Book Review of The Future is Trying to Tell Us Something
Syracuse University Press
Reviewed by: Jennifer Adair
Joy Ladin is a transgender, Jewish woman whose literary career stretches into the last century. She is a widely published essayist, poet, literary scholar, and a recognized speaker on transgender issues. She has published nine books of poetry spanning 15 years. Her poetry is mostly free form, though she deftly handles rhyme, meter, and even difficult forms like the villanelle. In her most recent book, The Future is Trying to Tell Us Something (Shepp Meadow Press, 2017), she writes on a variety of topics, but they are generally grand ideas brought to a personal level. In "A Modest Proposal," she writes of world peace as a series of mundane activities like making mashed potato animals and searching library stacks. In "Speaking of Whiteness…" she addresses race and the history of America, but also the personal confusion of seeing or not seeing privilege. She even writes about writing, such as "The Poem and Me," which discusses the oddness of re-reading old work to which the connection has been lost. Neither time nor geography significantly impacts the majority of the poems, since a sense of grandness is maintained, an awareness of the large-scale issues being tackled, such as God, gender, and death. In this collection, Ladin showcases her mastery of the English language, with speakers ranging from biblical verse to Cosmo Girl catchphrases, to everyday speech. Through craft and construction, all these voices are made art. Juxtaposing all these voices reinforces the conjoined universality and individuality that Ladin strives to instill in her readers
We’re trapped here. The two of us. I hear the sigh of faraway water rushing down the canyon, echoing off these sheer sandstone walls. There are no handholds, no purchase, no way up. But no one will drown today. With the initial flood comes entire cottonwood trees, pitch-poling down the narrow corridor, and boulders the size of French cars. No time to drown; the river will simply crush us in an act of mercy.
We gambled when we started up this canyon—hours ago. Clear blue skies showed us the odds, and we took the bet. We’ve almost made it to a series of ledges—only a quarter-mile ahead. These would allow us to climb above the approaching barrage of debris. With another five minutes, we could be spectators to the devastation, not participants.
I have sometimes guessed at my response to a mortal threat. Fight or flight? But the canyon only gives us the classic Hobson’s choice: flight or nothing at all.
We can’t outrun the flood. Not downriver. Maybe we can close the gap—the same way a ship’s captain races
toward a torpedo that is not yet armed. We’ll run headlong toward the flood, beat it to the ledges.
We sprint—packs bouncing on hips—and only slow to traverse a trough of thick and putrid mud. The mud sucks at our knees and ankles and threatens to steal our shoes.
A column of sunlight reaches the canyon floor on the other side. We stand here for a moment, scrapping ten pounds of mud from each leg. The flood has not arrived. A hot wind comes down the canyon. Wind. We listen again for the flood. Wind. We see the ledges a hundred feet ahead. There is no flood yet. Only wind.
We scramble onto one ledge and then another, working our way up a kind of natural staircase. Others have passed here. Coyote, mule deer, rattlesnakes, mice. The canyon wall lays back, and the upper ledges are wide enough for a tent. In the evening—on a nearby ledge—we build a small fire with pieces of greasewood and sage that have fallen from the open country. The hot wind has turned to a cold breeze now. We sit closer to the fire. No flood today—only the wind, tricking our brains. We are safe tonight, above the canyon floor, out of the way of floods.
A kangaroo rat comes up from below, batting his nose at the fire. He sits back on his haunches and stares at us with giant obsidian eyes, as though considering his company and hoping for friendship. We chase him away, out of instinct.
But he returns, only seeking what we seek: refuge from floods, from cold, from isolation. We don’t chase him away this time. I consider the diversity of our fellowship, our tolerance and acceptance of each other, and our shared resources. I recognize three members of the same tribe, and I hold hope for the human family.
I suppose it was inevitable, this descent into color-blocked madness.
In the Afterworld of a pandemic epitomized by six-word memoirs along the lines of, “hoarded toilet paper, should’ve stockpiled vodka,” I spilled boiling hot coffee down my front and leapt out of bed, cursing and yanking off my white tee while running to fetch bleach and aloe vera. This, after reading headline upon headline declaring an official death toll of 200,000, a figure we scientists recognized as a sorry figment of undercounting.
That morning I clicked “complete purchase” for a pair of screaming orange, Dali-esque, patent leather, zippered ankle boots. Foot adornments worthy of a Pedro Almodovar film on rewind and repeat; the hue of traffic cones and prisoner firefighter coveralls. Of color-coded digital maps recording extreme temperatures, conflagrations, and cases per capita.
These shoes emblazon textbook predictions once taught to students, now transmutated to lived realities denied by beloveds I choose not to unfriend on Facebook. Embedded in a shared, impotent isolation populated by words muffled behind masks, my eyes – evergreen and unprotected – smolder, sending out smoke signals. Ever restless, they dance above my shiny new boots marching the streets of Oakland. My gaze meets and greets fellow heartbroken souls: each recognizing the other’s unflinching interrogation of the Why, the How, the What we will yet become.