Waiting Up for the End of the World
by Elizabeth J. Colen
Illustrated by Guy Benjamin Brookshire
Jaded Ibis Press, 2012
142 pages / $32.00 (color), $16.99 (BW) buy from Jaded Ibis Press
1. Conspiracy theories are enjoyable, people who embrace conspiracy theories can be depressing but when you’re not listening to one and simply letting your thoughts amble along wondering about JFK or the Lunar Landing or 9/11 you can entertain yourself for hours without getting far away from yourself—at least not too far to recognize who the hell you are when you’ve finished. It’s exactly the same principle that draws an H.P. Lovecraft to writing about fictive beasts and Tolkien to create an entirely different world to tolerate living in this one: embellishment, lies, theorizing, half-truths, all of these things provide immediate freshness to a very stagnant daily existence, and we as people cling to these in some form or another with some consistency at for at least part of our lives.
2. Sometimes conspiracy theorists creep me out; sometimes they don’t. This time, they don’t.
3. Books of poetry written on a theme, much like concept albums, are more direly hit-or-miss than mere collections of one’s best work. To let oneself think for a long time about one story and let it someday become a novel is—compared to this—a relatively easy feat, but to somehow tie together large amounts of poetry to coalesce into a book by the finish is nothing less than brilliant.
4. Sometimes themed collections of poetry fail; sometimes they succeed. This one succeeds.
5. Elizabeth J. Colen’s new collection of poetry Waiting up for the end of the World operates from a center of conspiracy—and features the descriptor “Conspiracies,” rather than poems, mind you—and though there’s ceaseless range to the content of each poem and these don’t all merely reflect one central theme per se, there is an anchor throughout of conspiracy and noted theories that’s quite comforting while reading.
6. Is that the mark of a good book of poetry? Comfort? I’m not quite sure but I think of visual artists creating fresh visions of antiquated imagery while tied to comfortable symbols or colors and I’m tempted to argue it’s true. It probably isn’t true, but this book of poetry is oddly comforting for something labeled “conspiracies.”
7. Most of the poems feature subtitles like “Lunar Landing,” “Princess Diana,” “New World Order,” and other household conspiracies that provide the aforementioned comfort, and make Colen’s description of scenes from a character’s youth or a father figure that much more effective and compelling.
8. The idea of the Lunar Landing being faked still terrifies me. These poems sort of mollify that sense of terror through looking more at the guts or emotions of the situation as opposed to the broad spectrum of technical information available (especially with the internet) but still, the idea of the Lunar Landing being faked still terrifies me.
9. Reading this collection during “election day” hoopla is ideal, but reading it in one month you’ll have another set of lunatics screaming at you and a year from now the same goes so I wouldn’t worry about it, I’d probably just buy the book.
10. Elections make Americans politically paranoid for roughly four months on either side of election day and then for a very long time we work and do a bunch of other more important shit that has nothing to do with politics.
11. I don’t think I like politics.
12. This book doesn’t feel political. It could, it could feel preachy and unnecessary and lowbrow, I guess, but it doesn’t. Probably has to do with that tendency I mentioned earlier to look to the guts of the situation as opposed to looking at the minutiae apparent.
13. Start a band called Minutiae Apparent, sell out before you record a song.
14. These poems reflect the hysteria described by their titles and subtitles and yet they are not marred by these connections. They do not require the actual history to exist and stand on their own just as hysterical as the actual events they are riffing off of.
15. The reimagining of Kennedy’s assassination in “Triple Underpass,” is my favorite account of the event I’ve read since American Tabloid or Libra, and is a page and a half long. Somehow Colen’s ability to effortlessly move from lines sparsely detailed and historically accurate to the poem’s close with “the winter wants in you.” Convinced me yet again of the lunacy JFK’s assassination was steeped in even though I’ve long wanted to ignore most discussions of that event. This perhaps is the mark of a truly good poet, an ability to retell a story that others have spent thousands of pages on in a very short amount of time with very serious questions of word choice to consider and then to pull it off. I read it again and I don’t understand how it’s done. I could rewrite it and not understand how it’s done.
16. I hope this is one of the last words we have on JFK and yet it won’t be by ten million miles. Everyone loves talking about Kennedy/Dallas/Hysteria and I can’t hold it against them. I’ll, however, likely just reread this when those other books come out.
17. I like it when I don’t understand what an author’s achieved exactly to make something so brilliant. I like feeling as though there are still tricks to be learned or aspired to.
18. The actual poem, “Waiting up for the End of the World,” is heartbreaking and perfect, and as I reread it I can hear some small distant voice reciting the lines and it is not my voice and it might be Colen’s voice but I can’t be sure. This entire collection harbors a subdued frustration that comes through in aggressive stultifying lines that sneak out of descriptions of people or places or emotions. There are also considerations of my own personal nostalgia for excited wild individuals that love speculating about events as they might truly have happened; but I don’t think that accounts for the distinct emotional pull of a poem like this one. Harsh setting: The-World-Is-Fucking-Ending and we are not being thrust into romantic visions of yore by a William Blake but, instead, given stark realism balanced against the imagery of swans. I am terrified, I am comforted, I am terrified.
19. Is the world fucking ending?
20. I’m tempted to nominate this book for awards in not only poetry but nonfiction. Someone said they felt the young authors of late seemed promising because they were looking into the past. Someone else, Fitzgerald, I think, said that an ability to write when younger typically presents itself in the form of poetry. These two things tied together—though I have no idea how old Colen is—seem to come together in nearly scientific perfection for the author.
21. The noticeable quote on the back cover emphasizes the word “AMERICAN,” by emboldening the word more than anything else, and this is quite true. Think, perhaps, of the chaos and Americanness of a film like Natural Born Killers as told by C.P. Cavafy and you might be close, maybe not. These two cropped up in my mind just now while writing this and to me it makes sense although there’s no structural similarity to immediately connect Colen and Cavafy—I think perhaps it’s rather that word “subdued,” I mentioned before that connects the two.
22. Americans love conspiracies, Americans react to horrific events (in media) very strangely, Americans romanticize the damndest things; this book is all of that, too.
23. If there is a poetess to mirror the effect Don DeLillo has had on fiction, I think Colen might be it. Is that too much to say? I don’t exactly think so. This book is steeped in that nervous description of beautiful human moments the exact same way DeLillo’s novels reify things we’ve all experienced and imbue them with a paranoia as thick as mud. I hate comparing a poet to a novelist for the very complications implicit in such a statement, but all the same it’s one I feel does Colen a great deal of necessary justice.
24. I worry about talking about Don DeLillo too much. I do it a lot and quote him everywhere and I’m gonna go read ten other authors to avoid this happening again.
25. This book is an achievement, its author has a command over history and poetry that I haven’t had the pleasure of reading in a long time and I now feel connected to the “Conspiracies,” so completely that I imagine I’ll sit down and read them again right now. If you like theorizing, if you like good, contemporary poetry, if you like new voices on old events, I highly recommend picking this up.