On Jane Satterfield’s Apocalypse Mix

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Apocalypse Mix
By Jane Satterfield
(Autumn House Press, 2017, 95pp)

In two of Jane Satterfield’s previous collections—Shepherdess with an Automatic (Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2000) and Her Familiars (Elixir Press, 2013)—we find poems engaging a past that straddles two continents, including their history of war and their pastoral tradition. Similarly, her new collection, Apocalypse Mix, engages these topics and displays both her intelligence and her talent for yoking together seemingly disparate subjects. But Apocalypse Mix is a unique book written at a unique moment—a century since World War I, and during a rising wave of potentially disastrous nationalism in Europe and the U.S.—and a book written by a poet in a unique position to appreciate these parallels: Jane Satterfield is the child of a British mother and American Air Force father, spent a year in Britain with an ex-husband who was there on a Fulbright, and her own daughter holds dual citizenship.1

Introduced by “Radio Clash” and “An Ideal for Living,” poems both featuring British punk-rock played in Baltimore, the resulting manuscript is a mixtape of moments of modern apocalypse such as World Wars I and II, Korea, the Cold War, and 9/11—all moments when nationalism nearly brought about total destruction. In Satterfield’s poems, the threats of war, of nuclear or biological weapons, of environmental disaster, or of terrorism turn and turn in a widening gyre, demonstrating what we’re doomed to repeat, like the “Souvenir” of hearing loss her military father suffers:

as the whir of choppers,
the what what what my father
no longer asks….
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Headsong & humsickness
are a few of the names
given to earworms,
those sticky tunes you
can’t get out of your head. (44-5)

In certain poems, Satterfield even emulates the heroic Anglo-Saxon verse used to recount battles, as in the three-to-five-stress alliterative lines of section II of the book, “Bestiary for a Centenary,” which memorializes the dogs, passenger pigeons, and horses pressed into service in World War I—“these & others / also served: comrades & battle kin” (34)—and in the similar lines with medial pauses appearing in “Cursing for Beginners.”

In fact, in this book, two common responses to apocalyptic moments are either a sort of magical aversion via curses, spells, and amulets, or a denial that simultaneously seems a perverse embrace. Both “Cursing for Beginners” and “Malediction” reference a practice in Roman Britain of inscribing small metal plates with curses invoking local deities against enemies, and “Combat-Ready Balm” describes “the St. Christopher medal I gave my dad / after the 459th’s midnight call, the usual round // of inoculations, the botulinum and anthrax vaccines” (48). The flip side of this response is a retreat into a luxurious denial set against the wartime necessities of rationed goods, as in “Salt”: “Not apocrypha, as in Scipio salting / the Carthaginian fields,” nor the “Salt of the earth” union workers who supported the war efforts, but rather the speaker wandering the market aisles,

………………………………………… considering
the virtues of each—coarse, finishing, flake,
gray, grinder, sea, smoked, or Sicilian—in
search of the imported butter that makes
my shortbread especially toothsome,
and caramels Fleur de sel. (17-19)

At times, these two responses join together in a Danse Macabre on the edge of apocalypse, seemingly mocking what it rejects. Of our shopping habits the speaker wonders, “why we sustain, every few years at a time, // a renewable fashion for military chic” (“Elegy with Trench Art and Asanas,” 8), and elsewhere the speaker wonders “why is it this season’s / psychedelic orange makes me think of detainees in stress / positions?” (“An Ideal for Living,” 5). Similarly, a standout poem for its capacious examination in such a compressed space, “Object Lessons” scrutinizes our surreal practice of making entertainment of war: watching M*A*S*H with its “hijinks of draftee / doctors gathered around a still somewhere // in Korea,” while playing “War’s long slap-hand campaigns” and “board games where we learned stratagems // of risk & subterfuge, bluffing & bomb / placement” and indulging in “Atomic Fireballs, bomb- / pops frosted red, white & blue” (50-1).

This decadence extends even to the point of enjoying the pastoral in the environmental moment of its passing. In the mockery of “Et in Arcadia Ego,” we find a pastoral elegy for the pastoral elegy as the poem encourages us to “frolic on the median strip” (20). As one might expect from an apocalyptic-themed collection, elegies both classical and contemporary—in particular the “necropastoral”—dominate here. Joyelle McSweeney’s brilliant rearticulation of the pastoral tradition defines the necropastoral as the “infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion” that have always permeated the “cordon sanitaire [which the pastoral] purports to erect between unhealthy urban strife and wholesome rural peace…. The term ‘necropastoral’ remarks the pastoral as a zone of exchange, shading this green theme park with the suspicion that the anthropocene epoch is in fact synonymous with ecological endtimes.” In particular, McSweeney highlights the use of necropastoral in the work of war historian Paul Fussell and World War I poet Wilfred Owen (“Strange Meetings in the Necropastoral,” The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults. U Michigan P, 2014. pp. 3-4). Similarly, in “Elegy with Trench Art and Asanas,” Satterfield moves literally between war and peace, from a museum exhibit on World War I trench warfare to a yoga studio above a bowling alley, the sound of the falling pins “thunderous…though nothing next to the volley of / shellfire and mines going off” (6); inevitably, both war and yoga end in a corpse pose.

Meanwhile, much of section V of the book elegizes more specific deaths: for instance, there’s “For Virginia Woolf, March 28, 2011,” written on the 70th anniversary of her death, and there’s the question of “how to pay tribute to what / is simply beyond words” in the paralleling of 9/11 and Antietam in “Elegy with Civil War Shadowbox” (68), and there’s “Crossing the Shenandoah in Late Summer,” which addresses the 2015 mass shooting in the Charleston AME church, and the tandem elegy for a poet and a place “Last Dinner at Louie’s with Levis.” The penultimate poem of the collection, “Why I Don’t Write Nature Poems,” ultimately seems a rejection of the pastoral, the speaker inevitably drawn to the manmade distraction, “to the satellite dish disrupting the view. To the one swatch of sky where the haze hangs” (83).

A major focus for this book, and a necessary component of its theme, is the “Migrant Universe” that makes up section IV. The section is inspired by the series of paintings under the same title by Bosnian immigrant artist Tanja Softi, whose artist’s statement appears at the start of this section and whose art graces the book’s cover. While motifs of migration, exile, and borders appear elsewhere in the collection, here they are brought into sharp relief with no relief. These poems portray attempts to obliterate nations, memory, language, and people who nonetheless persist, attempting to navigate by memory despite now-useless maps and missing geographic features: “I find a new road I never knew existed or, is it an old street deprived of its landmarks?” (60). The angels who feature in these poems – Angel of Absence, Second Angel, Angel of Becoming – along with the Evangelist, offer little comfort. They seem more like harbingers – those guarding the postlapsarian Eden’s gates, or blowing the horns of Judgment:

Something’s decided to narrate in more dimensions than I can know: this angel’s transmission across time and space. Telegraph towers mapping the tangle of transit. When I go back, I feel exiled from it all. . . And always there are two thoughts, one cutting through the first until it isn’t there. . . (“Second Angel,” 59)

This section possesses a distinctive style. While a few prose poems do appear in section V, there are none prior to section IV. In fact, the poems of I—III seem continuously to contract thinner until the prose poems of “Migrant Universe” appear, thereby emphasizing the difference between the poems of section IV and their predecessors while also embodying tensions between lines versus margins versus borders. The content in section IV spills to the edges of the page, yet by pushing against their borders, the poems actually reiterate their margins, the marginalized.

In “Migrant Universe” and throughout the book, Satterfield incorporates into her poems language from a range of sources—poems, films, songs, letters, historical records, diaries—as documented in her extensive endnotes. I’m a fan of documentary poetics, of projects that dig into their research and offer me artifacts with their art. But Satterfield’s use of this technique is especially poignant, creating a sort of archive to preserve our culture through the coming revolution. “Migrant Universe” is itself a mixtape, containing the voices of such writers as Michael Ondaatje, Albert Camus, Plutarch, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and Homi Bhabha.

More poignant still is that some of the sources were themselves records that were kept in case of destruction. In “On Listening to Elizabeth II’s Secret WWIII Speech,” the poet recounts a speech written in the event of “mutually assured destruction,” but never given by the young princess. That unimaginable (non)existence is echoed in the poem’s final lines: “cities in ruin, topographies scraped off the map / in the broadcast that never took place” (40).

In closing, I want to highlight a small, unsung hero of Satterfield’s Apocalypse Mix: the symbol “&.” The ampersand does a lot of heavy lifting in this collection. In this wide overview of the parallel histories of human self-destruction & human self-preservation, war & art, migration & exile, Satterfield uses the ampersand to equate & enumerate, to create catalogues, acknowledge links between a century (or more) of sources & voices. In doing so, she grants us the potential energy of &, rather than end, rather than an ending, propelling us into another revolution of the wheel, another spool of the tape, like the automatic direction shift on the cassette tape deck I possessed in high school that allowed my music to play continuously and without ceasing


1 The initial version of this article stated that Satterfield had published two previous collections of poetry; in fact, she had published three previous collections. The initial version also incorrectly stated that Satterfield had been married to a British man and lived in Britain for years.