Poetry Review: Staying Alive by Laura Sims

Image via Ugly Duckling
Image via Ugly Duckling

. . . They bade us
Weep and know shame
They bade us be hard.
Without power, I wielded my body.

(pg. 36)

There are so many powerful ideas being explored through Staying Alive (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016), that it makes you wonder whether the apocalypse isn’t such a bad idea, after all. Through worldly and otherworldly destruction, a sense of the forsaken or the forlorn, and a gritty, transcendental urge to both survive and understand, Sims brings us beautiful lines and a beautiful book. Desolate landscapes are not new subject matter for poets and poetry in general. I am thinking of Dante, of T.S. Eliot, of conceptualism too, for all its harshness and darkness. I am also thinking of the many authors Sims uses for inspiration (directly, and cites at the end of her book), who have also been drawn, like moths to electric glow, towards the harsh and intense understanding of “after,” novelists and philosophers alike. What happens after we’ve really fucked up, us humans? Where do we go and how do we deal? What’s our reflection process like? And, most importantly, and I think Sims works this angle into her book consistently, albeit subtly, why? Why do we owe humanity anything after humanity has collapsed? Is it rooted in the personal, or can we look from above and draw empathetic conclusions? These types of question have as many existential responses as there are philosophers (or individual humans at all). Through assertions rooted in a degree of humanism, a ghostly, echoing degree, Sims provides hope and retribution. Staying Alive goes beyond stereotypes, reaches to a more complex understanding of the whole picture of the end of the world: an understanding that is almost Zen in nature, where the horror can’t be completely understood, the trauma can’t be completely reconciled, and the future is undoubtedly still right on top of us all. And by us: those that have to live in the aftermath of decisions gone wrong, environments corrupted or corroded or no longer supportive, in the space of primal competition making for an even bloodier, crueler existence that follows.

We’ll stand between death and its shining ideals
We’ll fatten from hunger and light the whole earth
With our comrades’ debris

(pg. 45)

In sparse fragments dipping hesitant gazes into pools of the Other, the writers that have charged the speaker’s paradigm (starting with McCarthy’s The Road but by no means limited to it), Sims explores in a slow, meditative pace the world state we’ve had as a collective, the communities therein, and, of course, the fracturing of it all. What’s left? What pieces are there to pick up? I hesitate to use the word “cautious” because I think Sims is operating on a level of sound and image that is entirely precise and intentional, direct and forthright, lacking hesitation and caution at all. Instead it is judgment, justification, and, again, empathy Sims explores here. The same way a survivor lives through their gut as they struggle to put pieces together, to look for the next connection to find the next space of stabilization, so too do these poems look to process a world that may or may not already be upon us, but of which its core ideas can drastically affect our everyday life. These poems are honest but urgent. Sims’s writing and right to knowledge is thorough and complex. There are unsuspected surprises and hooks and dangling cliffs around each ethereal, beyond-the-grave corner, but these are the explorations of a poet who is also approaching the gray horizons and smoldering landscapes with the paradigm of a caregiver, a parent, a creator. This context allows Sims to bring us with a balanced expression of life and death, as a concentration on life is not necessarily about birth, but about the whole process: beginning, middle, end, new beginning. Again, the Zen. Again, holistic understanding: an empathy of experience but also of curiosity.

What is that
Flicker in the sky
That swift liquefaction
That masked and expectant
Black muzzle
That overhead the dawn

(pg. 13)

To read this book once, all 73 pages, is a process of discovery. The reader, at least me-as-reader, discovers a craft that is married to vigilance: topics will be nearly-exhausted when Sims is done writing through them. And yet, by the end of the book and the book’s afterword (a marvelous addition to an otherwise chillingly pristine set of verse), a resulting set of circumstances and parameters feels only outlined, and demands a second look. How I wished for this book as an introduction to a collection, to a set larger than itself—at first. How I wished for Sims to keep going—at first. But feeling these urges as the reader, I noticed myself demanding more than was necessary. The exploration has already been established. Sims has succeeded in producing a work that is whole, that accomplishes more than the reader knows. Rereading, approaching again, and again, reassessing, and a continuation of inspection of Sims’s work is necessary. I use the word “necessary” and it probably sounds like an ultimatum: do or else. But really, “necessary” is more of a feeling here. The poems in Staying Alive are not just strong and resonate in a world where crises are constant, in a 21st Century of brutality, struggle, destruction, deaths, ends, in every direction. No, the poems here are support mechanisms. They are asking to be reread so that they may continue their function, which is ongoing. How I reacted to the poems is a result of my own biases and understanding of the apocalypse, of course, which is why I’m considerably interested in how others will respond to this book. Perhaps most will read it as “a great book of poetry” and others still: “it’s amazing but bleak, dismal, dark—perhaps her darkest book?” And maybe some will look at it as I have, like a capstone to understanding more of the self, a keystone to seeing our role in communities as ethereal as the smoke rising from a collapsed barn, as unlocking as the enzyme present or lacked that connects us or disconnects us with a greater whole. “Necessity” here is an understanding of presence in a world filled with dissolutions and “too late.” Sims has brought forward poetry to dispel these numbs and chills, and encourages through incredibly concise lines a reappraisal of how humanity is composed and recomposed after major events and circumstances tearing at its core.

There was only: a pale pink glow
Above pink was yellow
Above yellow was blue
Above blue was no
Color at all

(pg. 55)

Learn more and/or order Staying Alive here.

Greg Bem is a poet, librarian, and multimedia artist living in Seattle. When not gaming or writing reviews, he is exploring mountains, forests, and beaches. He also tweets stuff.

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