Allison Cobb's 'After We All Died'

Nursing the machine that killed us

“We are the killers. We stink of death. We carry it with us. It sticks to us like frost. We cannot tear it away” — John Alec Baker, The Peregrine 

It is difficult to sum up a book like Allison Cobb’s After We All Died. It is “about” the era of Geocapitalism (the so-called Anthropocene), but nowhere mentions it directly. It is not focused on climate change (which it also doesn’t really mention), animals (though there are a lot of ants), habitat, or any other number of artifacts and attributes that we might associate with the ecologically bereft present. What the book does is accept the premise that the threshold has been crossed, and for all intents and purposes, the human project is done. Now the postmortem can begin.

It is a loving, gentle, and understanding postmortem, filled with earnest apologies and apostrophes to what has been lost (“Sorry Earth for having killed you sorry everyone”) — beginning with an anaphoric list of “I forgive you” statements to each and every part of the ailing body, now saturated with “streams of chemicals.” This saturation — of the food chain by industrial chemicals, of our bodies and oceans with plastics and petrochemicals, of everything with nuclear radiation — is the cancerous marker of Cobb’s Anthropocene. And it is a saturation both driven by uncontrolled eros (an unleashed desire for products and pleasure, security and satiation) and met with a loving understanding of the trap we unwittingly set and inevitably sprung: “With our bodies we nurse our machine that killed us.”

I wonder, is this a book of complicities or accusations? A little of both, perhaps. Cobb’s speakers are one part sheepish lover, one part challenging provocateur:

                                                I was raised
            inside your lab to pipe your
            organ out in your
            last church, by which
            I mean je suis the swollen
            superfunded site
            of total want

That “I am” acknowledgement is telling. At times Cobb’s speakers fall into what I might call the “Anthropocene trap”: the sorrowful acceptance of one’s own personal failings and responsibilities (the “nursing” most of us have indeed performed at the bedside of the killer machine) and these alone. This is where the “anthros” of the Anthropocene — the species-wide identification of fault — becomes problematic, as individual responsibility tips easily into species-blame (it wasn’t my fault — it was our species’s fault!). From this vantage point, what the world’s geophysical systems are now going through can seem simply the result of “human nature,” our inherent “sharkishness”:

                                                  We are family, a family
            of sharks who when they get excited even
            eat each other, who even try to keep on feeding once
            they’re disemboweled.

But Cobb does not leave things rotting there at the doorstep of the species or the individual exemplar of the species. She can be more precise — and indeed we all need to be more precise. So it was in fact “Certain males of the species who came to see the world as all Apple store or porn portal, a creation for their desire.” And it was another portion of the anthros, “white to the root” and “borne up by the race spoils of total war,” who sped us down this path. And again, more precisely, it is “a first-world problem,” a question of inequality, “the global engine gunning,” “the deadly sugar juice of capital” attracting all but benefitting only a few — the whole ratcheting and roaring military industrial complex and its dreams of aerial drone bombardment (long prose poems in the book centre around nuclear and conventional bomb making and bomb dropping).

The “Anthropocene” in many ways lets patriarchal white supremacist capitalism off the hook, and, in Imre Szeman’s words, it “can reproduce the conditions of anthropocentrism” it purports to analyze. We have to be more precise. Maybe many of us went along for the ride, aided and abetted, fed off the crumbs from the table. But most of us were not sitting at the table where the death machine was being tinkered with, and where the profits from its functioning accrued and were counted.

This is why I find Cobb’s book so valuable: it so clearly lays out the full complicated and conflicted affects of our joy-ride through a cauterized world. Like Juliana Spahr’s recognition that “it’s all good, it’s all fucked” in That Winter the Wolf Came, Cobb knows we have to learn to live our contradictions.

This is nowhere more clearly the case than in the book’s central realization that the place from where we (need to) think and speak now is after we are already dead. In this, Cobb is almost channeling Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene:

For humanity to survive in the Anthropocene, we need to learn to live with and through the end of our current civilization … . The rub now is that we have to learn to die not as individuals, but as a civilization … . The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

Or, I might turn to the Zapatistas, who long ago announced: “Here we are, the dead of all times, dying once again, but now in order to live.” The Zapatistas speak from an Indigenous position where the apocalypse has already occurred — for them, it began five hundred years ago, with contact. And yet still they resist, still they persist. Being already dead, and ready to die again — but this time perhaps to live at last — is a position of power. It also recognizes a debt to the past — to the example of those who fought and died in resistance — a debt that can only be repaid by completing their struggle in the future.  

Ideas like the Anthropocene can lead into this trap too: it’s all said and done; all we can do now is watch the doomsday machine run its course. Cobb writes directly into this vacuum: “It’s stupid / to understand how everything has died and then / try — what — to warn you?” And yet this is a book both of warning and of diagnosis — diagnosis of the psychology of inaction, of apathy, of giving up. To steadily regard our social and cultural death, and yet still look through it to what yet might be done, is the challenge laid down in After We All Died. The title prose poem concludes:

This is our death. We share it, we who come after the future. With our bodies we nurse our machine that killed us. We give it all our words. We give it our births to continue, and we who live in privilege: we devour the births out of everything else. The task of such selves is not to live. It is to refuse all the terms of this death into which we were birthed. Maybe then, learning to be dead, something can live.

Cobb’s book seizes on the complexities and contradictions of the world we have made. Here we encounter many faces of the Biotariat — the afterlife of cancer cells and “the billions in profits they have generated” (and which are not shared by the family of the deceased, black, cancer sufferer); a cow acknowledging “I / fuel with my body the muscle that shoots / the steel peg in our head”; and the permeable “borders” of the body “patrolled” by bacteria as it ingests and excretes the world. There are no easy answers. We are chemical and consolation, bane and boon. It’s a book that helps me think towards the Biotariat. I want to understand — better than I do now — the complex collectives formed of diverse human, nonhuman, animal, plant, social, technological and environmental elements — a complex that I think poetry can help make apparent — and to see these collectives as social bodies, social assemblages capable of agency and “collaborative” effort. Geocapitalism necessitates this effort, and its historical agent is what I am calling the Biotariat.