United States

First publication date: 2016



Frederick Turner,


An Epic Poem


Frederick Turner’s third epic poem Apocalypse (2016) opens dramatically in the year 2067 with a colossal windstorm sweeping across the North Sea, causing unprecedented flooding in northwestern Europe and the British Isles. Bursting Dutch dikes unleash a forty-foot high wave of mud and seawater through central Amsterdam. Just before the Rijksmuseum’s north wing collapses, a curator cuts Rembrandt’s Night Watch from its frame and drags the massive canvas to a safe space. This is a glimpse of what lies in wait for a planet that has failed in its stewardship of the environment.

Like Turner’s two earlier epics, The New World (1985) and Genesis (1988), this poem glories in—and rehabilitates—a form of heroic poetry that had been largely regarded as extinct. Apocalypse is, structurally and metrically, almost obsessively traditional with its ten thousand lines evenly divided among ten books. It makes extensive and often extravagant use of many conventions of epic narration: an invocation, extended similes, catalogues, an “angelos” who bridges the human and the divine. There are battles of Homeric scope and brutality; descriptive passages of Virgilian luster; a Miltonic sense of paradise squandered and human frailty. And like most epics Apocalypse has at its center a defining cultural crisis. The poem chronicles the heroic responses to, in fact, two crises: the human-made scourge of global climate change and its consequences, and an unanticipated cosmic threat from a runaway black hole on track to devour Earth. But once a reader enters Turner’s world it is clear that the traditional epic is in for a makeover.

Some of the events of Apocalypse are strikingly, even shockingly, unprecedented for epic: a papal suicide, the availability of a medical treatment to extend human longevity, the construction of a space elevator to the outer solar system. Depicting the inside of a gigantic spaceship turned into an arcadian human habitat, Turner’s poet-narrator unobtrusively slips in a line from Paradise Lost (“A happy rural seat of various view”), only to take back the force of that allusion a few lines later to say that this futuristic fabrication “sometimes looks like a corny view / Of Paradise.” Turner’s poet likes to get fancy with metrical and rhetorical legerdemain: making perfect iambs out of the reaction of sulfur dropped into ocean water (“It doesn’t turn to H2SO4), likening the poem’s composition to the working of 3-D printing software, abruptly showing a character to the exit according to the protocols of medieval Icelandic narratives (“He takes no further part within our saga”), creating comic chaos out of proliferating institutional acronyms:

The G3C, the coastal cities’ group
Already have agreed with the IC,
The islanders, to form the BAI,
Beachers and Islanders; they now will join
Into the Global Climate Union,
The GCU, a formal NGO,
That will seek out UN accreditation.

Even more remarkable than the events and inventive poetics of Apocalypse is Turner’s choice of epic heroes. One set of heroes is a ragtag, multiethnic collection of scientists, artists, and technicians described as a “techno-geek and eco-wonk brigade” working to reverse the warming of the planet and facing fierce resistance from a military-industrial-religious-nationalist complex hostile to science, and to geoengineering in particular. Later, in the early twenty-second century, this same group of unconventional heroes will launch an extraterrestrial expedition to try to stabilize the black hole and avert global apocalypse. The other epic hero is a benevolent Artificial Intelligence named Kalodendron who in 2072 erupts from the world-wide Web, a futuristic deus ex machina, to initiate a golden age of science and culture, bringing the world to the verge of utopia before being assassinated by agents of the Vatican and the C.I.A. When later regenerated, the AI revolutionizes the understanding of time and inspires scientists to discover the means to resurrect dead people. Epic poetry isn’t in Kansas—or in Troy—anymore.

There is a thirty-year gap between Turner’s first two epic poems and his third, and Apocalypse, while continuing his project to move the subject of epic into the future, is a noticeably more complicated creation, often conceptually challenging (it includes explanatory endnotes) and a tour de force of storytelling. No brief introduction can do justice to the satisfyingly complex plotting of the poem, or to its rich array of characters who manage to be both individuals and archetypes, or to the nimbleness of its cultural commentaries on our past and present and our possible futures. But I want to draw attention to how Apocalypse prominently foregrounds the process of writing an epic and creates an argument for the values—and limitations—of epic vision. The chief instrument for this generic self-consciousness is the poet-narrator Turner invents. He goes by the pseudonym Nemo (Latin: nobody), a self-effacing gesture to the anonymity of past epic authors (Homer, the Beowulf-poet, the authors of Gilgamesh and Popol Vuh). But this Nobody has a voice of his own. Like Milton he sometimes intrudes his own autobiography into the epic. Commissioned by Noah Blazo, the billionaire entrepreneur bankrolling the efforts to save the planet, to write a poetic account of the great events, Nemo feels unqualified to produce the epic expected of him. He is a serious poet and understands that “The work of epic is to blaze new trails,” but his own poetic preference is satire—and he does, in fact, sometimes look askance at the heroics of Apocalypse. He is gay but discreet about his affairs: “that’s private, folks.” Very late in the poem we find out about the great love of his life, and we also learn that the reason we haven’t heard about him before is aesthetic as well as personal:

I’ve kept him from the tale for many reasons:
I didn’t want the epic to become
Just one more entertaining private novel.

In Apocalypse Turner doubles down on his longstanding refusal to emulate the psychological novel. He is very good at creating conventional literary scenes but he enjoys undercutting habitual and sentimental responses to such scenes. A triple wedding among his characters in Book 6 elicits a sardonic aside from Nemo (“As in some silly comedy of Shakespeare’s”). Turner peoples his poem with a large cast of fascinating personalities, but as in his earlier epics character is subsumed to story and, crucially, to subject. As Milton put it, epic requires a “great argument.” In a poem devoted to a metastasizing climate and to astrophysical threats to human existence, there is a double argument to be pursued: the nature and value of scientific thought and application on the one hand, and, on the other, the necessity of poetry in an age of crisis. Thus Nemo feels compelled to follow a lengthy, technical account of twenty-first-century weapons technology with an equally lengthy rationale for its inclusion:

Why, you might ask, do I insist so much
On the technology, the nuts and bolts?
It wasn’t I, but Noah, who insisted,
But I see why now, or I think I do.
This story’s not just of the people in it,
But also of the planet’s personae.
And we are jacked into the Earth, and jacked
Into each animal or plant we eat
And each one that eats us when we are clay.

When Noah Blazo inexplicably hired a poet as one of the essential workers in the climate-cooling project, he told Nemo, “The poet is the linchpin of it all.” That may be the most important line in Apocalypse for grasping that this is not just a poetic fantasia on ecology and cosmology, and not just a lament for science that has been disbelieved and art that has been declared irrelevant, but an epic manifesto about the necessary affinity of arts and sciences for each other.

Apocalypse concludes with nothing being concluded. Nemo actually wanted to end the epic tragically with Book 8 in the year 2100 when a desperate, Hail-Mary space launch towards the onrushing black hole prompts the Good Friday sermon of Pope Francis III, an elegy for our species and “the manner of our passing.” There is a pronounced sense of an ending as Book 8 concludes—but it is a premature ending. Twelve years after Nemo lays down his pen and prepares for universal annihilation, he starts writing the ninth and tenth books, and they constitute the most sophisticated of all Turner’s epic endings. The successful, if only provisional, arresting of the black hole’s movement by scientists might have dictated a happy ending, undoing the Good Friday gloom. Turner had done that in The New World which culminates on Easter Sunday, with celebrations of spring, pregnancy, and fresh starts. But readers who anticipate a reprise of that kind of ending in Apocalypse would be as mistaken as Nemo was in assuming that the end of the world was the inevitable conclusion. As Turner weighs the consequences of imagining things to come Nemo articulates a poetics appropriate to future-tense epics. His final four hundred lines open up a sly, new understanding of his form:

And now, as epic, it’s incumbent that
It gather all its trails of consequence,
Tie them together so the future’s set,
And make an end that also is a purpose,
Make for the single point that is its point;
And everything is never or forever,
Happily ever or forever lost.

That was the old way of doing epic: the fairy-tale finale, or the melancholy farewell to a lost paradise. “But this neat ending isn’t going to happen,” Nemo announces.

Because the future is open-ended, contingent on multiple choices whose upshots are innumerable, the epic must be inconclusive. “A future in which nothing different / Can happen than does happen is unreal.” The disruptive event enforcing open-endedness occurs when the revived AI Kalodendron, assisting human researchers data-mining the black hole, abolishes boundaries between past and present, between life and death. Suddenly the old myth of resurrection morphs into actuality, and a new technology opens disorienting possibilities:

For we could clone the bodies of the dead
Out of the mass of data we had found,
And print the engram of a former mind
Into the house where once it fitly dwelt.

Resurrection? It’s complicated. What can be done is more obvious than what should be done—a scientific and literary dilemma as old as Shelley’s Frankenstein. A world suddenly repeopled by the formerly dead requires new laws, such as a prohibition on making two copies of the same body. The brave new world of resurrection requires an exquisite etiquette. Nemo would like to resurrect his lover Teddy, but knowing Teddy’s objection to artificially extended life, he demurs. “Do not resuscitate” acquires new resonance in a future in which reincarnation is an option. Conjuring journeys to Hades by Homer, Virgil, and Dante, Nemo spends his final lines recording returns from the underworld, pasts restored and revisited, lives rebuilt from the data and memories sucked into the black hole, families revived and eerily enlarged, resurrectees who would rather remain dead. Apocalypse recalls the wonder—and chaos—of Shakespeare’s late romances when present and past collide, and the quick and the dead are hard to distinguish. “So let me end this now with anecdotes,” Nemo writes, preferring a valedictory miscellany to any definitive ending that would compromise the sheer messiness of the new reality.

The canonical epics depict a future already determined because it is part of readers’ past. Whatever forking paths might have existed long ago are foreclosed. Hector will die. The serpent will tempt successfully. Choices were made, and the poet can interpret but not alter them. Apocalypse is not like that. In the years between Genesis and Apocalypse—titles suggesting alpha and omega, origin and destiny—Turner pondered the trajectory of our species. In a chapter of his 1992 book Natural Classicism he wrote of a humanity that “is fallen, and is still falling, outwards from the chaos of the Big Bang, into order and complex beauty and freedom” (233). All his epics, but especially Apocalypse, embrace that trajectory. History, as Turner defined it in Genesis, is the “fertile uterus of future time.” The past still matters in epic, but as Turner reflected in his book Epic: Form, Content, and History published in 2012 when he had already begun his third epic poem, “sometimes epic must also seek prophetically forwards in time to find a higher vantage point from which that history can be seen. This is, in retrospect, what I must have been trying to do in setting those poems in the future” (320).

Robert Crossley

University of Massachusetts Boston


[Portions of this introduction have been adapted from “Apocalypse: Frederick Turner’s Epics,” Boston Review (online), June 2018.]


Works Cited

Turner, Frederick. Apocalypse: An Epic Poem. Spokane: Ilium Press, 2016.

———-. Epic: Form, Content, and History. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2012.

———-. Genesis: An Epic Poem of the Terraforming of Mars. 1988; rpt. Spokane: Ilium Press, 2012.

———-. Natural Classicism: Essays on Literature and Science. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.




Frederick Turner, Apocalypse: An Epic Poem. The Ilium Press, 2016.