One of the wildest functions of apocalypse is the possibility that it can fit in the breadth of a year depending on the eye beholding the end. But also how would we know how many worlds have ended before our own? It’s a question rife within this gorgeous suite of poems from Safia Elhillo pronounced most hauntingly at the end of her 2nd poem “Scenes from the Concluding World.” Elhillo writes “because we live a clean / unbroken line because our small & personal world / has not yet ended we believe a world never has.” This is where Elhillo’s speaker meets us, at 17 and at the dissolution of two worlds.
Make no mistake a world can end more than once and for the same person. The apocalypse our arrogance leads us to believe in has three definitions for a reason. Here, I am as interested in the world that ends at 17 for a young woman of color as I am the flooding world that will leave, Elhillo almost hopes, a new draft of the world “lush with hanging gardens angerless lapis waters” where “our bodies roam unbeaten unshot / unbruised by stranger’s hands.” Masculinity is by design the kind of roaming disaster that has ended a number of worlds that we do not name anymore and for some our silence is because our own small & personal world has been touched but not yet ended.
Justified fear of what masculinity can and has already burned follows the monostich structure of Elhillo’s “Men Follow Me” where each line is an action taken in isolation. In the white space between each action the speaker must learn to attempt safety there is the deep sense of danger that pervades being stalked, hunted, “the echo of footsteps giving them hundreds of bodies”. Similar to Elhillo’s contemporary Carl Phillips’ attention to the color Blue, Elhillo returns to 17, to men’s desire for eighteen; a concluding world where the speaker finds herself wondering if men’s predatory following will continue “maybe even when I die & step away from my mottled body”. It feels reductive to call these poems “timely” when what Elhillo is demonstrating with stunning precision is that the obsession indicates this is the time that is every time, the age that is every age, the world that ends daily and everywhere.
As the sun sets on the brief world Elhillo has invited us into the anxiety around the impending shadows emerges in “Self Portrait as Karintha.” Here Elhillo departs from the monostich structure of the previous two poems in favor of tighter quintets each setting scenes, small worlds pleading “can’t you see” before the sun goes down, leaving the dusk of the poem’s namesake. These quintets give way to the prose length line and the structured absences of the poem’s final stanza “&want [ ] &want &want to [ ] me they [forget] how old I am they take” And within the echo of each bracket, men like locusts, a plague of footsteps, hundreds of bodies.