Catherine Pierce's Danger Days: A Questioning of the Self, by Marissa Ahmadkhani
In the beginning, the ending was beautiful.
So begins the first line of Catherine Pierce’s Danger Days. This book, which is Pierce's fourth full-length poetry collection, focuses on the complexities of life, the self, and motherhood — as well as the anxieties that haunt us as we maneuver through the tumult of today's world. In this first poem, “Anthropocene Pastoral,” Pierce explores our human-impact on nature, something immediately highlighted in the poem's title. This meditation on humans and their place in and impact upon the natural world is something that Pierce revisits through the book's entirety. While much of this collection is stitched with an underlying sense of urgency and worry, Pierce manages to also hold onto the beauty that exists in our surroundings. She writes:
to hold tight to every pleasure even as we
rocked together toward the graying, even as
we held each other, warmth to warmth,
and said sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry while petals
sifted softly to the ground all around us.
Here, at the close of this first poem, Pierce touches on what is to come in this collection, which is a poignant meditation on what it means to be a person in the world today. This intense awareness of the self and one’s position in the world similarly is seen through the incredible specificity of Pierce’s imagery and descriptions:
will serrate the silence with their chatter. Underfoot,
roots will crack like bones.
September like an apple split
open to its crisp, bright heart.
With exact and deliberate language, Pierce's imagery conveys the often painful beauty of the world around us and our existence within it. As the poet grapples with this tension, she ruminates on the past, present, and future — somehow simultaneously:
One day I was a cluster of cells,
one day I was a heart, one day I was
a human in the world. Now what?
This question seems to lurk below the surface of many of the poems in this collection as Pierce questions her own place in the world — as well as humanity’s lasting impact upon the environment.
In “Poem for the Woods,” she writes:
I’d like to say our cruelty
had to do with power — human girls versus torpidity —
but really it was our curiosity, pure and unnuanced.
We wanted to see mineral against membrane.
We wanted to see something living melt.
Someday you’ll carry your cruelties with you
and you’ll never be able to set them down.
There is an emphasis here, and through much of this collection, on "choice" and the lasting effects of our actions. How we move through the world — as individuals, parents, and partners — appears to be at the forefront of Pierce’s mind. In one poem she writes, “Don’t you know / that’s a sure way to go through life / as if you’ve swallowed a tiny burning marble?” This sense of urgency weaves a thread through much of Danger Days, as the poet highlights with the often anxiety-inducing need to understand our lives and how we live them.
In her poem, “In Praise of the Horror Movie,” Pierce utilizes a slightly different subject while still exploring the overarching theme of the collection. She writes:
Because when someone dies, maybe a lamp
in a log cabin goes black, or maybe
there’s blood and dark-stained rags, or maybe
there’s a bruised and blue body that turns out
Not to be a body, or maybe someone simply
Sparks into electricity and is gone.
While much of the writing explores this larger theme of an individual's position in the world, each poem does so in a distinct and unique way. Like any well-rounded collection, there are moments of levity with sadness, and humor with seriousness that Pierce deftly weaves together. In this poem — one that focuses on classic horror films' tropes — the poet still delves into these complex topics of darkness and searching, writing, “It’s not a getting away. It’s a vanishing into.”
Much like the very first line of Danger Days — "In the beginning, the ending was beautiful" — the very last line in the collection also is unflinching in its directness:
I’m trying to see this place even as I’m walking through it.
This line manages to capture the collection at its very core; while each poem explores different topics, they all seem to circle back to this closing idea — of how to not only exist and move through the world, but also to give witness, to appreciate, and to preserve the world around us. In a time when reflection and preservation is vital, Catherine Pierce’s Danger Days encourages us all to question, revel, worry, and examine our selves and ways of life. ⋆
Poet Catherine Pierce is the author of four books of poems: Danger Days (Saturnalia Books, 2020), The Tornado is the World (2016), The Girls of Peculiar (2012), and Famous Last Words (2008), winner of the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. Both The Tornado is the World and The Girls of Peculiar won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Prize. A chapbook, Animals of Habit (Kent State University Press), was published in 2004.
Reviewer Marissa Ahmadkhani's writing can be found in Radar Poetry, Cosmonauts Avenue, Southern Indiana Review, The Journal, and poets.org, where she received the Academy of American Poets Prize in 2015 and 2017. Currently, she is pursuing an MFA at the University of California, Irvine.