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The End of the World: Musings from Notable Writers

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Every few years the question of the end of the world rises up to plague us. It always seems to begin with a foreseen glitch, sometimes a tie-in to a myth, and then articles crop up everywhere, passionately asserting and debunking the end of the world. To poet Eavan Boland our recurrent fantasy of the end of the world is tied to our myth-making minds. In her writing for this collection, she asks, “Why do we conceive of the world’s end when so many of us begin every day hoping for a new beginning?” I asked a slew of notable writers to take up this question of finality, our desire for finality, and their vision of apocalypse, be it Mayan or otherwise.

Robert Hass recommends his favorite walk, followed by his favorite wine.

The end of the world will be eerily comfortable. Or so Michelle Tea imagines.

Screw 2012. Teddy Wayne has other, more ominous numerical alignments in mind.


To Eavan Boland poetry and apocalypse go well together.

Eloise Klein spends some of her time reading death poems, which provide all she needs to know about apocalypse.

Juan Felipe Herrera says the end will be like the beginning — endless, formless, infinite.

For those seeking an apocalyptically appropriate book, Robin Ekiss obliges.

In Pittsburgh, Faith Adiele fondly remembers, you can train to survive a Zombie apocalypse.

Alejandro Murguía sides with the Aztecs; Dec. 21st is not an apocalypse, but the beginning of the Sixth Sun.

Robert Hass
“I do think the best way to get over the disappointment of the world notending is either (a) a long walk on a west-facing hillside of MountTamalpais, say the Matt Davis trail, on a cold mid-morning with the sunburning through the fog or (b) an afternoon glass of Stag’s Leapcabernet with a couple of slices of a nutty cheese — maybe Jarlsberg,not expensive, and a sesame cracker or two. After which people shouldstart calling their friends and planning to get to LA to protest theAcademy Awards if they nominate a movie that glorifies the torture ofprisoners. First a gentle farewell to the possibilities of apocalypse, andthen the world’s work.”

Robert Hass is a former U.S. Poet Laureate. The movie he is referencing is Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. He was recently in conversation with KQED’s Michael Krasny discussing his new book of essays, What Light Can Do.

Michelle Tea
“The end of the world is weirdly comforting, I guess because we all die together. The thing about death that sucks is you have to leave the party while it’s still happening. The only way I have found to console myself about it is that it’s going to happen to everyone. There are so many people I don’t want to die, but the fact that they will makes it easier for me. Some friend. Now, if we were all to go out together, a big sha-bam, like global suicide pact, it would be sad, sure, but not too tragic. I could cuddle up on the couch with my beloved and our little dog and watch some End-of-the-World programming on the flat screen and just sort of — I don’t know, wait for whatever happens. A weird blip into nothingness, like switching off the television? Some sort of wrenching gust, do we get slammed by an asteroid, how is the world supposed to end, exactly?

“I remember being a kid, seeing something somewhere that the world was meant to end later that week. I ran home with it. “Ma, Ma, the world is ending Wednesday! Did you know that?” It seemed like big news. My mother laughed. “The world is always ending,” she said. “And don’t worry, it never does.” I wasn’t exactly worried. It was too much to comprehend and still is. I’ll be at home, working, just like I am now. When my person comes home I’ll make us dinner and we’ll eat it on the couch, where we will likely fall asleep. We’ll come to, confused and cramped, at some point, and stumble into our proper bed, and in the morning we’ll wake up, not dead.”

Michelle Tea is the director of the popular RADAR reading series. She is the author of five novels. She recently edited Sister Spit.

Teddy Wayne
“I’m less concerned about 12/21/12 and more worried about 13/31/13. Thirteen, as we all know is, unlucky, and the thirteenth month mathematically translates to the first month of the next year, so it’s actually 1/31/14. Therefore, we’re really fine for about another thirteen months — except that thirteen-month intersection is itself unlucky. So the next stretch until 1/31/14 will be terrible, and 12/21/12 will just be like any other day within it: bad.”

Teddy Wayne’s Unpopular Proverbs are a regular thing over at McSweeney’s. He is the author of the novels Kapitoil and most recently of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine.

Eavan Boland
“From the very beginning the word apocalypse has bemused me. Four horsemen don’t seem nearly as convincing as the slow apocalypse Ireland endured for centuries — the blighted crops, the coffin ships. That was real. Beside that, the four horsemen have always looked to me like movie extras. And yet they have their source in a different reality. They belong to the myth-making which comes into play when we face disaster. And poetry has a place in that.

“Poetry and apocalypse go well together. Certainly, if I ever found myself in the second I would reach for the first. And the reason apocalypse and poetry combine is that the first is a temporal event and the second is a fugitive art. The lines, cadences, remembered images, and perfect syntax of poetry can wind around disaster, can fill up the spaces of disbelief, can give a language to terror.

“When I look at the past, I sometimes think our sense of apocalypse is not nearly as powerful or long-lived as the myths we make to meet it. Big poems, wildly colored movies, haunting songs. They outlive the occasions of terror they were fashioned to meet. In his “A Song on the End of the World” Czeslaw Milosz paints the apocalypse as a humdrum scene, where the bees continue in the clover, the fishermen go on mending their nets and “those who expected lightning and thunder/Are disappointed./And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps/Do not believe it is happening now.

“So why do we do this? Why do we conceive of the world’s end when so many of us begin every day hoping for a new beginning? Do we need the terror to make the myth? Or is this just one of our human quirks — a profound need from time to time to renew our love for the planet by imagining circumstances in which neither of us will survive.”

For reading before, after, or during an apocalypse Eavan Boland recommends Yeats’s “The Stare’s Nest By My Window” from his sequence Meditations in Time of Civil War. “This is a poem about a mind in its own apocalypse, disoriented by violence, trying to make a small myth of renewal.” Eavan Boland is an Irish poet. She has published ten volumes of poetry, the most recent being New Collected Poems.

Eloise Klein
“I often read Japanese death poems, the small poems written by monks near the moment of their death. Writing ‘death poems’ became such a popular practice that monks started writing them regardless of health or lack of it. I have written two ‘death poems.’ One of them chooses a scene I would like to visualize at the time of my death — the final photograph I would hope to hold in my mind. Like those monks, I know I’m not going to limit myself to one ‘last look’ poem. It’s probably better to have a few good images to be able to call upon in that extreme finality of the body. I don’t pay much attention to the many predictions about the world ending on a certain date. I don’t hold to the idea that it is worthwhile worrying about it. The world is always ending for someone. That holds more weight for me.”

Eloise Klein is the author of six collections of poetry and founder of Arktoi Books. Her most recent book is A Wild Surmise.

Juan Felipe Herrera
“The Mayan End is the Beginning El Principio”

The end will be like the beginning formless trembling infinite
Infinito abierto where all walk hand in hand outside of violence
It is violence that separates us
It is violence that tears the sky threads into weeping
It happened at the orange-red soaked stones of Tikal
It happened at the multi-voiced roots of the ancient Ceiba
So we dance with the whirlwind named Kukulkan
We bow at the split pyramids at the foot of our house
In its low-obsidian knife song
It does not matter what the prophecy says
We rise up when we rise up
Our plumed heart pours compassion
And all is restored

Juan Felipe Herrera is the author of over twenty books. His most recent is SkateFate.

Robin Ekiss
“I can’t help thinking the upside of the apocalypse is not having to read about it on Facebook.

“For apocalyptically appropriate reading: try prose poems from Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End.

‘He held the Beast of the Apocalypse by its tail, the stupid kid! Oh beards on fire, our doom appeared sealed. The buildings were tottering; the computer screens were as dark as our grandmother’s cupboards. We were too frightened to plead. Another century gone to hell — and for what? Just because some people don’t know how to bring their children up!'”

Robin Ekiss lives in San Francisco. She is the author of The Mansion of Happiness.

Faith Adiele
“Before coming to the Bay Area I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is all about zombies. You can train to survive a Zombie Apocalypse. You can re-enact Dawn of the Dead at the Monroeville Mall. One of my students used to dog-sit for director George Romero, and we held class in his mansion, which is filled with movie props I was terrified they’d touch! That might come back to haunt me.

“I’ve always loved post-apocalyptic movies. Maybe because I grew up in the semi-desert of eastern Washington, and my grandfather worked at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Maybe because I saw Road Warrior as a teenager, and it topped anything I could see through the barbed war at Hanford. Of course, that was long before we knew Mel Gibson was nuts. But he is responsible for the celluloid Mayan bloodbath, Apocalypto, and I am excited about the prospect of a Mayan Apocalypse — mainly for the chocolate and spices.

“A nice last evening might be curling up with Charles C. Mann’s riveting mélange of archeology, literature, anthropology, science, and history: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (which I just bought my mom for Christmas and which, at 541 pages, won’t end until long after the world does, whether or not the Maya got it right). And doing shots of Flaming B-52s (since it’s the end of the world, screw calories).

“1/3 shot Kahlua
1/3 shot Irish Cream
1/3 shot Grand Marnier or Cointreau
Couple drops of 151 Rum
Mexican cinnamon
Fill a shot glass 1/3 full of Kahlua. Layer the Irish Cream on top by pouring it onto the back of the spoon held against the rim of the shot glass. Layer the Grand Marnier the same way. Add a drop or two of 151 and light it! For even more drama, sprinkle cinnamon on the flame.

“If necessary, shot can be used as a Molotov Cocktail (invented by my mother’s people, the Finns) and hurled at approaching zombies.”

Faith Adiele is the author of Meeting Faith; The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun. She is currently working on a memoir about growing up Nigerian/Nordic/American.

Alejandro Murguía

The Bay Area knows Alejandro Murguía as the new San Francisco poet laureate, professor of Latino Studies at SFSU, and founder of the Mission Cultural Center. I talked with him on December 16th on the telephone. We discussed the misinterpretations of the Mayan calendar, the apocalyptic lens of the Bible, and the coming of the Sixth Sun. Below is an excerpt of that conversation.

Have you ever considered the possibility of a Mayan apocalypse?

“Well, if we were to go back into the Christian past, it’s the Christians, really, who are obsessed with the end of the world. Christians have always been paranoid about some pending end of the world. All you have to do is read the scriptures. I think the misinterpretation of the Mayan cycle comes from this Western belief. But the Bible does not apply to the Mayan world, because, if you notice, there are no Mayans in the Bible. The other thing that is important to realize about the Maya is that time for them is cyclical. Time never ends for the Mayans. The earth never ends. Civilization does not end. But it keeps going in a cycle and it keeps repeating itself.

“But here’s the important thing — the Mayan calendar spread to other Mesoamerican communities a little bit North to the Maya (what we would call the Aztecs, but they called themselves the Mexica) and here’s how we should interpret this — this is why we don’t hear about it, because this is perhaps the most correct interpretation — and it is this: The cycle that is ending now in the Aztec nahuatl would be the end of the Fifth Sun. The end of the Fifth Sun, which is the sun we are living in, is characterized by violence, by earthquakes, turmoil. But the new sun, the one that begins Dec. 21st, is the Sixth Sun and that is characterized by compassion, community, cooperation, solidarity, brotherhood, sisterhood. And that’s why, for example, the society in the United States does not want to truly reflect on what the cycles mean. Because, as you see, in today’s morning news, and this incredible massacre of children in Connecticut, we prefer in this society in the United States a world of chaos and violence, fear, paranoia, and prejudice. So why would we welcome a cycle that would be the opposite of that?”

Are you doing anything special to welcome the Sixth Sun?

“Yes. I’ll be attending ceremonies here in the Mission, but also on January 3rd at the Focus Gallery in North Beach. I will be hosting a poetry reading of Latino poets to celebrate and welcome the Sexto Sol. It’s also part of a celebration and exhibit by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.”

Join Alejandro Murguía in welcoming the Sixth Sun at 6:30pm on January 3, 2013, at Focus Gallery. For more information, visit at focusgallerysf.org. You can also catch Alejandro Murguía at the San Francisco Library on Jan 27, 2013 for his inaugural address as San Francisco’s new Poet Laureate. More information at sfpl.org.


Illustrations by Jeremiah Barber.

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