Book Review

      I was born
      because of love
      inside a weapons lab.

These are the first three lines of Allison Cobb’s poem “For Love,” which ends the first section of her remarkable book After We All Died. This terse little moment could be said to sum up the entire book as it handles the question of what it really means to live within the weapons lab that the whole world, at least its industrialized centers, and in particular the United States, has become.

Four hundred parts per million. That was the milestone, the tipping point, we were not supposed to reach. We reached it. And there’s no going back.

In an article posted to Vice’s web channel Motherboard (but you could look anywhere) titled “Goodbye World: We’ve Passed the Carbon Tipping Point for Good,” we learn that extinction rates are moving towards ten thousand species a year. A quarter of all species are predicted to become extinct over the next thirty years. The Union of Concerned Scientists put out a report on the chronic flooding occurring now and predicted to continue for the next hundred years in coastal communities in the Americas. Five hundred. That’s how many coastal communities can expect chronic flooding (which is defined as bad enough to force everyone to move) over the next century. If that’s too far in the future to imagine or care about, well, it’s basically already over for New Orleans, parts of Southern Texas, and Maryland. You can have fun with these maps if you don’t believe me.

But in fact, you probably do believe me. You, like me, know this, but also have no way of knowing it. That is, we can’t really think about it even when we do.

Cobb’s book asks us to consider what it feels like to acknowledge such truths. Without slamming us with statistics that we already think we know, she asks a crucial and unavoidable question: Once we face what we will soon be unable to avoid, what will remain of human joy, desire, pleasure, pride, humor, and especially love?

The poem “For Love” shares a title with, and is I believe a nod to, Robert Creeley’s acerbic lyric of the same title, which includes these lines:

Can I eat
what you give me. I
have not earned it. Must
I think of everything

as earned.

This sense of being unworthy, of having failed to have earned what one has (food, or land, or money, or home), permeates Cobb’s book like heartache. The book opens, then, as it must (otherwise it could not continue): with self-forgiveness—an erotic and tender chant that insists on self-love because self-love is, at this time, so hard:

I forgive you fingers. I forgive you wrists and palms. I forgive you web of veins, the nameless knuckles, twenty-seven bones, the nails and moons below. . . . I forgive you sacroiliac, the bone wings laced with tendon, the pelvic inlet and the brim. I forgive you coiled intestines lined in tissue soft as velvet, the uterus and eggs inside of ovaries, the fluting tubes Fallopian, the docile stomach sack.

She begins at the hands (then feet, legs, ass, vagina, internal organs, and finally face and head and brain), because the hands so clearly mark us as human, the hands are so directly the violent actors in the narrative of destruction that is our “privileged” relationship to the earth. Self-forgiveness of even our nonstop grabbing, gripping, and handling, however, is where we must begin if we are to begin anywhere in the effort to sing and love in the Anthropocene. Without this act of self-love, however desperate, the answer to the question of the afterlife of the human is no, no afterlife, you’re done.

But we’re not done. We’re still here and in the paired essays at the center of the book, Cobb lays out some of the terms of our continued presence on earth. “August 6, 2014,” the first of these essays, beautifully weaves together sentences that address the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Russia’s impending invasion of the Ukraine, the spread of Ebola, human respiration, and the detritus of a day in the life of a poet online in Portland. Each of these themes, events, or catastrophes (and there are others, but these are the main ones), make up the fabric of that day, or any day. We hold these events, perhaps all events, historical, present-day, and future in our bodies. The planet is a “superorganism,” a single being. The woven fabric of our being, metaphorized by the Internet on which Cobb surfs, is formally realized in her sentences as they wrap back-and-forth across her subjects like a spider’s filaments around her prey.

The second essay in this pairing, titled “Shout at the Devil,” continues this overarching theme (is it an argument? I prefer to say acknowledgment) as Cobb considers invasive species or cells: cancer, ants. The brutal survival tactics of ants (which I didn’t know about before reading this book) are, we come to understand, similar to those of cancer cells which will keep reproducing even after the death of their host body if given the chance. The announcement of “war on cancer” by Nixon, Cobb tells us, was a way to pull attention from that other war he was waging, and is paralleled here with Cobb’s slightly comical (but not really) war on the ant invasion in her home. But it’s not long into the essay that we come to see that the truly invasive force is not the rogue cells in the body or the insects in the kitchen, but rather the homo sapiens in the world:

I know E. O. Wilson’s theories of sociobiology are controversial, but I find his notion of homo sapiens as invasive species clarifying. He points out that humans evolved in Africa and Asia, and these are the only places where people have not yet driven the large animals into extinction. Elephants, rhinos, tigers, lions, and the humans all evolved together, and all developed defenses to one another. As homo sapiens spread out across the planet, they encountered animals that had no defenses, and they ate them.

But even here in this brutal shout out to the devil that is in us, Cobb returns to self-forgiveness at the end. “Sin comes from the ancient root for ‘to be.’ Take the Devil, old accuser, inside for divine principle. Be undeceived, a mixed thing. Be clear, like a web, almost all hole. Be a way that is not war.” This is not the false forgiveness of “no worries,” or “it’s all good.” Rather, it imagines a way forward that depends upon a true acknowledgment of the suffering we carry as both victim and perpetrator, both divinity and devil. There’s no way around it, but there is a way. And that way is to know our own holes, to know ourselves as driven through and perishable, ourselves as riddled by otherness, by otherness we are bound to love.

On the day I started writing this review, which happened to be the last day of 2017, the Sunday New York Times Book Review put out a special issue they titled “End Times: Fire Earthquake Rising Seas Storms Mass Extinction Doom.” The inclusion of that last word (as well as the illustration representing scared people peeking out from under a manhole) suggests that the preceding nine words can only be considered as a kind of joke. Irony, of course, is a far stronger form of self-protection than a manhole cover. No one knows how to talk about this shit. After We All Died was not reviewed in this special issue, but it should have been. For though we can’t figure out whether to laugh or cry, hide in a hole, or peek out, we really have no other topic as pressing. Cobb’s deep honesty, her courageously loving and powerful writing, helps me to get out of the hole and to feel what I feel.

This is how she ends “For Love,” in the place of feeling where feelings do not resolve but fuse:

The bomb
makers always burned
with so much love—the father
pillars of my child self
in church who prayed
the sun to earth
to burn up
for love. For love
-fused fear.
For grief.

About the Reviewer

Julie Carr is the author of six books of poetry and one book of criticism. Her most recent books are 100 Notes on Violence (Ahsahta), RAG (Omnidawn), and Think Tank (Solid Objects). She lives in Denver and teaches at the University of Colorado, Boulder.