It's hard to know what to call the pieces in this book. On the back of the book, they're billed as poems, but inside, they all look like prose and rea...moreIt's hard to know what to call the pieces in this book. On the back of the book, they're billed as poems, but inside, they all look like prose and read like vignettes. At AWP in Seattle, I saw a guy flipping through it who insisted they were essays, and I can see why he might think that.
I'll just call the pieces in this book really, really damned smart.
Shapiro manages to combine image and idea in fantastically insightful ways, building unforeseen connections between unconnected events or people, conjuring imaginary histories from photographs or headlines or meetings-that-might-have-been. And while so much of this sideways glancing feels wry, so many poems opening with a smirk, and the commentary hiding in the lines is practically Warholesque (and yes, Warhol does make an appearance in the book), the overall effect is something quieter and more knowing than either a punchline or an overt dig at pop culture.
Case in point: in one poem, we open with the absurd scenario of the ousted Richard Nixon standing in line to see Star Wars. It's comical, until he gets inside the theater, where "Nixon rekindles his love affair with the dark" and we begin to assume this is going to be some kind of political commentary. And it is, until another joke emerges: "Scenes ahead, he cringes: Christ. I finally make it to the movies, and some girl in a sheet is making tapes." Then the commentary returns as Nixon whispers to his wife how much he admires Vader's Force-driven death grip, choking his underlings from afar. All this back-and-forth in so short a poetic scene, but then comes the last line, not so much a punchline or even a poetic turn as an undoing of all our expectations.
Other pieces weave together pop culture references even more brilliantly, as in the title poem, which somehow manages to combine the history of the potato chip with the Commodores and Anderson Cooper and Don McLean's "American Pie," each informing the other as though they were all part of the same story, which, in Shapiro's world, they are. Or in the poem "Characters," where the combination of British cinema and Chinese history and language ends in a perfect gut-punch of a revelation.
The poem about Don Knotts returning to his hometown is genuinely heartbreaking. And the middle section, a cycle rooted in the game show Match Game and each of its celebrity panelists, is brilliantly nostalgic in both the conventional sense (our warm recollections of a fun and bawdy tv spectacle) and in the traditional sense (the stomachache vertigo of falling into that awkward history).
But my favorite poem in the whole collection is probably "Archibald Discovers Air," a stunning meditation on life, masculinity, and American mythology. I won't sum this on up -- you need to read it for yourself.
No, seriously. You NEED to read it. Which is to say, you need to own this book.(less)
While these stories are all more vignettes than the fully developed short-shorts of Barnes's stunning Mostly Redneck, all the other Barnes hallmarks a...moreWhile these stories are all more vignettes than the fully developed short-shorts of Barnes's stunning Mostly Redneck, all the other Barnes hallmarks are here: the stark but poetic prose, the attention to character detail that feels quaint until it slaps you in the face, the quiet enormity of everyday lives.... It's a fast read, and sometimes it feels too fast, but only because Barnes's writing is addictive and you end each story craving the next fix. Thank goodness I now have Barnes's first novel, Reckoning, to look forward to! In the meantime, this is a beautiful little book -- another gem from both Barnes and sunnyoutside press. (less)