Recovering a World: On Franny Choi’s “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On”
By Sharon LinJune 10, 2023
The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On by Franny Choi
When Choi began her progression from stage to page, her style adapted. Where her spoken word was defined by a singular sonic clarity and syncopation, her writing delivered precision through her description of place and sudden displacement. In her 2019 debut collection Soft Science, Choi quietly prods at the limits of humanity, dissecting the boundaries between familiarity and otherness. With her latest collection, The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On (2022), Choi’s trademark emotional acuity carries steadily as her poems take refuge amidst the many-bodied wreckage of apocalypses: “By the time the apocalypse began, the world had already ended. / It ended every day for a century or two. It ended, and another ending / world spun in its place. It ended, and we woke up …”
Time is a silent force in Choi’s work, pulling from history and propelling into the unknown. Those who have experienced grief may recognize the haunting undercurrent that transports a body forward even when life itself has seemingly come to a close. Whether in the midst of catastrophe or otherwise, all bodies are in perpetual motion. Framed as such, everything exists in a liminal space.
Catastrophe is then an equilibrium, a destination: “I knew you then: / you line straight to the planet’s calamitous core; you moment moment moment; / you intimate abyss I called sister for a good reason.” In “Catastrophe Is Next to Godliness,” the speaker attempts to conjure catastrophe through praise (“O unsayable—O tender”) and enchantment (“you moment moment moment”), each utterance drawing her closer to epiphany. Yet, their intimacy is predicated on emotional distance; the closer she comes to the realization of tragedy, the more often her lyric fails. Towards the end of the poem, the speaker’s voice breaks into fragments as her pleas remain unanswered: “Am I greedy for comfort / if I ask you not to kill my friends—if I beg you to press your heel / against my throat—please, not enough to ruin me, / but just so—just so I can almost see your face—”
This notion of incompleteness echoes the epigraph to section II, from the poet Grace M. Cho: “This sense of impending catastrophe is an illusion, however, because the trauma never quite arrives. It never arrives because it has already happened.”
Grief emerges most clearly in the collection in “Comfort Poem,” ushering in a memorial for all past apocalypses—war, rape, terrorism, cultural genocide. It warns of the ease with which death can be transformed into a numbered abstraction. Clarity emerges from a dense block of devastation, from which Choi’s poetry surges in full, whetted force, as in the haibun titled “Process Note”:
the terrible line appears—not drawn by anything like righteousness, or grim duty, or God, or even causation, really; just the flat time signature of sequence; terrible, indifferent sequence, which leads from the detonations, to carnage, to freedom(?), to carnage, to an airplane in the sky carrying a woman carrying a clumsy gathering of cells that will one day look backwards and see, in that line, only endings, endings, endings—
Sliced from bone, my life
hung like a jaw—faultless. And
A haibun differs from other formal structures in poetry—interweaving prose and haiku, it is visually an imbalanced form. Choi uses this bipartite form to interrogate the magnitude of historical trauma that weighs upon the descendants of genocide: while the voices of the dead take on an outsized form in unlineated prose, only a fixed amount of syllables are left for the living.
The latter half of her collection blends a double consciousness of past disasters and present catastrophes. Where Soft Science quietly probed the spectrum of human consciousness by way of simulacra and Turing tests, The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On hones history with a blade. In a sequence of poems, all titled “Upon Learning That Some Korean War Refugees Used Partially Detonated Napalm Canisters as Cooking Fuel,” Choi meditates upon the perpetuity of survival in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War: “Somewhere in a prior world, a woman with my face / is scraping the seeds from an unborn hell. / All night, doom rang from the sky. And in the morning, / there are mouths to feed.” In this series of four poems, each one closes where the next begins. Neither war nor verse can prevent resurrection.
By resurfacing past tragedies, Choi reminds us that as dire as our present-day disasters may seem, people have survived worse before. In recalling her ancestors and the victims of the Korean War and Second World War, she brings the enormity of their suffering back into perspective. But recalling history in this way can run the risk of diminishing lives to props for catharsis. A poet must always reckon with the decision to claim another’s suffering as one’s own. Don Mee Choi wrote in DMZ Colony (2020) that her intent was to give voice to the victims of the Korean War—in one sequence, several children account their memories of the Sancheong–Hamyang massacre. She writes in the footnotes that these accounts had in fact been forged, evoking the all-too-common extortion of victimhood narratives by artists eager to claim other voices as their own.
Franny Choi is also aware of the failure of the poet “in any tongue, / to free us.” She acknowledges the risk inherent in embodying and capturing another’s suffering—turning it into a stock image or a matter of script. But how is it possible, then, to reckon with disaster if the reckoning itself can result in a flattening? Choi’s resistance lies in her poems not simply “accepting” disaster as “certainty.” In “Process Note,” she makes explicit the price of reckoning: what begins as a history lesson inevitably dovetails into trauma as the speaker is left to contend with a life that is “faultless” yet “unforgivable.”
Retelling, in Choi’s writing, is less the work of recall than of reflection—following a poetic tradition in which emotional clarity is the only defense against the test of time. The poems of Hwang Chin-I and Chŏng Ch’ŏl are not read today for their recollections of contemporary life, but rather for their reflective truth. To tell a narrative again and again, whose difference from past retellings hinges only upon authorship, one must reflect. In “How to Let Go of the World,” Choi writes: “I turned a corner and panicked at a sudden flash in my rearview, teeth chattering into my highest throat. Every nerve prepared for the acrid drip of cop talk until I realized: it was no cruiser. It was the sky. The sky, shocked with dying.”
In a present day that feels continuously transitory from one disaster to the next, it is easy to forget that the most calamitous apocalypse of all has been occurring unceasingly for decades. In just this past year, several poets have meditated on the planetary consequences of climate change, from Jorie Graham’s [To] The Last [Be] Human to Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s Look at This Blue, the former with closure on the inevitability of extinction, the latter with bleak but tentative optimism.
Choi’s collection instead asks whether escape from liminality is even possible. Does one simply accept that to survive means to be continually “beached” upon the endless shore? Living involves bearing witness to destruction, enduring a life haunted by horrors. Extinction implies the end of all meaning. But there is recourse, in the form of recovery: “When disaster comes, some of us will stand on the rooftop to address the ghosts. Some of us will hold the line. Some will look for the shards, run our tongues along the floor.” Choi shows how it is possible to be all three at once: to reckon with loss while also welcoming future possibilities.
Whereas the elegy locates itself in the past and the pre-elegy mourns a future that could never be, Choi invokes a future poignant with possibility. In “Protest Poem,” the lines transform from pre-elegy (“No peace / is a drill”) into “an ekphrastic / for the as-yet- / unbuilt museum / of what we had to survive / to make paradise / from its ruins.”
Sharon Lin is an essayist and poet. She lives in New York City. Her poetry and essays appear in The New York Review of Books. WIRED, The Offing, Bloomsbury, and elsewhere.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Christos Kalli examines Saeed Jones’s encounters with the end of the world in a poetry collection about survival, “Alive at the End of the World.”
Susan McCabe reviews Jody Gladding’s “I entered without words” and Forrest Gander’s “Your Nearness.”
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!