Despite the apocalyptic tone of its title, Tamiko Beyer’s Last Days is a profoundly optimistic book. In what the poet herself has described as an act of “radical imagination,” the collection envisions a societal renaissance toward justice and equity, toward an evolved consciousness that sees all living matter as a part of a singular, vast, interdependent organism. The poetry doesn’t necessarily offer us a path to get there, but rather interrogates obstacles we face, sheds light on dark corners of language that complicate our perspectives, and imagines a future world free from the colonizing impulse.
Last Days is firmly rooted in the events of 2020, often investigating life in lockdown, cruel immigration policies, and the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Much of Beyer’s work is “call to action” poetry, compelling readers to see their complicity in racism, environmental destruction, and a general permissiveness for violence in all its forms. The poems also celebrate queer identity, solidarity movements, and protest as a way of knowing the world. The “we” is strong in these poems, emblematic of the single breath toward change the poet wants us all to take together.
Beyer is also a realist, rooted firmly in what is possible. She begins each section with “Tankas for What Comes Together” that outline an evolving vision for societal transformation. Early change is marked by the truth that “what comes together is a feeling.” Not an action or even a series of enlightened moments, but simply a feeling. It can’t be seen, quantified, filmed on iPhones, or broadcast on the Internet. Change starts with a private, internal moment of emotion; deep or shallow, understood or not, what comes first must be a feeling that then gives way to a decision.
Early poems work to destabilize our perspectives, initiate us into a world characterized by crossed boundaries, absent borders, and the dance between states of being. The poem “Estuary,” the title itself an image of coalescence, begins: “Mixed race woman walked / to the tidal river.” An article, “a” or “the,” would traditionally start this sentence; its absence is a smart structural move to preclude firm definition. The poem continues:
Torn leaves, plastic forks, empties
marked the queer slip
of boundaries. The leavings
of last night’s high
tide. A warbler flitted
to branch in the bush
beside me, sung a complex
and familiar tune,
a trilled assertion of her tiny self—
The intrusion of plastic waste in this idyllic environment is mirrored later in the poem by the psychic intrusion of a police officer who appears on the shore near the speaker, who then must talk herself out of the fear and disquietude caused by his presence. Both images unsettle the landscape, bring corporate and state power relations into the speaker’s view, and ultimately expose the fragility of a moment’s peace. The poem ends, “We breathe out, and for now, / we all breathe in,” leaving us suspended in that point of tension at the apex of inhalation, that moment before release.
The collection is marked by a kind of claustrophobia, a glimpse into the daily impact of traumatic experience. Beyer’s success as a poet is not necessarily in transparent social advocacy, but rather in these moments that represent states of being with sonic and formal precision. In “21st Century Fable,” for example, a woman wakes during the night to sounds of many kinds of “catastrophe”—missiles, lightning, fire, “masses of people hungering in hot, spiked cages.” She surveys her surroundings:
When she woke, she realized it was more daylight than dream. She turned this way and that, but there were no other views from any window—south facing or north.
The woman is forced into a single perspective; she can only see out the one window in the room that reveals the storm outside. This image hauntingly captures the internal world of a person in a hostile environment, especially one that is also meant to serve as their home. The head turns but cannot find the panoramic vision necessary to adequately prepare or respond to events with full awareness. Beyer captures the way many of us operate under this kind of coerced myopia, a confined, narrowed line of sight resulting from the architecture of systemic power that designs the places we dwell.
At times in the collection, the twin goals of social advocacy and poetic beauty compete for attention. The result is a kind of productive disjunction between the aesthetic necessity of the form and the moral necessity of the message. Lines composed with sublime musicality will be followed by lines that read like statements from an advocacy pamphlet. “We Are Bodies in Bodies We Are Stars,” for example, begins:
We are soaked through to the bone in grief, breathing in grief with every gulp of air.
We are soaked through to the bone in rage, breathing in rage with every gulp of air.
We move toward each other, hands out and some distance away. We search for how to collapse the distance. We collapse the distance, some of us.
The anaphora, the internal rhyme with “soaked” and “bone,” “breathing” and “grief,” the lilt and rhythm of the repeated structures—these techniques render these lines like musical scales in a sonata, tightly structured and mechanical, yet somehow still rapturous.
In contrast, later in the same poem are lines such as this: “Maybe this is the beginning of learning how to love beyond the boundaries of our selves. Maybe this is the beginning of learning how to love beyond the boundaries of our communities.” These wordy, gerund-laden lines are less traditionally “poetic” than earlier lines in the poem. However, Beyer’s clever compositional style renders this move from heaven to earth a mirror—it models with precision the grounding required for effective action toward a more sustainable, just, and equitable world.
Beyer knows the reality of the poet’s role, which cannot be the primary agent, nor, perhaps, even the most responsible agent for change. In “Unravel All Systems Go,” we see what the poet does with raw data: “I take each statistic into my warm, wet mouth. I chew, I swallow. Inside / my gut they become true north.” Considering the gravity of these “statistics” regarding global temperatures, racial violence, migration patterns, and mass extinction (this list could go on), such “chewing” by the poet seems ineffectual indeed.
Yet change is possible, and the poet plays a part. The eponymous poem “Last Days,” which reads as much like a political treatise as a poem, takes place in a dystopian reality that in many ways reflects our own. Within this catastrophic world, the central persona comes of age and grasps the fullness of her sexuality; she accesses ancient wisdom despite the corporate will toward its erasure; and she learns the power of state-sponsored terrorism along with her own power to fight against it. The prevailing poetic energy is one of reckoning, not only within the drama of the poem, but also inside the reader as they find themselves complicit in systems that perpetuate devastation. We hear the ancient chorus compelling us, too, to “make meaning from the ground up.” And as we imagine “building something new, something old” alongside the speaker, we, too, find ourselves “on the cusp of change, and the curve is shifting fast.”
Beyer infuses her poetry with a devotional imperative, and she hopes for us to follow. By the end of Last Days, we envision ourselves at the altar of the natural world, Beyer’s gentle poet voice compelling us toward a promise. Repeat after me, she says:
I Vow to Be the Small Flame
a ravenous undoing.