On dystopia, apocalypse and society; A review on Franny Choi’s newest book
I enjoy reading poetry, but I am absolutely obsessed with spoken-word poetry and the intersection of theater and poetry; I often end up binge-watching poet performances on Button Poetry or TEDx. Since taking a poetry class this semester, I have had the opportunity to read poetry collections and engage with them in a new way. Recently, I read Franny Choi’s fourth poetry collection titled “The World Keeps Ending and the World Goes On.” The collection does not argue that the world is dying, but instead very explicitly proves that the world has died so many times already. She beautifully articulates all the pain that several groups of marginalized people have faced and explains how the several wars, crimes and violent atrocities committed have created the imminent end of the world. Before diving into her book, I decided to read and learn a little more about Franny Choi: She is a Korean American poet, performer, playwright, and editor. While she has authored several books, she is also an educator for project VOICE, an initiative that allows a collective of poets to do live performances and helps students through workshops and professional development. She has also offered educational resources through her poetry, particularly in the pieces “Teaching the Museum of Human History” and “A new species of beautiful.” Choi received her B.A at Brown University and attended the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writer’s Program where she earned her MFA. Her work lends itself to tackling issues that are pervasive in Asian Diaspora, but I appreciate how inclusive she is of other races, specifically the Black community. I enjoyed listening to her piece on Button Poetry called “Whiteness Walks into a Bar” — its balance of humor is so cleverly written. Her collection does much the same, balancing contemporary social issues while finding dignity and beauty in life.
Her use of rhythm, alliterations, and exploring the boundaries of form allowed me to reflect even more deeply. Her collection is separated into five sections: The first is focused on the science of dystopia and historical events , and the second part focuses most closely on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The third section consists of one single poem called “How to Let Go of the World,” and the last two sections focus on Black life, police brutality, and climate change. All of them discuss violence against women and generational trauma in an incredibly uncomfortable, yet intimate way. She delicately uncovers the idea of being a bystander to history and the violence that we see repeating itself in our society that we consider ‘modern.’ The manner in which Choi exposes us all and our complacency to the dystopia that exist all around is striking. In her poem “Disaster Means Without A Star” she writes:
“I clicked on an emergency go-bag from Amazon. When it arrives, I’ll use my teeth / to tear open the plastic, unzip the pack stitched by girls who look like me / but for their N95s, half a judgment day away, no evacuation plan in sigh”
This is such a powerful statement. Not only does it directly juxtapose privilege with pain but Choi allows us to see into her life and her brilliant exposition tells us stories not only about her but about ourselves. We can ask ourselves how complacent we are when we support systems of oppression, buying from companies who do not treat employees like humans and somehow manage to feel good about ourselves. She shatters our world and our ideas about what being a good American means. Redefining “American” is something Choi does throughout her collection especially from the perspective of a woman of color and a child of immigrants. She discusses the duality in her identities in her piece “Coalitional Cento,” which is essentially made up of quotes and sayings from other works. She questions, “am I the colonization or the reparations?” to which she later responds confidently, “I choose to be the reparations” at the end. Some of the poems that stood out to me were “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On”, “Science Fiction Poetry,” and “On How and Toward Grace.” The piece titled after her collection actually appears before the opening of the first section immediately following the table of contents. “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On” begins by retelling us of histories atrocities. She addresses several issues without ever naming them explicitly.
“There was the apocalypse of the pipelines / legislating their way through sacred water, and the apocalypse of the dogs. Before which was / the apocalypse of the dogs and the hoses.”
She is able to identify all of these massive historical events that were essentially crimes in an incredibly concise manner but we still know what she is talking about; the apocalypse of the pipeline referring to Standing Rock and the Sioux and Dakota Access pipeline and the apocalypse of the dogs and hoses referring to the Civil Right Movement of the late 60s. The poem “Science Fiction Poetry” is much the same though her use of repetition is alarmingly brilliant, as she not only questions and redefines what dystopia or apocalypse might mean but also juxtaposes first world problems with extreme and serious problems. The poem pushes the boundaries of form as it is double spaces and seems to be one extremely long run-on sentence that is unfinished. Each line is capitalized as it defines dystopia once more but it never really ends. There is also this exploration of what survival means if the bad things have already happened or are happening. Some of the most gut-punching lines were:
“Dystopia of falling out of love with God;/Dystopia of houseless people and boarded-up houses on the same city block;”
This is very powerful as she describes the truths of many experiences. Those who no longer believe the theologies they grew up on. She also vividly describes the irony of homelessness as she says, “houseless people” and directly juxtaposes this with “boarded-up houses.” Throughout her piece, she does this juxtaposition of a problem and what would seem the solution. Overall the piece covers a vast expanse of experiences such as sexual harassment, water pollution, and inhumane treatment within prisons. Much like the end of the poem aforementioned, the end of Choi’s collection does not really feel like the end. Despite the seemingly dreary poems, she does seem to find hope in the future. Through her analysis of the past trauma and the ones that are still in existence, she warns us to fight, to protest and to survive. She also shows the resilience and perseverance of the many people who have come before us and survived their apocalypse and dystopian worlds. The poem that ends the collection is titled “Protest Poem” and though it is derived very explicitly from the protests in 2020, it is also reminiscent of the several movements for women’s rights and civil rights before. It allows us all to reflect and hope for what change could look like for all of us.