Survival and Anxious Mortality in The Tornado Is the World
With powerful insights, emotional impact, and technical mastery, Pierce expresses the voice of disasters and survivors. At the same time, she reminds readers of the new beginnings awaiting us in the midst of destruction: “when a red sun rises out of a place / you never thought could house a sun.”
Catherine Pierce is the author of The Tornado Is the World, The Girls of Peculiar, and Famous Last Words (all from Saturnalia Books), as well as of a chapbook, Animals of Habit (Kent State University Press). Her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry, Slate, Boston Review, Ploughshares, and FIELD. Originally from Delaware, she now lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where she co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.
This third poetry collection from Pierce mainly explores the perils and joys of human vulnerability, particularly as a new mother. She focuses on forms of physical or mental danger that can overtake one’s otherwise peaceful life, highlighting her family’s “absurdly flimsy life” in an uncontrollable world.
The title of the book derives most directly from the penultimate poem, in which Pierce describes a tornado that once swept overhead while her family sought shelter. Although the specific danger that threatened Pierce’s family does not appear until the end of the collection, the very first poem and many that follow touch on the reality of tragedies.
The first poem, “Disaster Work,” hints at this theme and begs the question of how to live when so surrounded by the possibility of death: “If you considered, truly, what it means that a plane could drop without warning….how could you do the impossible work of putting your child to bed, saying goodnight, closing the door on the darkness?”
In asking the question, the author invites the reader to continue reading in search of answers. However, answers remain hard-won, as other fears such as physical illness and depression creep into the narrator’s world. Still, the narrator can occasionally relax in moments of solitude. She celebrates picturesque snapshots of family vacations in which no tragedy has yet swallowed them.
Various poems also examine the very existence of a tornado itself. Such poems sustain the wonder of the weather phenomenon, perhaps helpfully informing unfamiliar readers who may live in areas not prone to tornados. Her constant revisiting of the scene forbids the reader from forgetting the threat that has marked her most. From a broader perspective, the reader witnesses how a single traumatic moment can lodge almost inseparably from the victim’s memory.
The author nearly obsesses over mortality in beings as small as ants, who “have drowned themselves in the sweetness” of melted chocolate ice cream, “because what else can do?” In another poem, straightforwardly titled “An Apologia for Taking Things for Granted,” she mourns the moments that she has allowed to slip by without offering due thanks. But she offers the hope that at least, from this point on, she has “learned her lesson” and appreciates even the most seemingly insignificant glimpses of beauty.
Only toward the end of the collection does Pierce recount the focal point of her anxieties, prefaced by the words “here is a true story” so that the reader does not misinterpret her tale as allegory: “Once, in a Days Inn bathroom in Cullman, Alabama, I covered my four-month-old son as my husband covered me and the tornado went by.” Though her family survives, she makes no apology for how this brief instance influenced all other areas of her life.
This serves as a powerful reminder for victims of trauma that no danger, even survived without physical harm, is too trivial to haunt one’s mind. Like Pierce, survivors may grieve and fear even long after the threat has passed. Similarly, while living in the aftermath, no moment of safety and beauty is too trivial for gratitude.
The Tornado Is the World is available through Saturnalia Books and can be purchased in bookstores, online, and for Kindle.