Stephanie Downing reviews The Apocalypse Awards by Nathan Curnow

Nathan Curnow, The Apocalypse Awards. North Melbourne: Arcadia, 2016. ISBN 9781925333565

 

Stephanie Downing

 

‘And the award goes to … ’: Judgement Day and the Dissolution of the Natural / Unnatural Binary in Nathan Curnow’s The Apocalypse Awards

 

it’s too late to redirect the judging panel

now it’s nothing but an organised slum tour

past the decorated tree that killed the teen

four horsemen in the avenue of honour

An ‘apocalypse’ is traditionally associated with a world-ending, catastrophic and often biblical cataclysm. In recent times, with global warming and animal extinction increasingly more severe, the end of the world is quickly becoming a very real threat. Environmentalist movements have emerged to help address such concerns, and serve as the overarching umbrella for the many subsets of environmentalist theory. Within this field, ecocriticism seeks to analyse generated texts such as fiction and poetry through the lens of environmentalism, the portrayal of the environment and the relationship between the human and non-human (Pippa 2013).

It is typical in the genre of environmentalist literature to frame the apocalypse as a massive disaster, often caused by the many issues eco-critics find with humankind’s mistreatment of the earth – this can manifest as a climate crisis caused by pollution from consumerist waste, overpopulation of the planet with overreliance on unsustainable energy such as coal, to anxieties about nuclear weapons causing destruction on a massive scale. Contrary to expectations, however, Curnow has included an epigraph from Neil Gaiman that reads ‘there’s no big apocalypse, just an endless procession of little ones’. The quote suggests that, instead of a climactic, earth-rendering Doomsday, the apocalypse is a mosaic of minor disasters chipping away at the state of civilisation – and that we may, indeed, already be in the thick of it. On Curnow’s website, he describes the poetry collection as follows: ‘inspired by the absurdity of the world [it] charts our collective obsession with the end times’, and true to his word, he takes these environmental issues and transforms them through the poetic lens as surreal, disconcerting and uncanny. Curnow’s The Apocalyse Awards is best described in this fashion as a poetry collection documenting the many little disasters of the postmodern condition, turned twisted and bizarre through the poetic lens.

The visual element to Curnow’s collection illustrates this concept appropriately. The cover image is a representation of Stephen Ives’ ‘Dolor (For Whom the Bell Tolls)’. Interestingly, Ives created this sculpture from a Barbie model horse, and has warped it into what resembles a horseman of the apocalypse, with a skeletal rider and the mount itself ethereal and strained against an invisible force. The horse’s rider has a gas mask suspended in front of its face and holding a lance on which, barely perceptible until closer inspection, a miniscule elderly man is walking. The addition of this man enforces scale to the piece, making the mount and its master seem monstrously gigantic in comparison. The deathly and macabre image that has emerged out of the materialistic product of the Barbie horse is an apt reminder of the relationship between humankind and our own downfall. Despite all the chaos that is surrounding us in the world, it is always humans who are leading the charge.

The postmodern style of Curnow’s poetry calls back to famous modernist poets such as T S Eliot in ‘The Waste Land’ which frames contemporary society as a catastrophic mess of debris of infrastructure, human nature, classic, mythical and modern cultural iconography, all fragments of memory from a time long past (Bennett & Royle, 2004). In the poem ‘Meteorite’, a farmhand living in deplorable conditions finds said meteorite and ‘reads it Gilgamesh and Ozymandias’ behind the chicken coop. There is a contrast between the classical literature that forms the skeleton of Curnow’s landscape and the death and decay that is constantly ongoing in the poetic landscape. Likewise, in ‘Library’, the speaker and the crusaders protecting the library are entrenched amongst pop culture classics such as A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and warm themselves with the memory of the fires at Alexandria. The unspoken threat in this poem is that there must naturally be something that the ‘bookish guards’ must protect against, and like the fires of Alexandria, book burnings are associated with the systematic destruction of knowledge and a societal regression that is inherently detrimental. The result, as the speaker acknowledges, is ‘a mix between The Road and World War Z’, another comparison between literary and genre fiction with Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel and Max Brooks’ novel depicting a zombie apocalypse. Both books present a society of savagery, cannibalism and humanity turning on itself for survival.

It is notable that Curnow’s suite ‘The Lullaby Pregnancies’, depicts an image of reproduction and pregnancy as distorted and strictly policed. While the traditional pastoral emphasises fertility as an inherently natural and comforting imagery, Curnow inverts that image by portraying pregnancy as a sort of plague that ‘came before locusts and deep image colour’ that is being curtailed by a shadowy organisation known as ‘Team Love’. These poems are disturbingly anti-pastoral, as ‘corrective’ of the pastoral by highlighting ‘tension, disorder and inequalities’ (Slovic 2012, 54). The collection touches on issues of overpopulation, in a world so devastated it is no longer sustainable for human life and reproduction has been outlawed. Discussions around overpopulation as an issue, as well as Curnow’s poetry, position human reproduction as a blight against the natural environment, and humanity itself as a disease that needs to be controlled and contained.

The brutality of this world is most effectively shown in the second poem, ‘Blossom’, where the speaker recalls that ‘every day a coat-hanger appears at my door – an invitation a threat a promise’. This could be considered a reverse Handmaid’s Tale, the likenesses to Margaret Atwood’s famous story of a female apocalypse not lost in the translation to poetry. In this world, doctors who performed abortions prior to the rise of the Christian fundamentalist regime are routinely sought out and executed, their bodies strung up on hooks for display on the wall enclosing them all. Offred, Atwood’s protagonist, tells us that ‘it’s no excuse that what they did was legal at the time’ (1985, 43), their retroactive punishment exhibited as a warning to women who would deny their ‘natural’ purpose. In Curnow’s universe, instead, women are reduced to their biological functions in the sense that they are violently prohibited from bearing children, and the connotations between the artificial metal of coat-hanger and the organic process of child-bearing is particularly striking. Rather than a crime worthy of a lynch mob as in Atwood’s vision of an apocalyptic future, abortion is instead gruesomely enforced. In both worlds, ‘it is only the inside of [a woman’s] body that is important’ – that is, her ability or inability to bear children (Atwood 1985, 107).

The image of the inorganic as a pollutant of the natural world is a consistent theme of Curnow’s collection, as symptom of a much larger sickness inflicted on the earth: humankind, and our waste. One such example can be found in the poem ‘Scrimshaw’, wherein the speaker describes the sea:

she lifts her skirt and the sea foams in

with a colourful flotsam of plastics

a mouthful of ping pong turtle eggs

Here the distinctions between natural and unnatural are blurred, as synthetic items are described as natural phenomenon, such as ‘squid ink mayonnaise’ or ‘cookie cutter sharks biting’. In this poem, Curnow depicts a world that has become so saturated in the material that it has become indistinguishable from the natural world. The blame for the state of the world – that is to say, the ‘winner’ of the Apocalypse Awards – is obstinately placed in the hands of humanity, and our inability to recognise apocalypse until the world is literally falling apart at our feet. Curnow’s poetry fixates on the ways that humankind has erred, and the alarming vividness of the images that he creates is testimony to that. It is interesting the way that Curnow has created a microcosm of disaster in each poem, each seemingly unrelated but psychically linked in the grim realisation that the apocalypse may already be happening around us, but we cannot look, or simply refuse to see.

Bibliography

Atwood, M. 1985, A Handmaid’s Tale, Penguin Random House UK, London.

Bennett, A. & Royle, N. 2004, Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 3rd ed., Pearson Longman, Harlow.

Curnow, N. 2016, The Apocalypse Awards, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne.

Pippa, M. 2013, ‘Ecocriticism’, Literature Compass, vol. 10, no. 11, pp. 846-869.

Slovic, S. 2013, ‘Pastoral, Antipastoral, and Postpastoral as Reading Strategies’, Critical Insights: Nature and the Environment, Salem Press, Ipswitch, pp. 42-61.

 

Born and raised in Geelong, Australia, Stephanie Downing recently completed her honours thesis focusing on the role of the monster in classic gothic literature and modern fiction. She adores words of all sorts and is especially infatuated with the medium of poetry and fiction. Publications of her work have been featured in magazines such as WORDLY Magazine, Geelong Writer’s Inc. and Cordite Poetry Review. When she is not writing or thinking about writing, Stephanie enjoys nothing more than a nice hot cup of tea.

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