Catherine Pierce’s The Tornado is the World is about disasters and tragedies–experiencing and surviving them, as well coming to accept them as an inevitable and even potentially sacred part of life.
The collection’s central metaphor is the tornado, and many of the poems mention tornadoes, both as actual, physical meteorological occurrences and as metaphorical, emotional ones. Tornadoes represent everything that is dangerous, unpredictable, and fatal. At the same time, they’re exciting, natural, and beautiful. They’re inherently complex and contradictory, like the world itself.
The collection’s title, “The Tornado is the World,” comes from a line in a poem called “The Tornado Visits the Town.” This poem speaks from the perspective of a reluctant tornado, and in its first line we hear that “the tornado waits to become itself, / slowly turning above the interstate.” Eventually, though, the tornado moves toward the town for a “visit,” and it can’t help wrecking the havoc that’s in its nature. It scares, destroys, and kills, not necessarily because it wants to, but because it has no choice:
the tornado cannot stop. Will not.
The world cannot stop turning, and this minute
the tornado is the world. Cars lift like birds,
trees bullet, everything is collapse.
The tornado has no regrets.
Has no regrets.
Has no regrets.
The tornado has to do what it’s doing, and its inevitability defines it: “the tornado is the world.” It spins and destroys, just as the earth spins and destroys. The tornado has no regrets because it can have no regrets. It does what it has to do, the only thing it can do.
The collection’s trajectory moves toward an acceptance of tragedy, a recognition of the ways that mortality and destruction are woven into everyday life. The book’s divided into three sections, with many of the poems in the first section dealing with seemingly distant disasters, and describing the desire to remain aloof from it for the sake of survival. The second section captures immediate and visceral experiences of disaster–views from the eye of the storm, as it were–including the perspectives of both personified tornadoes and the people who experience them firsthand. The third section is quieter, focusing on the daily activities of raising children, working, and surviving. The poems in this section, though, have a quiet hum of loss, a sense of humility and the wisdom gained from experiencing tragedy. They understand the inevitability of death and disaster, but they’ve learned to live with it. They’ve learned to hold both the sacred and the profane in one, compassionate and loving moment.
The book’s first poem, “Disaster Work,” is about being right on the edge of disasters, about the fact that we’re always almost a part of a tragedy, even as we try to avoid it:
Someone is on the plane
that noses 2,000 feet into the air, stops,
then drops. Someone is in
the tornado-flattened Texaco station.
Someone is on the bus the suicidal
or stroke-struck driver launches
through the guardrail and off the mountain.
As the speaker says in the next stanza, however, “It isn’t you.” This time, it isn’t you; it’s an apocryphal someone else. The speaker dwells on the isn’t-you quality of these disasters, knowing that though they aren’t you for the moment, they could be you, and they will be you soon enough. And it’s also about our survival strategies, about the ways we turn away from disaster toward everyday details as a way to live and stay sane. If we don’t turn away, the speaker of this poem asks,
how in the world could you do
the work of chewing your waffle?
how could you do the impossible work
of putting your child to bed,
saying goodnight, closing the door
on the darkness?
In other words, if you’re always considering the fact that you’re about to die, how can you live? This, in fact, becomes one of the collection’s central questions, one that the poems all, in various ways, seek to answer.
A poem in the second section, “Holy Shit,” captures the simultaneous horror and beauty of disaster–a simultaneity that’s at the heart of the collection as a whole. These poems are about the inevitable interweaving of the sacred and the profane, the comic and the tragic. “Holy Shit” begins with the mundane details of everyday life:
This morning we took the long way
to the dentist, the coffee shop, the sawmill.
This morning we replaced the carburetor.
This morning we stormed out the front door
because our mother was nagging about our failure
to make a grandchild, to snag a prom date.
These opening lines suggest that even as we are threatened by disasters, we are the disasters. We are the tornadoes, storming out the door. Even in our comic mundanity, we’re tragic. And then, in the midst of our day-to-day activities, disaster strikes: “The sky is full of metal. / The lights don’t work.” We find ourselves huddling with strangers in gas stations and Stop N Go freezers, holding each other, praying for survival:
O, please. Hear our prayer.
We mean we know this place
is profane. We mean
we know it’s sacred.
The poem ends with a meditation on what is holy and what is shit–and how these might, in the end, be the same things. Tornados and other disasters represent this truth of human life: that tragedy is horrific and terrifying, but it’s also inevitable and even, at times, exciting. It’s an adventure. It’s always presenting us with something new, unexpected, unpredictable. It forces us to experience the immediacy of our world, the inevitability of our own mortality. We both fear and long for such moments, perhaps because we have no other choice. These moments are what it means to be alive.
The last poem in the collection, “The Hawk,” deals with the mundanity of danger, the fact that it’s always right there, underneath the most ordinary-seeming day. The speaker is a mother pushing a stroller with her young son, who is babbling a “brook of syllables.” In the midst of this verdant, domestic scene on a residential street, however, the mother sees something:
in the tree is something prehistoric.
Something vast. Wings spread wide
as our kitchen table, massive head lunging
toward a smaller movement. I know
it’s a hawk.
It’s a remarkable moment, this hawk, this bit of dangerous wilderness in an otherwise unremarkable setting. The fact that the hawk’s wings are wide “as our kitchen table” is an ingenious blending of the domestic with the wild, a recognition that both the hawk and the kitchen table, both danger and mundanity, can exist side-by-side. The hawk isn’t just dangerous, though; it’s also beautiful. The sacred and the profane come together again in this poem, just as they do in all the poems in this collection. In this poem, the hawk is the tornado, and the poem becomes a meditation on mortality:
I’ve been thinking lately and always
of the ways we might end–me, him, everyone
we say goodnight to. All the blood phantoms
and texting drivers, all the thick-headed
tornadoes dervishing across our county,
all the ailments alphabetized on my bookshelf.
Death and destruction and accidents and horror are there, in hawks and tornadoes and all manner of disasters. The speaker understands this, but at the same time she recognizes the beauty in this danger–the loveliness of the world even with its constant threat of death. This threat is, perhaps, what makes life worth living. She tries to show her son the hawk–“Look, look,” she says, but he “is too young still to tell wild from routine.” She sees that the hawk has “something gray / fighting in its beak,” something that will, certainly, meet its end. After this sublime and terrifying moment, everything returns to whatever counts as normality:
In the quiet it leaves
behind, a garage door closes, a lawnmower
revs. Yellow leaves crunch underfoot.
We keep strolling and the street is the same,
only now it’s surrounded by the world.
It’s a powerful ending to the collection, with the speaker recognizing all that’s dangerous in the world, and at the same time recognizing that danger is the world. The street returns to normal, but now it’s “surrounded by the world.” In other words, now it’s deepened, changed, made sacred.
The poems in The Tornado is the World speak of a compassionate recognition of all we have to lose, of all we will inevitably lose, but also of all the abundance and joy that exist alongside this loss.
Catherine Pierce is author of The Tornado Is the World (Saturnalia Books, 2016), The Girls of Peculiar (Saturnalia 2012), and Famous Last Words (Saturnalia 2008). Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry (2015 and 2011), Slate, Boston Review, Ploughshares, FIELD, and elsewhere. She co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Narratively, Eyedrum Periodically, Silk Road Review, Stoneboat, and other publications. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington) and a poetry collection, The Village (Kelsay Books). Visit her website at www.vivianwagner.net