“By the time the apocalypse began, the world had already ended,” reads the first poem in “The World Keeps Ending and the World Goes On,” released Nov. 1. Franny Choi’s third poetry collection starts with catastrophe unfurling with cyclical multiplicity: “It ended, and another ending world spun in its place.”
While Choi’s past work has often tracked the crossroads of technology and identity, Choi’s most recent book introduces apocalypse as a chemical catalyst, fueling her interrogations of what it means to witness the world’s incessant sequence of catastrophe. Maintaining a textured voice throughout the book, Choi’s language is ridged with lyrical clarity and rhythmic intuition, evincing the blistering specificity of a poet foraging for the right words within the curves of history and humanity.
As such, time is a fickle thing for Choi, who traverses, manipulates and experiments with it in her poetics. More than offering a circular view of apocalypse, temporality wrangles her language, molding linear time into an agent of contemplation. “If you speed on ahead, earth forbid, I’ll know. I knew,” writes Choi in an address to her mother in “Grief Is a Thing with Tense Issues.” The poem grapples with “grieving in the future tense” and “anticipatory feelings toward the past” as dimensions of mourning, propelling sentiment beyond the confines of the present.
Beyond reconfiguring the contours of time, Choi also redefines the way it is conceptualized and labeled. In “Science Fiction Poetry,” the language of a catastrophic future is infiltrated by descriptions of an undeniably concurrent world: “Dystopia of billionaires racing giddy to space/ Dystopia $800 a month but the debt stays the same,” she writes, reflecting on the familiar terrors of modern society. Capitalism, politics and the cruelties of bureaucracy conjoin to give fiction a run for its money as Choi drives hard into the poem’s chant-like tirade on the destructive absurdities of contemporary society.
In a way, the outlook appears unimaginably bleak, particularly when it feels like apocalypse is the thread that both breaks the world apart and connects it together. As Choi weaves the threads of the most disastrous tribulations in recent global memory together — the pandemic, wars and calamities — the reader is drawn thunderously into her musings, able to stitch a thread from the collection to their own experiences. Choi’s intentionality thus seeps through her work in ways both large and small, with each read and reread imparting a strengthened sense of connection to its audience.
Yet, despite the collection’s topical resonance, Choi posits the fact that apocalypse is not experienced uniformly — for those in marginalized communities, it has approached in ever-rotating waves across time. Within her ponderings on tragedies both old and new, she plunges into the histories of her Korean heritage, writing earnestly about imperialism, the Korean War and the diasporic experience. Along with examinations on America’s past and present grapplings with racism, Choi’s alignment of reality and apocalypse becomes ever-clearer with somber lucidity: World-ending calamity reverberates across memory for many marginalized people, forging the looming figure of intergenerational trauma.
The contents of “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On” at times feel insurmountably devastating, cleaving to the heart with a heavy hand. Yet, it simultaneously recovers cautious optimism from its lyrical lamentations. In “With Mouths and Mushrooms, the Earth Will Accept Our Apology,” Choi considers the self-rehabilitation of the natural world in the face of human-driven wreckage, while “Dispatches from a Future Great-Great-Granddaughter” is an epistolary transmission to the past marked with tentative hope.
“Protest Poem” emerges fiercely at the anthology’s tense terminus. Equal parts furious and hopeful, it acknowledges the limitations of language in eliciting change: “So: this isn’t/ a sentence./ It’s a sound./ It’s a blade, spinning,” she writes. For Choi, words may not be enough, so she calls on her readers to refashion their rage in search of a better world. In “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On,” the apocalypse is not an unconquerable end, but perhaps an opportunity to believe in a reimagined future.