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Part 4: Decolonialism and The American Apocalypse


[This post certainly has the biggest holes so far…I don’t even try to engage with the term Decolonialism…And…Barbara Jane Reyes has posted some fascinating  notes from CSP himself on his books which makes some of this redundant. He’s pretty good at providing a very sane framework within which to encounter his work.  ]


In Un/Incorporated Territory the force that transfigures the land and the users’ understanding of their landedness is legible—a series of colonial powers beginning with Magellan and ending with Obama. It is poetry as nonfiction (its library designation). Blake Butler’s earth is transfigured by forces that are less legible. The landscape is undeniably shuddering in apocalyptic torment. And a decidedly po-mo apocalypse it is—a palimpsest of ecological disaster, nuclear winter, and an angry puritanical god in the form of plagues (mud, manure, ink, meat). What Butler does comes directly from a line of thinking that only sees change in American society and models of orientation as the product of total social annihilation—enacted with final days vigor. It can be said that there is something autocratic about this vision—critiques could be leveled similar to those leveled at Paterson in that William Carlos Williams, after articulating the “problem” of the working people of Paterson can only resolve it by enacting a great burning/purging of the slums. So and so calls this the top-down technocratic approach. This is a reliable go-to for the American imagination. Obsessed with what it sees as a fatal disease in its social body, it routinely envisions McCarthy-esque apocalypses. (Apocalypsi?)

A diversion: Who would best survive the apocalypse? The suburban husband barricading himself in a mall? The small town sheriff? These figures, stand-ins for The Average American, are the ones our various pathogen, radiation, zombie, and Jesus based apocalypses are drawn to. Not only because they are stand-ins for how the consumers of this media would like to see themselves (ordinary but resourceful—chosen) but also because they allow the author to tell these narratives of survival from the perspective of an outsider adapting to it. Much as the best way to enter the milieu of a piece of historical fiction is often through the eyes of a curious outsider to whom things must be explained and who must learn how to navigate the contours of his new environment.

Importantly, in the dislocation of the post-apocalyptic self—the perforation of the borders of the self as the self seek to find its place in the landscape, to intrude, scavenge, seek—is also a writing over of those on the other side of the hegemonic scale, the subject of American power who do not deserve annihilation. They just disappear, are liquidated as the eye constricts to focus upon the psyche of the exceptional post-apocalyptic pilgrim and his needs. Who cares about food prices in Africa when your skin is falling off? Did they get hit with the Jesus nuke too? Is there even still an Africa?

But who would really survive the Apocalypse? Perhaps those already most adept at repurposing the detritus of civilization to practical use (the urban “homeless” ala the documentary Dark Days) and those who can successfully forage using only mechanical technology (the rural poor). And perhaps those outside or at the margins of America.


If Scorch Atlas’ end movement is toward either transcendence of self in a new orientation within a radically altered environment so inseparable from death and dissolution of agency and language, Craig Santos Perez points to the need for a community to regain not possession of land but instead ways of knowing and thus navigating the land through the figures of Oceania and the traditional vessel that travels it—the flying proa.

Oceania via Santos Perez: a concept of the being of an island as consisting also of the ocean that surrounds it. This is opposed to the imperial view of an island as being an isolated unit of land defined by the bounding ocean. This is an imperial view because it makes the island something discreet—a commodity almost—and detachable from its context. In this conception an island can be fully occupied and the movements of its people restricted to the now more static surface of the island. Yet, if one adapts the oceanic view of an island the notion of neat borders between island going peoples dissolves. How can one draw a neat line across a body that consists purely of currents? The ocean itself becomes more a commons between multiple islands. The oceanic view then becomes a re-orientation of belonging and kinship from outlying island as outpost of mainland to island as a node in a network of islands. Hence, from Unicorporated Territory begins with an account of the establishment of an inter-island organization whose mission is “to preserve and perpetuate the knowledge, science, and art of traditional pacific island navigation. this includes the geographic knowledge of the locations and inter-relationships of islands, the physics of wind and wave processes, the astronomical alignment and seasonality that provide orientation, as well as the subtle human interpretations of all these phenomena” (14). This exists as a direct response to colonial policies to intentionally destroy this applied knowledge which supports an Oceanic perspective.

It is significant that as much as Santos Perez’s fragments lead us down into the sub-strata, this préoceania, of colonial depredations, the roots of indigenous knowledge, and familial histories, the book also begins with a gesture of bridging—the resurrection of indigenous sailing technology (and the models of orientation and navigation they depend on) and its voyage across national boundaries to “the island of luta [rota] in the commonwealth of the northern marianas islands” (15). The reclamation of technology of movement becomes synonymous with reclamation of identity and kinship and a rejection of the topographical understanding preferred by Imperial Powers.

In a larger sense, Santos Perez does not envision an obliteration of hegemony, familiar borders, structures, the burning of certain maps and categories of knowing as Blake Butler does. There is no apocalypse, no end of days but instead an intentional realignment of the currents of exchange between marginalized peoples, the history they can recover, and American, hegemonic power.


But perhaps this distinction drawing doesn’t amount to much more than a game in which I am coding in statements of value—ranking one thing against another. I hope not. Or rather perhaps we have here two sides of the same coin. The margins rearticulating themselves, gesturing toward a process necessary for their liberation form a center which is collapsing into a necessary incoherency. And hopefully it is useful to stand on a bridge between these two things, looking from one to the other until the landscapes become confused.

Filed under: Book Notes

About the Author

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Joe Hall is the author of five books of poetry, including Someone's Utopia (2018) and Fugue & Strike (forthcoming). His poems, reviews, and scholarship have appeared in Poetry Daily, The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, Postcolonial Studies, Peach Mag,, PEN America Blog, Poetry Northwest, Ethel Zine, Gulf Coast, Best Buds! Collective, and Eighteenth-Century Fiction. He has taught poetry workshops for teachers, teens, and workers through Just Buffalo and the WNYCOSH Worker Center.


  1. Cheryl

    In answer to your question, Who would best survive the apocalypse? — ascetics living in the desert. Plan B if we can’t cut it in Baltimore.

    • Joe H

      I think there’s a desert in Baltimore. Best of both worlds.

  2. rawbbie

    I think the plural of apocalypse is apocalypsen, just like oxen.

    • Joe H

      Hey Robert! Maybe. I like it. Makes it sound heavier, draggier. And Germanic?

  3. Pingback: Butler/Perez Part 3: Scorch Atlas | Pigafetta, Poetry, and Painkillers

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