by Jane Satterfield
Autumn House Press, 2017
96 pages, $17.95
Reviewed by Rachel Wooley
Let the title set the tone: Apocalypse Mix is literally the mixtape played during a daughter’s sweet sixteen party while waiting for the May 2011 apocalypse that didn’t come. This humorous irreverence emerges periodically in this poetry collection, Satterfield’s fourth to date. As these poems demonstrate, it’s hard to revere what feels so far removed from the commodified comfort of our daily lives. Time creates distance that diminishes our world wars and our small personal rebellions; our “all-time great alt rock anthem become[s] background noise.” Satterfield creates fascinating spaces in poems like “Elegy With Trench Art and Asanas,” where the practice of yoga feels especially indulgent as the narrator’s mind wanders during her class to the Great War exhibit she witnessed earlier; war and yoga tangle together until the war feels as immediate and present as the yoga poses:
strengthen the core: your ribs drop in to the body’s
fuselage. A deeper bend into the archival absence of cordite,
the scent of rust that still rises, post-rainfall, from the soil
of stricken villages across the French countryside.
The book is full of these juxtapositions between comfort and war, history and present, commodity and destruction. Even today’s wars and disasters feel distant for most of us, told through the lens of the media or movie screen. It’s someone else’s experience, and “who knows what war is like except / those who serve and those who care to ask, //take notes, tell the rest of us…” These poems bring it close. These are the notes taken. Those juxtapositions have direct correlations: war is not only in the past, or as distant as we might like to believe. Even after it ends, the effects still ripple through time. Satterfield’s father, for example, becomes a sort of touchstone in a number of the poems, a veteran who, in the poem “Souvenir,” has managed to “evade” various dangers of war but did not emerge unscathed.
The book is divided into five sections, each with a different thematic focus. In Section II, Satterfield turns her focus to the various service animals of WWI: mules, homing pigeons, dogs, and horses that could do what human technology couldn’t, and which were casualties of that technology. One particularly wrenching passage describes the “cries at night etched in air” from the horses, the sound of which “troubled” the veterans “more than the cries / from fellow men: because we knew… what we were there for, / but those poor devils didn’t, did they?”
Despite the heavy material, Satterfield keeps a light touch on her subject matter, expertly plucking the most telling details, homing in on the most demonstrative images to reveal how the legacy of war has pervaded more than just our media stories and history books. To balance the occasional irreverence, there are poignant or bittersweet moments of those paying the price of war: in Section III, a poem describes the reusing of soldiers’ parachute silk for wedding dresses; Section IV of the book explores the conflicted identity of a Bosnian refugee through her artwork. In Section V, Satterfield turns her pen to the presence and legacy of war in the U.S., observing via the Civil War and the War in Iraq that it’s not so distant at all. Carrying on with daily life is, for many, a way to ignore the war, but for others in the midst of it, it’s a way to survive: “comfort came // in simply turning back to our work, one way to counter catastrophe.”
Satterfield also addresses the price of some of our commodities – oil, for example – but not in a way that becomes preachy or pedantic. Her narrators are often used to a certain level of convenience that’s hard to give up, though in at least one case, the poem “Et in Arcadia Ego,” Satterfield treats some of these commodities – and the people who would demand them no matter the (rising) cost – with an amusing sardonicism: “If you’re exhausted feigning interest/ in sustainability initiative, let me/ be the first to extend an invitation / to the Utopia Motel, the paradise // that you were promised.”
These poems feel like they urge the reader to look, to ask, to examine, to consciously remember. It’s a beautiful collection that strongly unites art and social responsibility. Satterfield has done her research, pulling in quotes from historical sources, veterans and writers from various ages whose words complement her own, and this grounding in reality, in the real experiences of fellow human beings, strengthens the experience of each poem. The resulting collection is a great mix of wit, observation, memory, and history, masterful narrative poetry which feels incredibly current and relevant in a time where so many of our experiences are held at arm’s length, at the distance of a lens or screen.