“How to Survive the Apocalypse” Faces the End — Or Perhaps the Renewal — of the World

Doomsday preppers need not get too excited over Jacqueline Allen Trimble’s poetry collection, How to Survive the Apocalypse. The poems are not about stockpiling supplies and building bunkers. Instead, the work traces the human atrocities that sent society to the threshold of hopelessness. With stories of life, love, and loss, Trimble reminds us that Black people have been surviving their apocalypse for centuries. The poems move us to throw our hands up in expectation instead of despair, renewal instead of annihilation. Between the first poem entitled “Plague” and the last, titular poem, we wince, smile, writhe in heartache, seethe, vigorously nod in tacit agreement, and sometimes, we want to throw the book against the wall. It’s this in-between where we find everything worth living and fighting for.

How to Survive the Apocalypse reads like Octavia Butler’s Earthseed Books, Parable of the Sower, and Parable of the Talents in which Butler, in the form of a journal, foretells a collapsed society in the year 2024. The wasteland is devoid of values, morals, and even humanity, and is girded only by the privileged rich that have forced a survival existence for everyone else. While Butler’s apocalyptic tale warns of society’s demise with cloaked admonishments and exaggerated metaphors, Jacqueline Allen Trimble takes direct aim at what ails us and what threatens to end us. In “Oh Say Can You See,” Trimble examines patriotism and its competing definitions and questions what it means to die for country:

Maybe if he had
wrapped himself in stars
and stripes, someone
would have unholstered
a hand, placed it
on the heart
and begun to sing.

Patriotic songs of the brave:
Lift every voice
My soul looks back
Before I’ll be a slave
I’ll be buried
In my grave.

Trimble minces no words in “Laws of Insurrectionists.” Every scourge and buzzword gets a byline in this piece that alludes to the January 6th attack on the Capitol. The poems “Oh Say Can You See” and “Allies” force us to reconcile what it means to be a human being with what it means to be patriotic, which is also reflected in “Laws of Insurrectionists”:

Forget that patriotism is a form of love,
the deep, abiding kind that bears its breast
in a crowded bus station, makes four plaits
on one head, lies counting the vagaries of a lover’s breathing
as a rosary, wears a mask, takes a bullet for kin and country,
or loves one’s neighbor as oneself.
It is not that. Never, never that.

Trimble reflects on the rage of Black Americans over suppressive and oppressive entities in “Kneeling is No Longer an Option.” In “This is Why People Burning Down Fast Food Joints and Whatnot,” she provides a logic, through a metaphor of catechism and holy communion, for the anger and violence of Black people shackled with the detention of non-violence thrust upon them, Trimble asserts, by a white narrative:

How can I continue
to take and eat this image
of myself, choke on the eloquence
of my dissent, speak love fluently
to someone with his knee
on my neck, his bullet in my child?

The collection is rounded out with injections of joy and family history in “When Prince Comes Back from Heaven,” an ode to the prolific performer in purple; “How to Cook Neckbones and Rice,” a family recipe for love and traditions; “What if the Supreme Court Were Really the Supremes?,” which reimagines the high court made up of the iconic Motown singers; and “A Woman Cohabitates With Three Men,” about Trimble’s happy and harried experience raising boys.

The poems of How to Survive the Apocalypse also lay bare the personal tragedies and sadness in Trimble’s life — molestation, death, abandonment — as well as the historic and persistent perils of racism that have reignited and converged, setting the alarm on a doomsday clock. In her preface to the poetry collection, Trimble writes that an apocalypse need not be an absolute end. On a field trip to the Yucatan peninsula a decade ago, a Mayan guide clarified for Trimble and her students what they meant by the end of the world. He characterized it as a renewal, a rebirth saying, “the world will cast off the old and be made new. It will begin again.” It is with that in mind that Trimble embraces her own life’s endings and the end of the world. She writes, “Even the apocalypse seemed a manageable thing, a thing where what we had survived would be destroyed, and we would begin again, creating a new world out of the remnant of the old one.”

How to Survive the Apocalypse
By Jacqueline Allen Trimble
NewSouth Books
Published August 15, 2022