Apocalypse, and all its world-ending associations, might feel like an apt definition of our era. Franny Choi’s poetry collection The World Keeps Ending and the World Goes On illuminates a reading of apocalypse that spans beyond our present. Choi traces the infinite apocalypses unfolding across our past and future to demand a new understanding of the end of the world: that we have been born into apocalypse, and we continue to find new ways of living through the apocalypse. Choi’s collection shares this theme of perpetual apocalypse with her previous poem of the same name, which begins:
“Before the apocalypse, there was the apocalypse of boats:
boats of prisoners, boats cracking under sky-iron, boats making corpses
bloom like algae on the shore. Before the apocalypse, there was the apocalypse
of the bombed mosque. There was the apocalypse of the taxi driver warped
by flame. There was the apocalypse of the leaving, and the having left—
of my mother unsticking herself from her mother’s grave as the plane
barreled down the runway.”
A similar attention to repetition appears throughout this collection, building new meaning onto words with a lineage of violence. In “Demilitarized Zone,” Choi walks us through the “demilitarized airport” with her “demilitarized ticket” and the “demilitarized agent” while she orders “demilitarized orange juice.” Choi’s last use of “demilitarized” in the poem is to fill in the missing names of her family tree: “Together, we demilitarize my family.” It is this repetition throughout her collection which seeks to understand the apocalypse as a process of persistence. The reuse of one word over and over again paints world-ending not as a flashpoint but as a formation – Choi constructs a story of state violence and separation from the word “demilitarized,” and extends its implications beyond the Korean Demilitarized Zone to reuse the word as a term of healing. In Choi’s hands, “demilitarized” is no longer a static border, but a genealogy of fragile peace and familial healing. Similar uses of repetition appear in other poems, such as “Science Fiction Poetry,” which connects “dystopia” to both “hold music” and “sixty hours a week in a pandemic,” or “Comfort Poem,” which problematizes the phrase “comfort woman” used to describe enslaved Asian women during World War II by changing the prefixes for “woman.” Large swathes of white space in “Comfort Poem” serve as a loud reminder of the silence that permeates the archive in the historical use of “comfort women” – and of the active, violent processes of silencing that were necessary for “comfort women” to enter our vocabulary. These repetitions then breathe imagery new into the archive, revealing catastrophes of the past and speculations of the future.
Beyond the reuse of individual words and phrases, many of Choi’s poems in this collection follow a driving form that urges us to consider not just a proliferation of apocalypses, but a proliferation of survival. Choi does this best through her use of lists, such as her listing of “Things that Already Go Past Borders:” “prisoners / on planes; dictators in motorcades; orders / to kill; and longing; yes, this / most of all; the longing / of families; and the long / -ing of storms.” Her list uses a seemingly-simple demarcator laden with meaning – the semicolon in this case reflects Choi’s crossing between borders of meaning, of moving away from state-recognized border crossings (“trade deals” or “specific passports”) and towards that which resists legal categorization (“music / at the right volume”). This structure, which also relies on using repetition to give new meaning, appears in different forms. “On How (after Nate)” is visually a tightly-constrained poem spanning only a few words per line, with every line save for the beginning and end starting with an ampersand. In this way, the list, so often used as a tool of state classification and management, becomes an ongoing demand for more life and more ways of living:
“we wrote new chants
& bailed folks out
& plate-scooped meals
& healed old wounds
& walked cold blocks
& drummed up, stumped
& ‘stole’ back land.”
“On How” ends with a kind reminder of the resolve necessary to live past the apocalypse. Choi writes, “& dreamed past doom / & walked, fell walked, / fell, walked, fell, walked.” These concluding lines are a reflection of the collection’s larger messages, not just of doom or pessimism, but of optimism as necessity. Choi’s collection is not just a tracing of apocalypses across time, but also a tracing of the ways that we have survived each apocalypse and what a world might look like beyond the apocalypse.
Choi draws from this speculation frequently in her poems, rereading moments of scarcity and violence in new contexts that infuse them with hope. “Field Trip to the Museum of Human History” tells the story of children visiting a museum of Choi’s past apocalypses: “Ancient American society was built on competition / and maintained through domination and control. / In place of our modern-day accountability practices, / the institution known as ‘police’ kept order / using intimidation, punishment, and force.” Choi’s choice of a museum as her site for worldbuilding frames our present-day systems of domination as bygone relics of the past, contained for future study. Choi plays with time also in “Upon Learning That Some Korean War Refugees Used Partially Detonated Napalm Canisters as Cooking Fuel,” describing a refugee’s stories of survival in what Choi refers to as a “prior world.” Choi writes, “Somewhere in a world that didn’t quite / end, a woman like me is foraging for that which failed to kill her.” These re-readings of past apocalypses have applications to the present: Choi concludes, “Every day of my life has been something other than my last. / Every day, an extinction misfires, and I put it to work.” “Toward Grace” follows a similar imagination of a future beyond the world-endings of our present by retelling the story of a girl the press named “Grace” – Judge Mary Ellen Brennan had sentenced Grace to juvenile detention because Grace hadn’t completed her online coursework during the pandemic. Choi rewrites Grace’s story writing, “In this version, that girl the reporters dubbed ‘Grace’ / scribbles homework. Is time-rich, abundant with grace.” Choi re-uses the word “grace” as more than a name as an alternate construction of the institutions that failed Grace: “This version: school’s the name for any garden or place / that loves Black and brown kids towards their brilliance, grace.” In her rewriting, Choi’s images of alternate worlds show us not just that another world is possible, but the myriad ways in which this world has failed us from the past through the present.
Still, in each poem, Choi orients our responses to the apocalypse in terms of futurity. The collection is overflowing with wonderful and resonant works that constantly ask what a rereading of the apocalypse can teach us about how to survive it. The tools of world-ending are repurposed for tools of world-making. In this way, Choi leaves us with the insistence with each re-imagination that there must be something more, that no apocalypse is ever complete – and in that incompletion lies our work for the future.