The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet by David Carlin and Nicole Walker
Reviewed by Anne Marie Macari
Rose Metal Press | 2019 | 224 pages
In the flash essays of The After-Normal, David Carlin and Nicole Walker—writing to each other from Melbourne, Australia and Flagstaff, Arizona, respectively—offer the reader a conversation that moves beyond the facts and arguments of climate change and toward an exploration of “the existential weight” of living with these unfolding changes.
Little did Carlin and Walker know that not long after their book would be published, Australia would endure apocalyptic fires unlike anything in recorded history, and only months later the entire planet would face a viral pandemic. The first is directly related to climate change, the second indirectly. Their contemplations, their confessions and discursive wanderings, are that much more valuable as we face ever evolving and ever more dire consequences to our self-destructive and selfish behaviors.
As if prescient, in “Quarrel-Quarantine,” Carlin writes of his habit of going silent and isolating himself when he’s in an argument with his wife. He reminds us that the word quarantine “originally referred to a 40-day period of enforced isolation (from the Italian quaranta giorni),” a protection against the Black Plague in the 14th century. Reading The After-Normal during my own self-isolation in New York City at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, this moment in the book felt directly relevant. If we cannot end a pandemic or invent a way out of climate change, we can at least choose how we treat each other, how we stay open rather than closing down to the forces around us.
The essays loop from the personal to the political, from the biological to the philosophical. In “Grief” Carlin again hits on what so many of us struggle with: our grief at planetary loss, the decimation of other species, of habitats that can’t be replaced, and the future we’re leaving our children. How much more valuable to feel our grief rather than rant, and Carlin muses that maybe if we could let ourselves grieve some of us might not be so hell-bent on denial.
Although the writers touch on difficult subjects like genocide, or the lengths to which survivalists will go, and though one of them states and the other implies that “there’s murder everywhere beneath the surface,” they also write about their love for their families, about beauty, opossums, the albatross, friendship. They speak from complexity, the ways that ideas, facts, and experience are woven into strange cloths. They speak of the value of writing, of contemplation, of putting things that seem wholly disparate into the same essay so that we can see that the “after-normal” is a mysterious state that’s being created every moment by each decision we make.
The authors know that apocalyptic thinking doesn’t get us far, no matter how drastic the changes around us. I’m grateful they don’t indulge in fatalistic scenarios. Instead, by the thoughtfulness and frankness of their work they suggest other ways of being in which we pay attention, we think deeply rather than reflexively, and we move forward: learning, resisting, imagining.
The After-Normal is not prescriptive. Instead it models a way of questioning, and of quietly, day by day, stepping into the unknown.
Anne Marie Macari is the author of five books of poems, including Heaven Beneath (Persea Books, 2020) and Red Deer (Persea, 2015). In 2000, she won the APR/Honickman first book prize for Ivory Cradle (Copper Canyon Press). Her poems and essays have been widely published in magazines such as The Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, and The Massachusetts Review.