History, true and fictional: A review of poet Kate Cayley’s “When This World Comes to an End”

When This World Comes to an End
By Kate Cayley
Brick Books, February 2013

A first book of poems is a beautiful thing. But while this is Kate Cayley’s first poetry volume, she is no newcomer to writing. Her short stories and poems have appeared in journals across the country, she has authored a young adult novel, The Hangman in the Mirror (Annick Press), and she’s also an accomplished playwright and director. Even so, When This World Comes to an End marks a captivating poetic debut for the busy writer.

Like a multi-act play, Cayley’s book is divided into three sections: “Book of Days,” “Curio: Twelve Photographs,” and “Signs and Wonders.”

In “Books of Days,” it’s as though the whole cast of history shows up to say goodbye and good riddance to the world as it ends. Victims are remembered and villains are noted by their imprint on the past, but all are seen as passers-by on their way somewhere else. Take “The Later Life of Judas Iscariot,” and how he is observed for his lesser known qualities:

“In fact, he is unremarkable, pleasant.

Good at parties, capable with money,

knows a thing or two about wine, well-read

without embarrassing learnedness, well-

invested, a patron of various charities, kindly

in that purely personal way…”

Next, in “Curio: Twelve Photographs,” the poet sheds light on the history of photography through the lens of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and, later, in the poem “A Wedding Teacup, Toronto 1907,” notes how “A life does not consist of objects,/but perhaps objects are its only/certain evidence.”

In this section themes and motifs carry from one poem to the next, emphasizing how all lives relate to one another, despite decades of time separating them. In “Considering Photographs,” the past bleeds into the present as photographs travel through generations and connect us to those before:

“[T]he presence of the eldest, whatever they have told you

of their memory, reaches down toward the youngest”.

The final section, “Signs and Wonders,” sees the return of mythical and folkloric figures, like Hamlet‘s Ophelia, and offers a narrative curve with prose poems and dialogue, more stylistically challenging arrangements, and a showing of the persona poem.

The poet calls on Zola, Persephone, and Neanderthals alike, yet it is not only fictional characters that join in Cayley’s assessment of the world’s end. She visits W.H. Auden in a poem in which “language still fails when faced // with such an ending.” William Kemmler, who became the first man to die in the electric chair after having murdered his wife, admits: “I was not a good husband.” Kemmler assesses his wrongdoings and boasts how he does not avoid mortality as he has established a rapport with Death.

Despite its breadth of history, When This World Comes to an End offers a succinct reflection of what has been and what will be. The purview of history is considered through known figures just as much as the insignificant acts of the everyday. In doing so, Cayley gathers evidence and memories that signify life has been lived—fully and intertwined with everyone and everything.