To See the Earth Before the End of the World

To See the Earth Before the End of the World

by Ed Roberson


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Winner of the Voelcker Award (PEN America) (2016)

In To See the Earth Before the End of the World Ed Roberson presents us with 120 new poems, each speaking in his unique voice and seen through his unique eye. Earth and sky, neighborhood life and ancient myths, the art of seeing and the architecture of the imagination are all among the subjects of these poems. Recurring images and ideas construct a complex picture of our world, ourselves, and the manifold connections tying them together. The poems raise large questions about the natural world and our place in it, and they do not flinch from facing up to those questions.

Roberson's poems range widely through different scales of time and space, invoking along the way history and myth, galaxies and garbage trucks, teapots and the history of photography, mating cranes and Chicago's political machine. This collection is composed of five sequences, each developing a particular constellation of images and ideas related to the vision of the whole. Various journeys become one journey—an epic journey, invoking epic themes. There are songs of creation, pictures of the sorrows of war, celebrations of human labor and human society, a respect for tools and domestic utensils that are well made, the deep background of the past tingeing the colors of the present, and the tragic tones of endings and laments, a pervading awareness of the tears in things. Most of all, there is the exhilaration of a grand, sweeping vision that enlarges our world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819569493
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 09/19/2017
Series: Wesleyan Poetry Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 180
Sales rank: 979,011
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

ED ROBERSON is the author of eight books of poetry. He is the recipient of the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Award and the Lila Wallace–Reader's Digest Writers' Award, and his prior books have won the Iowa Poetry Prize and the National Poetry Series. Having retired from Rutgers University, Roberson currently lives in Chicago where he has taught at Columbia College Chicago, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago.

Read an Excerpt




People are grabbing at the chance to see the earth before the end of the world,
the world's death piece by piece each longer than we.

Some endings of the world overlap our lived time, skidding for generations to the crash scene of species extinction the five minutes it takes for the plane to fall,
the mile ago it takes to stop the train,
the small bay to coast the liner into the ground,

the line of title to a nation until the land dies,
the continent uninhabitable.
That very subtlety of time between

large and small Media note people chasing glaciers
in retreat up their valleys and the speed ...

watched ice was speed made invisible,
now — it's days, and a few feet further away,
a subtle collapse of time between large

and our small human extinction.
If I have a table at this event, mine bears an ice sculpture.

Of whatever loss it is it lasts as long as ice does until it disappears into its polar white and melts and the ground beneath it, into vapor,

into air. All that once chased us and we chased to a balance chasing back, tooth for spear,
knife for claw,
  locks us in this grip
  we just now see
  our own lives taken by taking them out. Hunting the bear,
we hunt the glacier with the changes come
  of that choice.



The year and its
  as like as eggs,
  the days

in their crates of season
  we break open
  and the yolk

of fresh sun we scramble
  the runny light into
  a firm

  of the night's winter
  helping of the fast.

* * *

Yellow dishes—
  set out for the early
  meal of season—

sit the house yards
  the town
  parks down together
  to this spring as

to a table
  all set
  in order just

good to see
  you and
  your way found

* * *

The arriving coats of smell
  are hung in the air, butt-smacked and
  oiled babies of moment;

and years of taste as touch
  hug the senses
  to the living;

sweet sour bitter salty
  some never experienced
  again, the gloved fingers

of bananas so briefly kissed
  with ripeness; fruit,
  grip-shaped thought

brought to the tongue,
  the finished taste
  of words, an aftertaste

of silence, the morning glories we haven't tasted yet

* * *

life, as lasting as any one
  sense, a taste
    a sight, an orange mix

of kiss with sweetness
  for the moment
    it exists, finishes and

is swallowed, is also those
  who finish hungry or starve
    to death which swallows;

the final stage of rattlesnake bite
  is yellow vision,
    light, then you both go out.

Fear, to the tongue, is metallic: I tasted
  a copper penny it could have been
    a one-time and final, incomparable

  —How does life taste
  to one condemned
    in that cup this morning? —

flash of a taste;
  a touch's backbeat, that single shake
    in the whole

coital dance that whiff of?

  a one-time and final taste
    taste this morning


Where trees are a sky
    whose spider web
  radio antennas?
    search receives
  the rhythmic static
    of cicadas,

a song arrives
    that died leaving
  seventeen years ago.

      Deep cumulus leaves—
    whose cloud and Milky Way
  are green,
    and heard but unseen
    insect star births
      have yet to reach us from —

refract the sun
      -light filtered
  through to brilliant spiked
      explosions of nova
    in this hiss
      that one

day our own
    insect sun will make
  in deep time into deepsong.


A child already an old man sits in a rocking chair in the yard facing into the shadow side of four elms down the end of the block.

He's heard but hears them for the first time as the cicadas he's looking for just one bowing its wings with its legs as he's been told they do he wants to see.

The sun lowering on the opposite side of the trees pierces through burning open holes in spaces brilliant prismatic explosions.

He thinks this is how cicadas? sound speakers look hooked up to the sky through the trees refractive, light show to the music & this evening is their show
  the cataclysmic novas nebulae


You?ve seen only a planed circle of moon,
the white wafer; the low sky's flat penny grow into that dime, flipped in the turn taken by the earth,
  until you see what's won from behind its veil of brightness by the lunar eclipse
  a red marble,
a pinball of blood and it's your shot, a ball of red clay before its pinch into a bowl,
what I want to say and its look that far away from it.

I want to say it suddenly turns three dimensional with shadow shaded in at the drawn earth-curtain's darkening;
  and that darkness makes shape-informed light clearer rounding out midnight, and moon,
  once it is that lighted ball,
falls above a night now floored with depth so dark above you you can feel the feet and meter fill with time. New Years confetti each speck's fall a galaxy ago back into space.

Space back into space restored beneath the moon to here in the shading of eclipse. The distances.
  We have to feel the spatial in what we see to see clearly the eye measure in hands and feet;
  as when we kiss,
distance disappears, our eyes close,
and we see bodily
  in raised detail a measure deepen into our world in each other. And what we are in the shadow the world makes of our love, by this earth shine, we see
  ourselves whole, see in whole perspective.


The plane begins its descent into Newark from the west at the Delaware Water Gap; the whole width of the state of New Jersey is the base of a triangle underlying that approach to its point.

Geography test, problem off the wall to the ground, whole highway systems unfold again below, the maps we rode. But at what point did we become so familiar with

such long perspective we could look down and recognize the pile of Denver by the drop off and crumble of the plate up into the Rockies,
or say That's Detroit! by the link of lakes by

Lake St. Clair some thirty-thousand feet above Lake Erie while just barely spotting Huron on the horizon?

Some earlier hunter had a similar picture in his head for getting around, and what he saw seems map his feet figured what a Boeing 757
picks up and puts down pacing off

my passing through the world by air.
But we've seen the ground ball up into one step and stand on nothing else, our footing in the vacuum, diminished sky of solar space.

Yet we haven't seen again his vision, haven't yet dreamt from it even such map as he had hunted by; we haven't seen answered from that garden's gazing ball whether there is direction after all the dream-lines

have been hunted to circumference. Like trained bear dancing on a circus ball, we look down, our feet in a step from which there is no step off,
this footprint all of step ever taken.
  The hunted step, kept far and fast enough away from the hunter to keep the distance of its life,
shortens to none between them or is that

shit outcome stepped in, become their one,
in perspective, step from which there is no step out of.
In that sense of 'the surface over which a phenomenon exists,' the earth is the footprint of life.

Gaia's gravity-swayed steps take on orbit,
we in the tropic of balance, in a basket on her head, a blue wrap of sky, sun ripens the thin rind of the plane to home.

Sweet fruit of the journey, of all journey,
fruit of all step home is the sweet fruit that is all of step that is ever taken.

The earth is all of step ever taken by most of us, we think; but the aisles of air we walk about with the seatbelt sign off hang off our backs angel's wing or motion

lines such as drawn in cartoons or the tesseract of four dimensions. Cube sunk in a square of space,
sunk in a space of time. Our cubed world worn as a helmet among

strung dimensions far distant enough to see the ball that all our ways are woven from:
sand, the lens grinder's patient hand, sore elbow, head in the stars, he looks down at his feet. Sunk in time,

the footprint of life is death, the grave there is no step out of, the compost earth.
The earth is the footprint of life.


Many locations now are ahead of humanly possible without conduct through a technology;
  we live not yet caught up with ourselves, the landings offset by foot pace their space-time for ground transportation.

Unlike stars whose fact is a presumption of departure or arrival other than in lived light, we're less than when we are.

We?re dated within histories of make in order to be made whole;
  we body age in our times? prosthesis of achievement as our time;
  as our years, our state's moment,
a birth condition, enlarges or wastes us,
the long sentenced swing, instantaneous.

7. THE $$-MEN

The bus as technological magic shoes, the plane, a flying suit not in the style of tights and cape, more comfortable,
but shared, like the chevron of flying geese shares in that wake the one at the point makes;
we support our super powers flapping almost in unison, our money down.


  The instant though, is ours: Euclidean point without space, taking place as from.

If it were location, anything there is not the point.—It is
  position in relation more to other yet-positions more
    one that is everywhere nowhere until pointed out: we have no point until we have to
  see say where how far another is to or from us
    continuously renewed: Call me.
The call made is also in its way how point also has to be limited
& in limiting ... challenged ...
  What are you doing?.....
always in process; point
  is lived.



a satellite passes overhead between the least imperious hours
  of 2 and 5 am.

A signal picked up from Colorado beams a setting for the time
  in Chicago back to earth.
My watch sits meditating, on the sill,
faces out the window at tonight's
  radio sky.

It is built for a connection I am not that it passes on when I aim at it
  my time pickup

eye the set I need; and off the knees of its clasp wristband folded underneath,
  a timing sun's worshipper—

since I?ve forgotten how the sunrise set men's cycles — listens to its crystal
  break time down,

its atom tune the seconds ... Our body's band to the watched face of the sun,
  who tells the wake and sleep,

comes in the style of our skin. That close a melanin-melatonin connection. Yet here's an inorganic

connecting a crystal oscillation through a radio wave in orbit to
  setting itself to set my day.

Gemstone cut music on my arm as if intravenous, cesium vibration, piped

broadcast, drum hour to my heart,
let this renew an old interpretation
  how we could talk

to rock, listen to plants explain in the stomach what membranous

is the dawn star with ear of corn;
the watch, its passage, and waking flesh working to live in time.


Re-noticing the lines of the furrows he had plowed each the same space apart

nearing together on the other side of the field he felt the figure

of the eye through a road drawing away perspective disappear to not yet seen

those lines of the ground his bargain for their food with time kept uncrossed:

he noticed their opposite come here At the end of the day out of the clouds

The furrowed light turned over dark lined up and came together in the blue

behind a field of sky he could see across see the road

of where things come from the mountain to the sky they must go up and down


The fat spoiled cat of fish, the carp, pampered in the garden pool, surfaces: a bubble in the level lines of a purr.

The mirror water vibrates: the mouth's breath,
a spoken surface as thought, a soundless word balloon of concentration breaks.

The spoken world rubs against you to own you as,
as the cat does, one of it. A placement.
Your smile, your pool of sight touched awake.

* * *

The wakened world's submarines
—our ideologies? spoiled fish —
lift their scale-less indulgences

that our intelligence lays on the tongue of the silence of death, this dragon's breath freshener of nuclear fire —

And one of these lozenges, we find out this morning, may lie open at the bottom of the sea smashed burst bubble of our technological meditations;

  and all that is surfacing may be our leviathan of threat to each other we recognize — this caught breath almost a silent language among us.

* * *

And what has the bubble burst out with on its breath? The wakened world.
  All word of the living as any longer one of

it is tethered to this brought to the surface,
mouthed breath-clapper in a metal bell,
like the earth's resuscitant bubble of atmosphere,

balling yarn of the planet's one held breath rolled ?round in as spoiling a lap of orbit as any swaddled garden pool wove of our meditations and sun-like surfacing thought.

And the burst bubble of that concentration? —
What is the open it touches against us?
What claim of we as one of do the dead bring up even lifted in a joined arms of states?

Bast, the feline brush by of that cartouche of breath is the hope of life sucked back into the born flesh.
  word bubble breath break that wakens ... and we would rise

All connection to us is made surface to surface:
  microscopic through into,
telescopic out; matter surfaces as some tympanic resonance, word snares on breath, the touch on press
  The pool of a dead face doesn't stir.
There is no longer even a level rise or fall of balance.
The oceans of the time men don't exist include only a drop that we do and see
  above them another ocean's spray of stars.


We look at the world to see the earth,
at the silver, pedestal-ed globe to see the grounds,
we see what we?ve done with it, what it has to do with, we see our face bent to a surface;

but what of the world is seen in looking at the earth any more than the world's measure of minute to a rock looking, but seeing gets a return begets return gets returned:
the rivers come back, the salmon

We look upon the world to see ourselves in the brief moment that we are of the earth
  a small fern in a crevice of the cliff face

to see ourselves in the brief moment that we are of the earth

to see the earth before the end of the world
  the world is mortality, the earth goes beyond us is the ours of cosmos is our hour of cosmos




That railroad man from the song where his head was laid

'neath the drivin' wheel
'n his body never was found

stood up, or rather, bodiless,
seemed to levitate

with the driving wheel balanced on the top of his head like a hat, a plate —

  "What's this all about?" I asked.

— or an aureole, a glory.

  "What if we need a new technology for glory?" he said, "—not the old smoking weeds and blood sacrifice ... and hearing voices in them. More sense

than I make." about what's this all about. Actually working.

The World, Then

The world then was made up of the same pieces that turned into what we have now,

pieces the same that nowhere took any of what then I thought was the world and world to come that came

about: A now. I don't know what I thought that put the wrecks of the past back in effect.
as if in progress back in service. We think somewhere between right and understanding

we never supposed there'd be this wrong. About this.


Facing up to the night sky is way off is a vertigo of falling up off the face of

not so much the earth's off into space as off any hold that was ourselves together in what balance lasting in the stars.

through the bore column of straight up to the end of the stars —
That we could be lost that deeply that we could lose all of thus far by this far our moment here's far



We see the farther away the more distant as the deeper into time: backwards up to here how far come.

but time's direction farther equal this far goes through town its whistle is this minute crossing and its wall of boxcar all our view.
That lonesome whistle silence of
  stars through here sees this—
how you pull this minute of your sleeve off inside out then reach in the past pull the future out again, in these two distances, your same unthinking arm of the galaxy through time.

  Undoing or one motion through The Milky Way folding its complexity? The dark drawer.
It's over our head But (a small thing) lose your balance, you fall into that dark shirt never pulled off your head.


A haze you can't see by the sky bright sunny day has —

only by distance. See light apotheosize its pale up horizon. the zenith's white

depth lit. But we have on and beyond our hands to the sides a day narrowing to

the density of point and penciled vanishing the old "thin air" thickened dark accumulates aerial perspective.

the view through the atmosphere is trickier on the slant as it sights through the bend of the earth.

the curve collected layers deepen the heavens' obscurant nothing of nothing there.

We'll trip over the mirage as easily a distance as over something here in this dark


He wore his glasses
    as if bags beneath his eyes were
  stuffed with
    his reflection of the lines and the shown light
  at just the right angle
    on them in them

      but the point where what is written about
  where whole heavens fall into
      question in his eyes


Excerpted from "To See the Earth"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Ed Roberson.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

To See the Earth Before the End of the World
Deep Time
Lunar Eclipse
Many Locations
The $$-Men
The instant though, is ours
Old Dependency
Proto-pyramid Figure
What Word
We look at the world to see the earth
About What's This
The World, Then
The world then
Facing up to
We see the farther away
A haze we can't see by the sky
He wore his glasses
The wall stores
As if all physical display were not that
For all the questions help / answered with
More than a few seconds after
Teapot Boiling, How to Begin the Day a clay pot arrives at the table
Clock death on every corner
A wall turned in the fever sun
The flies cleaning their multiple eye the split in the head
With bushes for thick glasses / But we can see
A thin line drawn on the morning
"There are things that I would otherwise..."
Distance works spiral galaxies the level/ some people
A swaying path
The red spot on two mating cranes
Stopped against
The lathe that turns the necks
A cloud is whatever it is
A lamp's fingers
Its 93 million miles •Inside our moment
Chromatic Sequences
Form in early movies – What Color we were not seeing movement – about the trees bending
Chromatic Spatiality – the spaces of color
1948: Art and Third Grade – not in the Folkways Collection
The Metaphor of Impressionism – your skin advances in latitude – The still green latitude
What the Tree Took, On the Table
Drawing On What is There
Question to the Director
Architectural Drawing
Architectural Program – travel structure
The building is up the list of if
Profit Fulfilled
Egg Gatherers
War Song, Child's Flute
This Year
Nothing New
New World Orchestra
New World Orchestra in the Market of the Weavers
American Jazz Quartet piano: In the Lobby bass: Urban Specific sax: Pick Him Up drums: Tithes for Charity
Summer boats, migrating
Sight Read on a Couple Stars
Transit Authority
Nine Chicago Poems
Flock Life
Nolan, Riding the Bullet Train
Relative Time
All At Once
Centripetal Force
On the Sparrow: No Blame
Playground and Parks Department Music
A Low Bank of Cloud
Watching for the Ancestors
Of The Earth
Song to Anubis
Road Ikon
The Heavens
The Original Deed
Tribal Tag
Boy God Quetzalcoatl Water Shape Stood
Last of the Bush Baths
As a tool of the landscape… / (staying in school)
Feast of the Missing
Imponderable Thirst
Psalm (a line-singing of)
Flight Record
At the Top of the Chain
The Bird That Walks on Lily Pads
As at the Far Edge of Circling
A Slim Volume Taken into the Provinces
Empty Sky

What People are Saying About This

Nathaniel Mackey

"Ed Roberson's labyrinthine, syntactically double-jointed lines work at a nervous, disconsolate pitch, peculiar insight and curious angle at the forefront of the tutorage they bring. His most compendious volume to date perhaps and certainly true to its title, To See the Earth Before the End of the World moves in many directions, often all at once, a 360-degree jitterbug waltz of a book."
Nathaniel Mackey, author of Splay Nationof Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry

From the Publisher

"Ed Roberson's labyrinthine, syntactically double-jointed lines work at a nervous, disconsolate pitch, peculiar insight and curious angle at the forefront of the tutorage they bring. His most compendious volume to date perhaps and certainly true to its title, To See the Earth Before the End of the World moves in many directions, often all at once, a 360-degree jitterbug waltz of a book." —Nathaniel Mackey, author of Splay Anthem

"In this dreamy collection, human features stand out as distinct then blend into the nature of the world surrounding them. We can't always tell plant from animal from mineral, and Roberson reminds us that in the end, as in poetry, such distinctions are moot."—Camille T. Dungy, author of Trophic Cascade

Camille T. Dungy

“In this dreamy collection, human features stand out as distinct then blend into the nature of the world surrounding them. We can’t always tell plant from animal from mineral, and Roberson reminds us that in the end, as in poetry, such distinctions are moot.”

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