A Review of Joni Tevis’ The World is On Fire

August 21, 2015 § 1 Comment


A book review from Nina Boutsikaris:

tevisMaybe it’s coincidence that apocalypse keeps surfacing in so much of the recent work I’ve read as a grad student, begging me to reconsider how the word might apply to much more than typical end-of-days visions. Several of the books stacked around my apartment tap into apocalypses far more real and immediate, something more like crisis or unease, creeping decay and paranoia, a special nihilism suited, perhaps, for a post-9/11 world that is increasingly uncanny, confused and technology-dependent. After I read Lucy Corin’s surreal fiction collection One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, for instance, I had a name for the elusive and pervasive feeling I got from the empty storefronts in my hometown, young couples’ dinner parties, Tinder exchanges, missing dogs, the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue three days before Christmas, the latest Taco Bell creation. I was haunted ruin or the promise of ruin. Which is to say, by everything.

It’s comforting knowing essayist Joni Tevis, must also be haunted—indeed, each of the “Acts,” in her latest collection, The World is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse, explore the tension between birth and death—and that her thoughtful probing has generated such a sweeping, rich, and compelling book. On a tour of an antiquated roadside attraction, Tevis questions why a miniature, seemingly innocent “Fairyland” makes her think of Trinity, the code name for the first nuclear detonation. “The truth is,” she writes, “you find what you look for. Maybe not the exact specimen, but once the scales fall from your eyes you must see the world, strange and dark. A red moon floated above a stadium on a noisy Friday night. I could have read there a sign of doom, or atmospheric dust, or both. Just the same, once I saw Trinity I would see it always, everywhere.”

And in “Ten Years You Own It,” she wanders the toxic ex-resort coastline of the Salton Sea asking herself what it was she had hoped to find: “aftermath or prophecy?” She writes, “We stopped to see the disaster, but which one… if you go looking for a portent everything you find will seem like one.”

The true origin of “apocalypse,” as Tevis reminds us, comes from the Greek word meaning “unveiling,” and the book itself acts as such, peeling back mysteries of our spiritual and earthly world. The journey here is both lush and wandering, glittering and sobering—from the gaudy home of a secretly dying Liberace, to the endlessly shifting mansion of tortured widow Sarah Winchester; from the soybean fields where Buddy Holly’s plane crashed, to Tevis’ own fickle womb; from abandoned Boomtowns, to footage of literal “Doom Town” test grounds of 1,021 A-bombs in Nevada. Like a magician, Tevis collects scraps from each of her excavations and carefully weaves them into threads, dusting the fallout of each detonation over the next.

Warnings exist in the disappearance of our birds, in our destruction of the planet and each other—in the way we mimic nature scenes for museum dioramas but can’t wrap our heads around curbing pollution; in the cancer we’ve spit into the air in the name of weaponry; in those we lose to AIDS; in the temporality of life and our futile attempts to hold on to ghosts or recreate our humanness in inanimate things. But Tevis is not one to despair. Apocalypses, as she so beautifully translates them, can truly be songs of celebration.

“There is a crease for grief in any day, but usually we turn away from it,” Tevis writes. Perhaps it is this very act of not turning away, of staying curious and vulnerable, that saves her and in turn us. The World is On Fire masterfully questions, rummages, and connects the obscure with the universal, uncovering truths about faith and resurrection we had been waiting for, whether we knew it or not.

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Nina Boutsikaris teaches and learns at the University of Arizona. Recent writing appears in The Offing, Los Angeles Review, Hobart and elsewhere. She’s currently at work on a collection of intimacies, real and imagined.

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