The End of the World as an Aphrodisiac: Reading Natalie Wee’s “In the Unlikely Event of the Apocalypse”

by Avleen K. Mokha

Welcome to Digital Poetics, a blog column to discuss, analyze, and appreciate the art of poetry. Posts will be up weekly and will talk about one poem that stuck with me that week, and how I think it was able to do so. To start, this week I am going about Natalie Wee's "In the Unlikely Event of the Apocalypse," originally published in The Missing Slate.

To me, the most striking aspect of Natalie Wee's “In the Unlikely Event of the Apocalypse," is the nuanced manner in which the end of the world is depicted as both unfathomable and yet achingly familiar. Using vivid imagery, the poem relates the magnitude of the apocalypse to the end of a relationship. Wee experiments with temporality and motivation to deliver a poem that feels desperate, absurd, and sensuous all at once.

In many ways, "The Unlikely Event of the Apocalypse" echoes the romantic aspects of World War literature–is there an aphrodisiac more powerful than the possibility of the end of the world? Perhaps not. It is here, in the hypothetical confrontation between two separated lovers, that the emotional heart of the poem rests. The eroticism of “gasping / & dry-mouthed” intermingles with the seduction of the phrase “wearing the future around my neck. / & nothing else” to depict the unashamed wantonness of the speaker. The speaker’s proclamation, “It does not even matter where we are headed”, feels both desperate and confident. The presence of another human becomes the most attractive proposition during the apocalypse, and the speaker knows it.

The poem exists between what has passed and what is unlikely–a twilight zone where emotions of desire and pain seem to be the only constants. The turn from imagery of apocalyptic seduction to that of suffering (“It does not even matter where we are headed. / There is no pain like the pain of…”) is sudden, but reveals the speaker's motivation to chase down their old lover. As the speaker dismisses all concerns of the future, they revert to the past to provide justification. Memories are not romanticized; in fact, they are likened to natural calamities and shuddering landscapes. Words such as “blooming,” “fissuring,” and “splitting” all evoke the image of separation, of increasing distance. But Wee’s principal purpose in using this imagery is not to describe the earth collapsing, but to capture the momentous ache of a relationship coming to its end. 

One of the poem's essential arguments seems to be that suppression and pretense will never suffice as tools to negate the past. When I read the lines, “We will not recall events beginning with a curled eyelash / [...] ending in [...] lists of what we could have done / differently,” the speaker’s dismissal of shared memories felt ambiguous: have the lovers been separated for so long that they have forgotten each other, or are they repressing the knowledge of their more intimate past? As the speaker compares their old lover to “a ghost that refuses to stay buried” later in the poem, it became evident that memories of their relationship continue to haunt the speaker. 

As the ground opens like a gaping maw, the graves the two lovers have built for each other inevitably become exposed. The imagery related to burial and sacrifice showcase the hardships of processing the end of a relationship. Another interesting motif is that of wearing, of putting things on. The image of the speaker's lover “wear[ing] a life” devoid of the speaker crops up again in the latter half of the poem: “We have worn it / like skin,”–although Wee leaves it up to us to decide if the “it” is death or forgetting, or perhaps the idea of being haunted by something that had once been so close to our skin. In using the phrase “offering the fresh peel,” Wee connects metaphors of repression, seduction, and sacrifice to express the psychological uncovering of emotions that takes place in the absence of a future. The result? Poetry as daring as the speaker standing bare in front of her lover, and just as vulnerable.

— Avleen K. Mokha is a student at McGill University, majoring in English Literature and Linguistics. She is a contributor for the McGill Tribune and a poet. She also works as a poetry editor and staff judge for Persephone’s Daughters and its film division, Girls Don’t Cry. Her work has previously appeared in Canvas Literary Journal. She splits her time between Montreal and Mumbai.