Field Guide to the End of the World
by Jeannine Hall Gailey
Moon City Press, 2016
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk
Poetry Editor at EIL
As you know from its title, this is the book you want with you during the end times.
“The end is near,” says Jeannine Hall Gailey in Field Guide to the End of the World:
The children’s books are full of futuristic dystopias. Clones, slaves,
hunger games, post-nuclear mutants, zombies. It’s not a safe era,
they’ve been taught to fear everything—salmonella in the peanut butter,
allergens in the air, the creepy guy next door, who, let’s face it, probably
is a pervert. They know better than to say “yes” to adults.
So let’s leave it to them to survive whatever rapture or apocalypse
lies before them. Let us accumulate for them: potato chips, underwear,
stories that were written before paper, eyeglasses and antibiotics.
A narrative of how things used to be. An imagined world without wars
or time paradoxes or plagues, where they could camp out all night and watch fireflies
before the green glow came to represent something far more sinister.
You know it’s true. She’s describing our era, right now, connecting it to the nostalgic glow of our own childhoods and to a sincere wish for the next generation, who must rescue their future from the toxic mess we’ve left behind.
There’s plenty of hard science here (a whole section of it!), some “junk science,” cultural anthropology, genetics, electromagnetics, medicine, engineering, fantasy, science fiction, outer space, inner truth. It’s a glorious testament to our times, this book, in part because of how it blends irony and humor with the darkest of realities. I go with her on this scary journey to the end of the world because we are going “together, the human race, one man kicking the seat,” other passengers annoying in other ways, in a “sky-blue Plymouth,” all of us “in a hurry to reach the end of our journey, / settle down in our final destination.” That’s from the poem “Are We There Yet?” which evokes many a family vacation, though this might be one from which we don’t return.
More humor and more critique of contemporary culture come in the poem “Martha Stewart’s Guide to Apocalypse Living”:
Survival skills are just like hostess skills: a little preparation, a little spying with the drones, a little determined defense-driven hedging of the grounds. Razor wire goes beautifully with your holly thicket.
Gailey’s “Introduction to Mutagenesis” is wonderful scary fun wrapped around private disasters of illness and deformity: “Errors in replication—beyond our control—and yet sometimes the systemic destruction / of a certain cell might lead to a breakthrough…” Indeed, this matches my own theory of evolution; the adaptations of this age, our bodies’ responses to the various poisons surrounding us in our highly-industrialized, polluted, radioactive world, will eventually produce a kind of human able to survive on the planet we ruined. Unless we wipe ourselves out.
This genetic-mutation theme winds through the book (like the double helix) and comes back ecologically in the poem “Introduction to Ecotoxicology, or, a Short History of the Chemical Age.”
Layers of bioaccumulation in prey
and predator, contaminants in flora and fauna.
The bees wander, dazed, from hives,
forgetting the path from flower to flower.
Desert birds lay eggs with shells too fragile
to contain their young safely, dead before they can take flight.
Here, Gailey addresses the facts laid out by scientists like Sandra Steingraber, also a poet concerned with “the presence / of pesticides in breast milk” and “cancer / clusters,…whole land / masses measured like a map of illness—” Unless our laws and policies change—and they might not; it might be business as usual come November—we might keep asking, heartlessly, “What’s one bluebird, more or less, / one field of butterflies missed?”
Terribly poignant and personal is a poem with a title that continues onto its first line and a terror that goes beyond its first stanza into ever-receding half-lives:
On the 5th Anniversary of Fukushima, I’m Injected with Radioactive Blood Cells
And lie breathless beneath a gamma-ray camera.
They are tracing the lines of my red blood cells, photographing
the path of Technetium particles through my body…
brain, heart, thyroid, spleen, liver. Where did we go wrong?
“Welcome to the Sixth Extinction” keeps asking the important questions, including this one: “Will we, one dynamic but fragile species of our age, / become the last victim…? Jeannine Hall Gailey provides some answers, too, but we might not like them “The bones of dinosaurs lying in shallow desert graves / remind us: we were not here first, we will not be here last.”
This Field Guide is a punch in the stomach and a whack upside the head if you needed one. It is a loud shifting of gears in the sky-blue Plymouth, impossible to ignore.
Other reviews that might interest you:
Compare/contrast poem analyses…if that’s your thing!