I should mention that when my first love died, I already had a stack of poems about missing him. I want to say this prepped me for widowhood—widowhood to the world, et cetera.
The truth: under the topmost sand is another, darker layer, damp from the ocean’s closeness. There were days I begged to be buried in it—cool, mutable grave, reprieve from the unrelenting sun—sun—sun—
From “How to Let Go of the World”
Franny Choi stuns in The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On, the much anticipated follow-up to Soft Science. With her latest collection, Choi bridges ecopoetics and existentialism with painfully personal experiences, finding balance in her desire to grieve the destruction of the earth and the destruction of the self. She reminds readers that she has a finger to the pulse of modern science, highlighted throughout her last collection, but it is her return to vulnerability and individual loss that resonates most loudly here.
Throughout the book, Choi engages with chiasmus and temporality, using various iterations of inversion to explore what was, what is and what could be. She reimagines past events and anticipates the future as she works to process the present moment. “Unlove Poem” brilliantly blends these techniques as Choi navigates a lineage of trauma and occupation that connects her to her grandmother. “I come from a short line of women/who were handed husbands as salvation from rape,” she writes, before turning the phrase and admitting, “I’m a short lie of a woman whom men have wanted/to tear apart with their good strong hands. I mean, same.” The subtle shift from “short line” to “short lie” invites the reader to draw parallels between the marriage presented as salvation and rage disguised as desire.
“It Is What Is,” a palindrome poem, takes chiasmus one step further by applying turns of phrase to the structure of the poem as a whole. Choi grounds the poem in the knowledge that her mother “passes/that business, now closed, where–…a man killed three Korean mothers.” The poem hinges on the brief line, “Be Afraid?,” with the lines in the second half appearing in reverse order of the first half. The effect is haunting, as Choi expertly captures the recurring trauma, both of her mother passing the site of the murders each day and of the speaker’s continual realization that her mother puts herself at risk daily “to make a living.” The irony of the title’s seemingly nonchalant acceptance of this reality further emphasizes the deeply internalized sense that violence is always possible, in even the most mundane or routine moments.
Choi leans into structure throughout the collection, a detail that serves to highlight her commentary on the systemic failings that perpetuate environmental destruction, domestic terrorism and mental health crisis. “How to Let Go of the World,” for example, repeatedly makes use of the phrase “I should mention” to develop the underlying narrative of her “first love.” The first section of the poem includes a friend, Sam, asking if he should jump off a building, only for the speaker to later acknowledge that her first love “left Earth from a rooftop, though he didn’t jump. Or: he jumped only the way muscles do, on their way to sleep.” Choi surrounds this profoundly human embodiment of despair with images of environmental destruction that communicate a similarly internalized hopelessness driven by our unwillingness to care for the earth even as we witness and, at times, participate in its deterioration.
Poems like “Demilitarized Zone” and “Science fiction Poetry” take a different approach to structuralism, adding anaphora to the bountiful list of techniques Choi uses, rewriting memory by imposing “demilitarized zone” in place of what was almost certainly an occupied territory and emphasizing “dystopia” to comment on dozens of familiar experiences that no longer bring solace. Choi also uses the title “Upon Learning That Some Korean War Refugees Used Partially-Detonated Napalm Canisters as Cooking Fuel” in four poems situated one after another, again drawing on repetition to emphasize generational trauma and the ways in which our attempts to survive are rooted in state-sponsored destruction, whether from overt genocide or systemic oppression of certain populations.
The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On puts Choi’s talent on full display as she masters numerous technical features of poetry while grounding her verse in relatable, urgent experiences. If you are only going to read one book of poetry this year, or assign one book of poetry for your next class, make it this one. Choi leaves nothing on the table, offering a collection that will satisfy students of poetry and casual readers with equal fervor. This is one collection you will want to carry with you for months to come.