Poetry for the End of the World


When headlines are filled with war, bigotry, pandemic, climate change, and other everyday violences, it can be hard to feel grounded. Poetry that faces these world-ending times head on can be a salve. Some of these collections directly address the times we’re living through while others will leave you with a sense of comfort in the chaos. When thinking about all of these poets in conversation with each other, I think of poet George Abraham’s essay “Teaching Poetry in the Palestinian Apocalypse”: “by traveling deep enough into apocalypse, a colonized people will inevitably find a new world in the rubble and aftermath of our current one.”

Instead of losing hope, I turn to poetry and the collective voice, and I hope you will do the same.

Alive at the End of the World
by Saeed Jones
Coffee House Press

The cover of Saeed Jones’ latest poetry collection conjures futurism. But what can the past and our grief teach us about surviving in the future? Alive at the End of the World becomes a spell– each section begins with a poem titled “Alive at the End of the World” and ends with the continuation of a sequence titled “Saeed, or The Other One.” 

Jones’ poems grieve the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, those lost to COVID, cultural icons such as Whitney Houston and Toni Morrison, and the poet’s mother. Despite all the pain in contending with the past, these poems speak to a queer futurity within a dystopia. Jones writes: 

I hear the sirens and I am their

scream but tonight, I will moan 

a future into my man’s mouth.

It’s Not Over Once You Figure It Out
by Isaac Pickell
Black Ocean

Isaac Pickell’s debut full-length collection shows the necessity of poetry in witnessing the world around us. The poems in It’s Not Over Once You Figure It Out ask how the world can end if it (at least the US) was built on lies and racism. How do we cope with this when language fails?

Through brilliant use of the page itself, the poet shows us that perhaps the answer is shifting language for our needs. Some pages in this collection are entirely black with haunting text in white ink: 

Yours will be a future

without a future

already in ruins.

The “you” is a constant in this collection—the poet and the reader are in this together.

My Boyfriend Apocalypse
by antmen pimentel mendoza
Nomadic Press

The introduction to this delightful book reminds us that the end of the world is “tediously ordinary,” elaborating that “worlds end all the time” personally and politically. “They end, and still here we are.” My Boyfriend Apocalypse, like It’s Not Over Once You Figure It Out, interrogates the role of the poet in the apocalypse. The poet boldly chooses love as a way through in poems such as “Ghazal for the End of the World,” in which every stanza ends with “each other.” Through delicious imagery and pop culture cameos, these poems dare the reader to imagine these worlds and fall in love.

Playlist for the Apocalypse
by Rita Dove
W. W. Norton & Company

Playlist for the Apocalypse is the most recent poetry collection by widely celebrated Pulitzer prize winner Rita Dove. Meredith Boe’s review touches on themes of democracy and individuality. Further, golden shovels, aubades, sonnets, angry odes bear witness to timeless resilience. From 1968 to 2016, these poems chart world-ending events in the US and abroad; ultimately, the poems come back to tenderness, love, and “miracles of living– breath, / a heart that beats, that aches and sings.”

Poems like “Shakespeare Doesn’t Care” collapse history, with the Bard talking to Plath. Or perhaps Dove herself becomes the Bard:

Shakespeare’s taking no prisoners:

he’s purloined the latest gossip

to plump up his next comedy,

pens a sonnet while building

a playlist for the apocalypse.

Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency
by Chen Chen
BOA Editions

Much like his 2017 debut, Chen Chen combines heartbreak with humor, traversing the hostility of West Texas, New England, and family dynamics. Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency is a longer collection with recurring poems. 

While the title calls to mind a worst-case scenario, love is central to these poems. Love despite and in the face of empire. Decentering whiteness and instead bracing the self and community. For instance, the poem “four short essays personifying a future in which white supremacy has ended” reminds us “some people are not yet personified / while trees often are.” Above all, these poems make space for queer poets of color to not only exist, but thrive.

The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On
by Franny Choi

In The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On, Franny Choi writes the many ways the world has, is, and will end. These poems excavate the historical atrocities leading up to our present-day, but also how the marginalized can be complicit in suffering, too. The poem “Who Died and Made You American” opens with the lines “In the afterlife of apocalypse, my people, / too, are settlers of a theft.”

Protest, however, is a way through the end of the world, ancestrally and presently. These poems show that we don’t have to live through hopelessness alone.

Girls That Never Die
by Safia Elhillo
One World

Often, the very fact of being alive can be overwhelming—Safia Elhillo’s poetry collection is a testament to cautious survival in a hostile world. Questions of origin, family, and language arise. The speaker wonders what, or who, is left behind when she forgets Arabic phrases? What would her life look like without the uncles in poems like “Tony Soprano’s Tender Machismo”? 

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Elhillo gives alternate pasts space to live in these poems. Erasure and contrapuntal forms—poems that can be read several different ways—build worlds.

The phrases of “Isha, New York City” can be read in infinite orders:

i should want to survive to outlive

my particular beauties i should want to survive

long enough to forget ever wanting to be touched

Ultimately, these poems breathe and allow the reader a moment to breathe, too.

The Trees Witness Everything
by Victoria Chang
Copper Canyon Press

In some ways, The Trees Witness Everything is a departure from other poetry collections written by Victoria Chang. These brief poems, mostly written in Japanese wakas, contain entire worlds. 

Throughout the collection, time is often collapsed or slowed down entirely. Like the title suggests, nature and its cycles are constants, and we are part of that nature. Poems like “Ancestral Voices,” “History,” and “It is March” call backward and forward in time. “It is March” ends on haunting introspection: “How do I live in the past / but write about tomorrow?” 

How to Survive the Apocalypse
by Jacqueline Allen Trimble
New South

How to Survive the Apocalypse is rooted in our collective cultural apocalypse imagery—four horseman, doomsday prepping, plagues. Trimble expands on these images to recall the early, uncertain days of the pandemic and to dissect present day racial violence. This collection calls on ancestors for how to survive apocalyptic times. Antagonistic voices are also embodied, such as shallow allies and insurrectionists.

Intertwining the foundation of slavery in the United States with present-day police brutality, one poem asks “How can I continue? / How can I continue? / How can I continue.” Perhaps an answer comes at the end of the title poem: “Live / by rage and joy and turpentine.”

To 2040
by Jorie Graham
Copper Canyon Press

This collection from acclaimed poet Jorie Graham opens with the poem “Are We”; “extinct yet” the first line demands. Setting the stage with existential queries, Graham uses sharp incisive language to examine and transform everything around us. The natural world becomes calculated, and despair becomes commonplace. The reader is often directly addressed throughout these poems. This is a collection that requires several reads, but Graham’s work as always is easy to immerse yourself in.

We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics
edited by Andrea Abi-Karam & Kay Gabriel
Nightboat Books

This anthology of trans poets and writers across intersecting identities is dedicated “To comrades, lovers, friends, dead and living.” These poems resist empire and imagine a world where our comrades, lovers, and friends don’t have to face the violence of borders, queerphobia, and police brutality. 

In this pages, you’ll find excerpts from those who have left this earth, like Leslie Feinberg, Sylvia Rivera, and Lou Sullivan, as well as some of the most exciting voices in contemporary queer poetry, like Cyrée Jarelle Johnson, Roque Raquel Salas Rivera, and Xan Phillips. Editors Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel note that poetry is not a replacement for political action; rather it is a way to connect with each other. We need that more than ever.


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