How do we make sense of disaster? Who does a disaster belong to? These are the questions asked by Madison Davis’s Disaster and the questions we must ask of it in turn.
In Disaster, Davis collects catastrophes: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (1911), the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster (1989), the Park Slope plane crash (1960). The ones she settles on are, as she explains in the afterword, chosen as exemplars of “moments of human or technological failure that resulted in mass casualties”—”a sickening mix of poor planning, miscommunication, fatal indifference, and chance.” Every day is an act of blind faith, a series of moments in which we entrust our lives to machines and structures built by others. Davis enumerates the moments when they fail.
As the book unfolds, Davis connects these historical ruptures to a personally significant one: her brother’s death in a car accident. “I wonder if two bodies constitute a row,” she writes. By connecting a personal disaster to a large-scale one, she attempts to fold personal trauma into collective trauma, “something made large enough to crawl inside.”
When a disaster is recounted, the points of failure and the resulting body counts both become seared into our collective imaginaries. We demand to know what could have been done differently, how this could have been avoided. Because we are not able to comprehend tragedy without sacrifice we hone in on minutia, obsess over how the Titanic did not have an adequate number of lifeboats.
Davis writes plainly, describing points of failure with the agonizing brevity of a news report: “A brick wall with narrow turnstiles.” “An ill-placed kerosene lamp.” “The staircase gave way.” As the text progresses and the body count rises (the body count always rises), and the descriptions grow more gruesome, mimicking with accuracy the morbid ways these scenes tend to linger in our imaginations. Bodies float to shore after a plane crash, still fastened to their seats. Hundreds of children suffocate in a stairwell. People burn like matches.
Despite being a project undoubtedly years in the making, Disaster ended up coming out through Oakland-based press Timeless Infinite Light in December 2016, the same month as Oakland’s Ghost Ship Fire. Disaster is is a difficult book to read after Ghost Ship. Occasionally, as when she talks about the speed at which fire spreads, it becomes impossible.
And yet, there could be no opportune moment for this book to be released because there is no clear-skied span of time so blessed as to be free of disaster. Disaster comes to us with an almost commonplace frequency, puncturing a day’s routine with a searing reminder of mortality and senselessness. A train derails. A power strip catches fire. Like Don DeLillo’s airborne toxic event, the specter of it always-already hovers above and around us.
Davis combines the merciless elegance of details with a human attempt at comprehension, using poetic abstractions: “We mourn in the low notes of fear that resonate in the basements, in the floorboards, in the swelling ground. The disaster appeals to the idea of salvation because we are somewhere far away when we are inside the disaster. And we continue but still there is the question concerning the disaster.” Disaster is too big for us to hold: as we approach it, our cognition dissolves. Disaster undoes us. It is beyond our capacity for logic. “We call disaster that which does not have us as a limit: it bears us away in the disaster.”
We must always ask, to whom do these bodies belong to? Who has the right to exhume? I am reminded of a formative poetry workshop in which a professor admonished a white student for writing a graphic poem about Hiroshima: it did not belong to him. Davis harbors the same reservation: “In a sense, it is appalling that I have inhabited this space,” she writes in the afterword, “None of this is mine.”
And yet, these historical disasters become ours because we are submerged in their narratives and aftermath, because we place our lives in buildings analogous to buildings that have failed. In processing her brother’s death, these disasters become uniquely hers to hold, in the way that if her brother had been lost to a murder or shooting she could have found a similar access point to the equally obsessive archive of true crime narratives.
The victims of the disasters that Davis enumerates aren’t racialized or gendered or classed, they are reduced to bodies and, contextualized thus, belong only to the lineage of American tragedy and to the genre of industrial failure. Car crashes, like the one that claimed Davis’s brother, are the building blocks of both. The car is both the pinnacle of the American dream and its most insidious undoer: the car crash is an ongoing slow-motion disaster that claims upwards of three thousand lives a day.
“A collection of bodies happens quickly in the aftermath, when collection is possible. Bodies are brought together from wherever the disaster has taken them,” she writes. The individualism fostered by car culture builds a container for tragedy that is neater than death ought to be. When Davis wonders whether two seats constitute a row, she is wondering how to make the impact as significant to the collective imaginary as it is to her own. The way collective loss is impossible to comprehend but a singular loss is somehow harder to bear. The way that, when someone we love is taken from us, we want the whole city to burn.
NM Esc traces origins to Coney Island, post-Soviet diaspora, and the 90’s Internet. They have written four chapzines as Reno Dakota as part of a project that explores dissociation, dislocation, travel, legibility, and Americana road kitsch, the latest of which, Between Ghosts, co-written with SJ Lee, is out on Mess Editions. They have recently completed a writing residency at Villa Magdalena K where they rode bikes to the harbor and worked on chapzines about queer vulnerabilities and wolf semiotics under xenophobic neofascism. They live in Brooklyn where they co-curate the TFW reading series and organize gigs at the Silent Barn.