In her Autumn House Poetry Prize-winning book, Apocalypse Mix, Jane Satterfield presents a bracing and resigned account of the human condition by confronting the contradictions of living in a circumstance of perpetual hostility. Stylistic and thematic commonalities unify the volume, but each of its five sections hums with its own distinctive vibration, its own unabashedly pessimistic take on life in times and places shaped by conflict or, as Satterfield puts it, “apocalypse and empire.”
One of the book’s most accomplished poems, “Why I Don’t Write Nature Poems,” appears near the end of the final section. In this prose poem, the form of which supports the avowed intent of the poem’s title, the speaker declares that she doesn’t “see a cow meadow as any kind of invocation. Am drawn to the satellite dish disrupting the view.” Readers will experience this focus on disruption throughout the volume; however, Satterfield adds nuance everywhere. In cataloguing reasons she concentrates on the human predicament and not “nature” as traditionally described, she actually writes a fine and unconventional nature poem. The poem ends, surprisingly and humorously, with the “trilling” of a cicada.
Particularly in the book’s first section, Satterfield juxtaposes pop culture and other allusions with larger themes of war and memory. The effect, which both orients and jars the reader, is likely to be felt most strongly by readers familiar with the numerous cultural references, particularly references to the music of The Clash (“Radio Clash”), Joy Division (“An Ideal for Living”), and The Rolling Stones (“Salt”), but the notes and epigraph sources in the back of the volume, along with a click or two of the mouse, make these poems easily accessible to readers of other vintages. And the book’s critique is not limited to war. Although nearly every poem has a war reference and many name particular conflicts or identifiable episodes of terror, these poems also critique the poet’s—and by extension the reader’s—complicity in the materialism that underlies conflict. Poems in the first section place the speaker in a Whole Foods aisle, a Yoga class, an Old Navy store, and a movie theatre as war is considered and recollected. “Special Screening,” a poem describing the downing of the helicopter in Mogadishu and the movie “Black Hawk Down,” is particularly interesting as it incorporates concepts and language associated closely with Donald Rumsfeld (“unknown unknowns”) and Noam Chomsky (“manufacturing consent”).
A single poem, “Bestiary for a Centenary,” composes the volume’s second major division, and its seven numbered sections mark the most emotionally engaging portion of the book. It’s not that these poems—or sections of a single poem—are markedly more lyrical than other poems in Apocalypse Mix. In fact, many of these lines are distinguished by diction and rhythm characteristic of prose, and that appears to be Satterfield’s point. Similar to the way she wrote a nature poem disguised as an anti-nature poem, the poet in “Bestiary for a Centenary” emphasizes the ugliness of war not directly but by describing how innocents in that conflict were used and viewed as commodities. The poem considers the roles of animals in the Great War: carrier pigeons, mules, horses, dogs. In plain diction—no figurative language could make the lines more horrifying—Satterfield writes in the second section of dogs “[g]as-masked, / outrunning sniper bullets . . . / . . . relaying / news through code notes / tucked in collars.” Each section of the poem contains similarly disturbing images. Although the poet’s care with imagery is on full display in this poem, as is her gift for lyric insight (“mortars’ unspeakable rain”), Satterfield’s point is larger than the portrayal of individual indignities. Readers will want to see the animals as heroic, but Satterfield makes sure the reader understands that heroism requires volition. These animals are not heroes; they’re slaves. The underlying question Satterfield raises is whether the soldiers are, too.
Readers unfamiliar with Satterfield’s poems will find Apocalypse Mix both accessible and challenging. It is not a perfect book. One wishes the editorial effort had been stronger and thereby avoided a couple of distractions, e.g. the use of “sunk” as the past tense for “sink” in “Parachute Wedding Dress” and the incorrect ordering of notes for two poems in the third section. But these are momentary and isolated distractions; they do not reflect the poet’s close attention to craft reflected throughout this volume. Apocalypse Mix is an ambitious book, and readers who accept its challenges will be rewarded amply.