceased and lust-sick father.

Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days has an eye for the popular and the literary, for story and lyric, for the psychological and the physical, for the real and the fantastic. 

Why are we so sure the end draws nigh? we ask. What will we do when the lights go out? we ask.

I hope you enjoy.

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum


[1] Ridley, Matt. "Apocalypse Not." WIRED. Sep. 2012: 110-15; 148-50. Print.

 



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