Staying Alive, poetry by Laura Sims, reviewed by Jackson Nieuwland


As soon as I read the description of this book on the Ugly Duckling Presse website, I knew I had to have it:

In her fourth poetry collection, Staying Alive, Laura Sims envisions the state of the world and of human existence before, during, and after the forever-imminent apocalypse. In channeling and sampling works of apocalyptic fiction and nonfiction—The War of the Worlds, The World Without Us, How to Stay Alive in the Woods, and The Road, to name a few—the poems explore multiple world-endings and their possible outcomes, and pose answers to the questions: will we, how do we, and should we stay alive?

It sounds like exactly what I want poetry to be. I had never read any of Sims’ work before, but the excerpt on the site was intriguing, and I trust UDP to make books that are both interesting and beautiful. I wasn’t let down.

From the first page, I was already making connections to other apocalyptic texts. “The future// Empty// Of children” screamed Children of Men to me. And as I went on, I caught links with Waterworld, Mad Max, I Am Legend, The Matrix. Of course, when I reached the author’s note at the end of the book and read the list of works that Sims was influenced by and/or appropriated language from, I found none of these texts mentioned. I had read them into the poems all by myself.

I was reminded of something I sometimes experience while watching what are intended as narrative films. I find myself interacting with the film in an ambient way. Something in the film will trigger a thought only tangentially connected to the plot, and I will follow that train of thought, drifting parallel to what is happening on the screen, touching back in with the movie occasionally and allowing it to again alter the path of my thoughts. These are not bad films. It’s not that they don’t hold my attention, they just tug at it in a different, unintended way. This is an experience I appreciate.

Sims leaves room for a similar style of reading in this collection. She isn’t telling a story. She is building a world that readers can exist in however they choose. The words this world is built from sit in pools of white space, which leave room for the reader’s mind to create its own ripples and fill in the blank lines between two words in a sentence. Each reader’s ripples will be different like a fingerprint. Where I saw The Matrix, someone else might see Terminator. Where I saw Waterworld, you might see Planet of the Apes.

The world Sims has built inside this book is simultaneously full and empty. A pulsing void. A black hole. She used existing texts to create this book, but made the decision to strip away the details from them. While the language is borrowed from these books and movies, it is not specific to them. Battlestar Galactica was one of her sources, and yet I found no references to Cylons in the poems. This leaves us not with a surface level intertextuality, easily traced, but a net of feelings, moods. The world has gone dark, and we are trying to find our way using only the clues found by our hands stretched out in front of us.

Early in the reading, I began to notice contradictions. The first page announces a world without children, but soon after we are told, “the young ones came in the gloaming.” How do we explain this to ourselves? Are these the last few children left on the planet? Or is this a memory from before the cataclysm? Perhaps it is a salvation, the first children for a hundred years? Even individual lines seem to have a multiplicity of possible meanings. “The earth became a sea that rocked our house and power” could be a metaphor for an earthquake or it could be quite literal, dirt turning to water. The possibilities expand to fill the white space surrounding the text.

Perhaps this book is not one long poem, as I was originally reading it. Perhaps Sims is not drawing from an assortment of texts to create one, singular world. Perhaps each page describes a different potential apocalypse, a kind of Invisible Cities of destruction, a pick-your-own-adventure where each path ends in a different death.

In the afterword, Sims mentions a photo from Chernobyl: “shredded books layering the floor of a school.” Reading that, I knew it was a description of this book. Staying Alive is more than an exploration of the idea of apocalypse. It is the result of a cataclysmic event. These are the torn pages from The Road, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and The War of the Worlds, scattered on the floor of the school. A survivor who was just a child when our world ended, who has no memory of the time before, has come across them and transcribed them into this red notebook, trying to make sense of them.

Staying Alive, by Laura Sims. Brooklyn, New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, March 2016. 80 pages. $14.00, paper.

Jackson Nieuwland likes unicorns.

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