"After the Bomb, the Song: A Review"
By Cat Dixon
Two hundred years ago, Lord Byron wrote the poem “Darkness” which described a bleak wasteland (“The bright sun was extinguish’d.”) that was inspired by the super eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. In 2017, Michael Skau authored a poetry collection titled After the Bomb which also features a post-apocalyptic earth. Instead of dark clouds from volcanic ash, the world has been destroyed by humanity which is even more tragic because it’s preventable. As Skau writes, he holds a crystal ball displaying a landscape of “tongues of fire,” “ghosts of bombs,” and “charred plains … with angular corpses.” The images and sounds jar us and attempt to warn us of our impending doom, but don’t be scared away by all of this. In these pages lovely, haunting lines bloom and the human condition is examined by an experienced and talented poet. These poems are written as hybrid sonnets. The nine syllables per line, instead of the usual ten, provide the reader with the startling rhythm and backdrop that fits this new sunless world.
As the collection continues, the reader learns that no one knows whose fault this terrible fallout is. Skau writes, “With no communication systems/ working, nobody knows what happened/ or who was at fault, our side or theirs.” Imagine a world with no 24-hour news channel, no telephone, and no social media. In times like ours, when are so connected, this concept seems alien. The characters in Skau’s world have to fend for themselves and “shy away from government.” Who could blame them? The result of modern life has left them with nothing—even the water is tainted, but who can go without water? So, they must drink. Skau writes, “After reluctant plunges, we/ notice that our toenails, fingernails/ eyes, hair (if it grew back), and exposed/ bones glow at night like crucifixes.”
Yet, there is something left. The unnamed persona the reader follows throughout has joined a group and makes a friend named Chrissy and this connection deepens. Skau writes. “In time,/ Chrissy and I grew so close we spend/ our mornings together preening each/ other, twigging the maggots gently/ out and crushing them to paste with rocks.” It is the human desire to band together that gives the collection hope. Later, when the persona joins a new camp, Skau describes how people are welcomed and cared for, writing, “the women mother me.”
Songs bring the camp together—their voices the only instruments available and the lyrics to folk songs the only comforting words that everyone knows. It is no wonder that they need human contact and song for the nightmare of death plagues them along with sickness, hunger, thirst, and maggots. Skau writes, “I took a shovel we use to kill/ the fires and started digging a grave:/ soon a man and woman joined me.” Working together, the group buries the dead which is an act of compassion for the deceased, a bonding experience for the living, and a relief to clear the nearby land of at least a few corpses.
Along with humanity’s urge to regroup and civilize, the shadow of a warning appears. Reflecting on the persona’s past life (before the bomb), Skau writes, “… my life as trivial/ as my car’s vanity license plates./ Like so many others, I regret./ that I had not gotten more involved/ with issues before it was too late.” Here, Skau is a prophet, a witness to future atrocities, painting a picture the reader may not want to see, and bringing up questions the reader may not want to answer. But like any meaningful work that challenges the reader, the uncomfortable or unfamiliar feelings are necessary. We cannot turn away. As our political climate (along with our environment) heats up, we risk After the Bomb becoming reality.
Skau’s poetry has us facing our greatest fears. As the reader finishes this collection, a call to action may rise up in the gut. Go with it. The beauty of After the Bomb is that one will return to it again and again for the prosody, the images and the quality of his writing. We also should return to it to remember why we must act, why we must speak out, and why we must not leave ourselves or our children to suffer lonely regret with nothing but songs and maggots to keep them company.
Cat Dixon is the author of Eva and Too Heavy to Carry (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2016, 2014) and The Book of Levinson and Our End Has Brought the Spring (Finishing Line Press, 2017, 2015). She is the managing editor of The Backwaters Press, a nonprofit press in Omaha. She is the editor of Watching the Perseids: The Backwaters Press Twentieth Anniversary Anthology (BWP, 2017). Her poetry and reviews have appeared in numerous journals including Sugar House Review, Midwest Quarterly Review, Coe Review, Eclectica, and Mid-American Review.