After We All Died
In After We All Died, poet Allison Cobb examines modes of crisis not from the point of recognizing they are impending or even inevitable, but from the realization one’s entire reality––on the scale of the individual, the cultural, the ecological––has been an eventuality constructed within the crosshairs of history. Combining various iterations of the anxiousness common to life in late-capitalist America with the claustrophobic awareness of Earth’s biopolitical fate, the book copes with calamity through mourning, placing at its conceptual and emotional center the question when did everything die? Rather than claiming to have an answer, or providing an insufficient one, this inquiry is suspended, mid-air, so that readers might reconsider the circumstances under which such a question must be articulated: not because an answer will save us, but because acknowledging it as unanswerable begins the process of understanding one’s grief.
Cobb’s dystopian sensibility recalls Ursula Le Guin’s, one where there are no heroes, only eulogies, and the poet bears witness to a world long since unbuilt. Sorting the debris from catastrophes both past and present, the poems offer up life as a posthumous daze, wandering along with readers into a future where humans remain beings incapable of reconnecting to the entwined biological systems that mark our planet as unique.
After We All Died renders wars, industrialism, settler colonialism––to name but a few––into a singular, monstrous presence resembling an ecosystem of its own.
“Poet Allison Cobb’s new book After We All Died is thrilling—inventive, visionary, hard-thought, and impossible to put down . . . Five shining stars and highly recommended.”—Carolyn Forché
“I’m glad it’s Allison Cobb who is coaxing us out of the romance of Whitman’s democracy and into a diary of our last days. She has a sense of humor like Christopher Smart and Bernadette Mayer, and she breezes through the weedy mess that we’ve made of the planet with the grace of Frank O’Hara. This is the book that had to be written, because it’s stunning and also because it leads us to our logical end as poets and people.”—Lisa Jarnot
“Do cancer cells grieve as they devour their body? Would they write poems like these? Closely attuned to the necropoetics of self-extinction, Allison Cobb’s After We All Died offers a series of tender, slyly metal elegies for a human world learning too late that its future is already dead.”—Roy Scranton
“Allison Cobb affirms the lives of all of us: humans, rats, worms, albatross, and e-coli. She will forgive us ourselves and our deaths. She will even count her and our breath for us. She will make us confront the ways we manufacture and encounter death: cancer, bombs, atomic bombs . . . For me the most profound achievement of this books is merging the space between ethics and aesthetics, they are basically the same thing. This is a vast, beautiful, and important book.” —Maged Zaher
“The vulnerable poetics by one of our greatest poets just made the dark embrace a little darker. All the collective denial comes clean in this spectacular new collection by Allison Cobb, making us surprised to find out what we really deserve as the human pelt grows a little paler, a little mangier, “to burn up / everything / for love.” Hold on, but hold onto this book, it’s the best field guide around.” —CAConrad
I was born
because of love
inside a weapons lab.
the town, the little
boxes lit along
the cliffs. For love
the men awake
the bridge to labor
on their bombs
for love. For love
becomes a body
in the world. And fear.
A fear comes with it
to the world, a cry
in air burst first
from lungs. And grief,
the instant born,
the shape of what
will come, the shape
of what they’d seen. Become
then students of
the sun, to will that
fire here to burn. The bomb
makers always burned
with so much love—the father
pillars of my child self
in church who prayed
the sun to earth
to burn up
for love. For love
Copyright © 2016 by Allison Cobb
I was born and raised in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the first atomic bombs were created, and which remains one of the nation’s three main nuclear weapons labs. I was born during the Vietnam War and the Cold War, the daughter of a nuclear physicist, granddaughter of two World War II veterans—a life shaped from my very first breath by war.
Growing up in a scientific town, I had no models and no sense of what it meant to be “a writer.” But I read constantly. Louisa May Alcott, Ursula le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper—these women created worlds that engulfed me. Then I found I could write my own worlds. I wanted to live in my stories as much as possible, because there anything could happen.
I went to the University of Arizona to study journalism—the only “writing” major I could find. There, at the Poetry Center, teacher and activist Ila Abernathy introduced me to the first poets I’d read that weren’t long-dead people in anthologies: Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. Then I encountered the real, living poets who taught at the University: Jane Miller and Barbara Cully. Their work manifested a form of female being I had never encountered before: both sensual—deeply engaged with material existence and the body—and intellectual—deeply engaged with ideas. I’d found a new form for myself in the world.
Arizona led to graduate school at George Mason University with Carolyn Forché and Susan Tichy. Both taught me the power of poetry to engage politics and history. My reading expanded: Czeslaw Milosz, Anna Akhmatova, June Jordan, César Vallejo, Robert Desnos, Audre Lorde, Alice Notley, Susan Howe.
I felt drawn to the ways that poetry can break apart the logical language of history, politics, and identity. I wanted to get at the unspoken emotional currents—fear, grief, desire—underlying the supposedly rational acts that create the world. The same obsessions have followed me ever since: a desire to use poetry to crack open the violent, oppressive structures that constitute reality and create a space for imagining something different.
After earning my MFA, I found work at the Environmental Defense Fund and have worked there off and on ever since. My work has made me acutely aware of one particular form of structural violence: the harm that waste and pollution inflicts on humans, nonhuman life, and living systems. For nearly 20 years I have taken into my brain and body a daily stream of information about the forms this violence takes in the world—sick bodies, extinct animals, lost places. The awareness inflects all of my writing.
My first book, Born2 from Chax Press, is a sort of emotional autobiography of growing up in Los Alamos. It uses characters to bring forth the primal aspects of being usually repressed beneath social mores and customs. My second book, Green-Wood, published by Factory School, uses a documentary mode to chronicle my wanderings through Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery in the months following September 11. The book uses the burial ground as a frame for examining, in the words of the poet Briane Teare, “our long national history of antagonism toward both human and non-human others.” The book’s language also literally falls apart—breaking from the narrative of history into a lyric cry of mourning.
Plastic: an autobiography is an ongoing project that also uses the documentary mode to trace the relationship of my own body to this ubiquitous technology, uncovering its origins in war and waste. In the years I spent on this book, I began to feel more and more the weight of grief, anger, and mourning about a planet smothering beneath human technological excess, and the refusal and denial that have resulted.
After We All Died arose out of an instinct to express that grief and anger quite directly, in a more lyric mode than has been my practice. It takes me years to research and write my documentary books, but I wrote After We All Died quickly—in less than a year. It came out in a rush, with the weight of lament. But the book returns to the same question that has haunted my work from the beginning: Is it possible for humans to live in a way that is not at war?
It first occurred to me that everything had already died in the spring of 2014, at a writing residency in the desert of eastern Oregon. Staring out at the desert, I realized that people like me, born since World War II, arrived after the end of the future. We came into a world in which the future is no longer assured because human technology and its waste products—nuclear weapons, fossil-fuel pollution—threaten all life. We who live in wealthy nations inscribe our own deaths, and the deaths of everything else, into our very way of living on the planet.
At the Playa residency in the Oregon desert, I was researching World War II, a lifelong obsession rooted in my family history. Both my grandfathers were veterans of World War II. My paternal grandfather lost his leg to a grenade blast in Germany. My maternal grandfather served in the Navy in the Pacific. I grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the town that created the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.
World War II also marked a turning point in the history of humanity. It launched the Great Acceleration of all forms of technology. Some scholars identify World War II as the beginning of the Anthropocene, when human activities achieved geologic-scale impact—a force with the same kind of power as volcanoes and plate tectonics to alter the state of the planet.
I grew up during the Cold War, acutely aware of the potential for nuclear annihilation. I watch my teenaged niece and nephew grow up aware of a future imperiled by massive climate disruption. And both my generation and theirs are part of what can be seen, from certain angles, as one long human and ecological disaster: settler colonialism and capitalism.
The cultural values and beliefs that underpin our civilization—the sense of humans as the dominant species on the planet, master and shepherd of everything else—erase our true situation as enmeshed in an ever-changing, chaotic system of life. Unfettered capitalism, which reduces everyone and everything to use value and profit potential, extends the illusion that humans are in control and further codifies our destructive relationship with the planet.
It was Roy Scranton who helped spur this line of thinking in me. Scranton, an Iraq war veteran and philosopher, published a piece in The New York Times called “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” also the title of his recent book.
Scranton’s piece ran just as Typhoon Haiyan—one of the largest typhoons ever recorded—hit the Philippines, and I reacted against his argument that as a fossil-fueled civilization, we must learn how to die. It seemed like a luxury to be able to “learn how to die” when real people were already dying.
I thought about this a lot in the coming months. Slowly, it occurred to me that accepting that everything has already died—that there is no viable future in our current form of civilization—is a way of piercing denial and accepting that, in the words of Naomi Klein, everything must change.
This really is not much different from Scranton’s argument—whose books and writings I admire. It’s a slight shift of emphasis that, for me, throws into immediate doubt all the technological progress our culture holds dear. It opens everything to question.
It reminds me of Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese farmer who succeeded by rejecting every truism of farming technology and adopted a “do-nothing” method, which he documented in his book One Straw Revolution.
Fukuoka was trained as a microbiologist who specialized in plant diseases in pre-WWII Japan. But after nearly dying of pneumonia in his twenties, he experienced a moment of enlightenment, in which he understood that all the knowledge and understanding he had cultivated were worthless. His translator renders his words as: "Humanity knows nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort." It was a realization that made him dance for joy.
It was in that same spirit of release, joy and mourning, that I wrote After We All Died.