Franny Choi’s third poetry collection, The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On, is a reflection on calamity in all of its forms: the public, the personal, the internal, the external. Concerns about humanity’s impending extinction collide with Choi’s fears about the mortality of herself and those she cares about, highlighting the inextricable nature of both issues. However, despite the chronic finitude of everything around us, Choi still argues for a kind of humanist continuation that transcends life, blood; even memory. She suggests that even what we consider ‘unprecedented,’ such as the calamities that plague our current times, are merely a reprisal of the past.
“Catch up—it’s the anniversary of the aftermath / of another bad massare, and I’ve got plenty of seats,” Choi writes, in her poem “Good Morning America.”
The sting and novelty of disaster is one that all of us relate to, as it racks us with shock and then numbs up with boredom. Choi reminds us of this in “Science Fiction Poetry,” where she writes “Dystopia of hold music; / Dystopia of platitudes; / Dystopia of garbled logic spun and spun in the head…,” the list exhausting, painful, almost tedious to read in its repetition. She then writes, “Dystopia isn’t there something else besides; there must be; / some sequence that ends in anything but a cold loop.” Are our actions doomed to be mere repetition? Is there an alternative to novelty and repetition, a third space in which action can exist? If action is just echo, can it be said to be truly temporal?
Choi plays with this idea in “Grief is a Thing with Tense Issues,” in which she asks, “is it possible to experience anticipatory feelings toward the past?” Her confusion manifests in her unconventional grammar, writing, “You were good. You lasted. And at last you were—I mean, you had been. / You will had been. / I will have missed your is.” That life is simultaneously linear as well as structureless is a core theme of the poetry collection, which Choi returns to throughout, with reliable grace and vigor.
It is difficult for poets today to find the balance between authenticity and good form, with many sacrificing the latter in pursuit of the former. However, Choi’s poetry collection is a breath of fresh air in that respect. Her poetry manages to be angry without being sloppy, profound without relapsing into truisms. Just when the reader gets used to the subject of calamity and mortality, Choi introduces a running thread about her Korean ancestry, and what heritage means for marginalized people.
“The demilitarized conductor bows as he enters each train car; an old woman sits with demilitarized bundles / wrapped in pink,” Choi writes in “Demilitarized Zone.” “At Pyeongyang I stop for demilitarized noodles. The Taedong River is not full of bodies.”
There is anger and grief behind Choi’s words, but this does not obviate the ability to create joy as well.
“What I want you to know is that we’re okay. Hurting / but okay,” Choi writes in “Dispatches from a Future Great-Great-Granddaughter.” “We’re surviving, though it’s true, / we don’t know what that means, exactly.” What does survival mean if calamities keep occuring? Moreover, what does it mean to survive when death awaits as a final destination—is the memory the final triumph, or the past existence of a memory? Choi doesn’t pretend to know the answer, and doesn’t provide one for the reader. She merely distills the pain and bewilderment of our modern zeitgeist, whose sense of time since the pandemic has been radically altered. None of us are sure whether the commonplace apocalypse is comforting.
Just as Choi enables us to see our modern moment more clearly, we see her grapple with her roots and memories in an exquisite manner, in particular the death of her first love as well as her feelings about her mother. We see similarly engaging ruminations in her past three collections, Soft Science, Floating, Brilliant, Gone, and Death by Sex Machine. It is clear that whether she is writing about political issues or recounting a memory with a friend, or exploring the more erudite topics of artificial intelligence and marine biology, Choi possesses a keen instinct for form that serves her well in all of her poems, enabling her to cover great swathes of content without any poem feeling out of place.
Choi’s eloquent thoughts about the present moment are valuable in understanding it more clearly. She does what many modern poets try and fail to do with aplomb, a continually relevant figure in the literary world whose skill only increases with time.