Sunday, March 26, 2017



Apocalypse Mix by Jane Satterfield 
(Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, 2017)

Jane Satterfield is the author of three previous collections of poetry: Her Familiars; Assignation at Vanishing Point and Shepherdess with an Automatic. She is also the author of Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry; the William Faulkner Society’s Gold Medal for the Essay, and several poetry prizes from the Florida Review, Myslexia and The Bellingham Review. Born in England and raised in the United States, she currently lives in Baltimore, teaches creative writing at Loyola University, Maryland and is married to the poet Ned Balbo. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing at Loyola College in 1986 and in the following year received a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa.

It is evident that a good deal of care and attention has gone into the production of Apocalypse Mix. Special mention must be made of the close collaboration between the author and the visual artist Tanja Softić whose artwork, Migrant Universe: Departure Landscape, is on the cover. Satterfield met Softić when the latter had been awarded a residency at the Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts (VCCA) and it is clear from the subject matter of this volume of poems and that of Softić’s own work that there are shared affinities between them. Satterfield’s poems are set against the backdrop of war—war that is both past and present- and its far-reaching effects upon our daily lives. She is the daughter of an American serviceman, an Air Force reservist who saw active duty in the Gulf War and she grew up near Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland. Understandably, she is close to her subject and her engagement with political and military matters is all the more telling and authoritative as a result. 

Originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Softić is a Professor of Art at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. She goes back to Sarajevo every year to visit her family and, in the summer of 2013, she began to take photographs of the devastation that she saw there, especially of the cultural institutions and the museums and libraries that she had once enjoyed frequenting. The front cover of Apocalypse Mix is taken from one of ten works on paper mounted on panels called Migrant Universe. Softić’s work inspired Satterfield to write a sequence of prose poems under the same name which appear as an integral part of the book. Some, if not all of the titles in this section, are taken from the titles of the panels given by the artist. What Softić expresses in acrylic, pigment and chalk, Satterfield expresses in the written word.

The title, Apocalypse Mix, which carries with it both biblical and artistic connotations, calls to mind two very different worlds. On the one hand, there is the notion of revelation or disclosure and on the other of “combination”—whereby the parts of one thing or the things of one sort, are diffused among those of another: in this case, the fact that war and its consequences becomes inextricably entangled with our lives. Interestingly, Satterfield, with her frequent references to pop music, gives us another take on the word “mix” which is, among other things, a technical term for playing two records (one after the other) with an overlap in which the beats match or a version of a musical recording that has been mixed in a particular way. In these poems, the soundtrack of war goes on playing in our ears long after the fighting has stopped.

The titles of some of her poems, such as Resurrection Spell, Angel of Absence; Angel of Departure; Second Angel, Evangelist and Triptych contain religious or artistic words although there is nothing particularly “religious” to be found in them. The nearest she comes to this is in the poem Field Manual for the Forgotten which is headed up with a reference to May 21, 2011: the date provided for “the Rapture” by evangelical Christian radio host Harold Camping and begins with the lines: “After we’ve played our Apocalypse / Mix, after late lunch and presents…” References to pop music and pop culture in poems such as Radio Clash help to set her work within a specific time frame and contain resonances of their own making. Music, in all its forms, can be a very powerful trigger in helping people to remember and define specific moments in their lives.

The book is divided into five sections. Sections II and IV are extended reflections on specific subjects while the other three contain poems that are free-standing and complete in their own right. Satterfield is good at coming up with strong, eye-catching titles. While nothing could perhaps be as surprising or dramatic as the title of one of her previous collections, Shepherdess with an Automatic, there are plenty of arresting titles here that make the reader want to engage with the poem from the outset.

Satterfield also has a good ear for knowing when to create a line break for maximum effect. This excerpt from Elegy with Trench Art and Asanas contains some  good examples:

to think of some intention, something as simple

as the reason that brought you to your mat – that, not the noise
rising up from Stoneleigh Lanes, the business at basement level –

thunderous, I think, though nothing next to the volley of
shellfire and mines going off in the front’s busier sectors –

strange sound track stuck in my hearing long after
I left the museum’s cool halls, since I walked the wood –

planked trench alleys of the Great War Exhibit…

She packs a lot of history, a lot of geography and a lot of what I term the paraphernalia of daily living into her poems. Any of these things, particularly the latter, can unexpectedly spark off a memory of war. In An Ideal for Living she writes:

                        why is it this season’s
psychedelic orange makes me think of detainees in stress

Some of her poems are, in a personal sense, close to home. In Special Screening –an event which contains a reference to the 9/11 attacks, Satterfield asks:

Who knows what war is like except
those who serve and those who care to ask,

take notes, tell the rest of us…It’s been
years since he’s been in uniform, no fan

of nightly news, but Dad still wants to shake
this journalist’s hand…

and in Souvenir she mentions her father’s experience of hearing loss in one ear as a result of a parasitic infection during the Gulf War. This is just one of many examples of the legacy of war.

In Section II, Bestiary for a Centenary, Satterfield pays tribute to the many animals who played an important role in the First World War. In a sequence of seven poems, using sources such as Alan Taylor’s ten-part series “World War I in Photos”, she draws attention to the work of a diverse range of animals, including pigeons, camels, mules, dispatch dogs and horses and the ways in which many of them were boon companions to those who served alongside them. All had names, of course, and some were given rank. Even glow worms had their uses giving off light for reading in the dark. This is an important sequence which highlights the work of animals that still continues to this day in places like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives’ (ATF) national canine division headquartered in Front Royal, Virginia where dogs are now trained as key investigators in the war on terror.

Section IV, Migrant Universe, draws us into the heart of the collection. Central to these poems is the idea of memory as messenger. The telegraph wires mapping the tangle of transit seen so clearly on the book cover becomes in Second Angel, an angel’s transmission across time and space. For Softić it is a means of reconstruction, a way of visualising the past. Time and again Satterfield makes the transition from the past to the present with consummate ease.

Satterfield cites a number of writers in her poems. Section IV incorporates a range of voices including Michael Ondaatje, John Berryman, Vasko Popa and Albert Camus and the prose poem For Virginia Woolf, March 28, 2011 includes Woolf’s entries from A Writer’s Diary and her 1940’s essay, “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid.”  Several of her poems are prefaced by quotations or contain italicised phrases drawn from other sources. Et in Arcadia Ego includes excerpts from work by Frank O’Hara, Theodore Roosevelt and Virgil.

A few poems, such as Salt and Cursing for Beginners, are set in the UK and reflect the fact that Satterfield was born Northampton, England and that her mother grew up in Corby. Salt is of particular relevance here since it describes footage recorded in 1979 by Midlands News as steel workers and townspeople in Corby faced the imminent closure of Stewarts and Lloyds Steel Works.

Satterfield goes out of her way to let us know that there are no poems about the natural world in this collection. In Why I Don’t Write Nature Poems she says

I don’t see a cow meadow as any kind of invocation. Am drawn to the satellite dish disrupting the view.

Her poems are too bound up with the noise of war, with the importance of incoming breaking news.

In this volume, each poem is multifaceted offering up multiple layers of meaning. Portuguese Man o’ War—the last poem in the book- is a case in point. The subject is both an armed frigate and Physalia physalis, a marine hydrozoan also known as the man-of-war, blue bottle, or floating terror, whose venomous tentacles can deliver a painful (and sometimes fatal) sting.

These are intelligent, well-researched poems that encompass both personal and universal worlds. Her exploration of history is both authentic and engaging. The strength of these poems lies in their density, lyric grace and multi-layered complexity. Selected by David St. John, Apocalypse Mix won the Autumn House Poetry Prize for 2016.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014),  The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) and Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016).

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